Title: The Constatine Affliction
Author: T. Aaron Payton (pseudonym for Tim Pratt)
Published: 7 August 2012
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Genre: science fiction, crime and mystery, steampunk, horror
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Victorian England is definitively conservative, with its emphasis on prim and proper behaviour, its sexual restrictions and strict gender boundaries. In The Constantine Affliction, T. Aaron Payton (pseudonym for Tim Pratt) disrupts these delicate sensibilities with the titular Affliction – an STD that either kills its victims or causes them to change sex, leading to a slew of gender troubles. For men – considered to be the superior sex, of course – it’s a colossal embarrassment because it implies that they’ve been consorting with prostitutes and puts them at the social and existential disadvantage of being female. For women, becoming male offers all sorts of empowering opportunities, but the law quickly to nipped those in the bud by declaring that everyone be treated according to the gender of their birth. You can’t have girls becoming men and inheriting family fortunes, after all. But laws aren’t much help for those who wake up to find that their spouses have changed sex, or for poor Prince Albert who became a woman and was locked in the Tower of London for the treasonous crime of adultery.
Surprisingly, the Affliction hasn’t made Victorian society any more open-minded about gender; if anything, it’s made it worse. However, it has led to the invention and reluctant acceptance of clockwork prostitutes – mechanical women who are lifelike enough to satisfy men’s desires without the risk of infection.
London is still full of real prostitutes however, and the plot kicks off when master criminal Abel Value blackmails Pembroke “Pimm” Halliday into finding out why his whores are being murdered. Pimm enjoys a drunken, leisurely lifestyle financed by his family’s fortune, but he has a brilliant mind and every now and then he sobers up enough to help the police solve crimes.
To help Pimm in his investigation, Value puts him in touch with Adam, a brilliant but very weird and intimidating physician who performs autopsies and specialises in reanimating the dead. Pimm also encounters another curious and lively mind – Ellie Skyler, a young woman enjoying a blossoming career as an investigative journalist by using the gender-neutral byline E. Skye. Ellie is researching the clockwork prostitutes when she stumbles across some very dangerous information about Sir Bertram Oswald, the Queen’s consort. Everything is somehow connected – Abel Value, Oswald, the clockwork prostitutes, the murders, and the Affliction itself. Both Ellie and Pimm find that their paths lead to the grand schemes of a mad scientist and they end up themselves tangled in a bizarre plot that is a wonderful metafictional genre mash-up of science fiction, steampunk, mystery, horror and adventure that includes automatons, zombies, and grotesque monsters, and weird inventions.
It’s a crazy combination, and it’s not all that surprising that the novel started with Pratt joking “ that the perfect commercial novel would be steampunk with zombies”, although the zombies ended up playing a small role and there’s no steam, so Pratt has labelled this “gonzo-historical” fiction. It’s all bit kooky, but The Constantine Affliction is a fun, adventurous read that’s also quite smart.
It has plenty of wonderful gender-play, of course. Ellie plays at being a man everyday in order pursue her passion for journalism, and she goes a step further when she dresses up as a man to infiltrate a clockwork bordello. Getting the right paraphernalia is no problem – a family friend of hers has made a business out of helping men hide the fact that they’ve become women – but it’s a bit harder for Ellie to adjust to the social differences of being a man.
My absolute favourite character is Winifred, Pimm’s stunningly beautiful ‘wife’, who used to be ‘Freddy’, Pimm’s closest friend. Pimm married Freddy to save him/her from society and his family and s/he is one of the few Afflicted to change identities and being new lives. Like Ellie, Winifred defies all notions that women are the weaker sex, but she also puts paid to the belief that gender defines who you are as a person. Like Freddy, Winifred is a bold and hilariously outspoken social butterfly who enjoys shocking people, she still prefers to sleep with women, and she’s a brilliant inventor. She isn’t exactly thrilled about the change, but she’s adapted to it perfectly. She and Ellie are hardly stereotypically bland Victorian women.
Just before reading this novel, I had read two articles – one at Tor, and one at The Mary Sue – about why historical accuracy is not an acceptable excuse for sexism in fiction, particularly fantasy fiction. If we can create other worlds, the writers argued, there’s no good reason to make them misogynist ones. Why is it that writers imagine worlds with dragons and wizards more readily than worlds where men and women are equal? At the same time, writing historical fiction about sexist societies doesn’t mean you can lazily create flat female characters who are just as weak and uninfluential as people believed them to be. “History is not society”, writes Tansy Rayner Roberts at Tor, and your characters should be people, not stereotypes. Having read those articles, I was particularly delighted to come across Ellie and Winifred’s characters, both of whom have to deal with the social restrictions imposed on women, but who are by no means defined or subdued by those restrictions.
What I also liked about The Constantine Affliction was its metafictional touches. We’re told that the first case of the Affliction was a man named Orlando, a direct reference to Virginia Woolf’s novel about a character who changes sex halfway through the story. Pimm has a bit of Sherlock Holmes in him. The best and most memorable reference however, is the character Adam, who turns out to be Frankenstein’s monster. Since the events of Mary Shelley’s novel, Adam has surpassed Victor Frankenstein’s abilities as a scientist, and he lives a strange but contented life in an underground lab, doing autopsies, bringing the dead back to life and running his own biological experiments. He is cold and methodical, but it’s easy to like him. He narrates in the first person (Ellie and Pimm are in third) and the reader is able to understand and care about him as a creature who was rejected by his creator, who distrusts humans because of their cruelty, but is still looking for someone to love and who can love him, no matter how grotesque he is. He ends up falling in love with the brain of a dead prostitute (I’m sorry, that’s a tiny bit of a spoiler, but I couldn’t resist mentioning it).
As much I loved pretty much everything I’ve written about this book so far, I do have reservations. The novel doesn’t really get into the average victim’s experience of the Affliction, and the social rather than legal attitude toward them. We’re forced to simply accept that the society hasn’t changed its beliefs about gender, without really understanding how or why. There is also a tendency to rely a little too much on long passages of exposition and the arch-villain is just far too crazy, taking the whole mad scientist act to extremes. In fact, I felt that the end of the novel got too ludicrous for my liking. It went from being fun to being silly and, finally, sentimental.
However, it could be said that this is just a natural outcome of the pulpy, outlandish stories Payton has poured into those melting pot of a novel. What else did should I have expected, having read about clockwork prostitutes, people changing sex, a drunken detective, a mad scientist with grand schemes to change the world, and an undead man falling in love with the brain of a dead prostitute (yay, I got to say it again!)?
But really, the problems I had with the novel are minor. It’s a great read, clever but light, with lots of adventure, likeable characters of all sorts and plenty of madcap dashes to save the day. Recommended.