(2010) Robert Rankin, Gollancz £14.99, hrdbk, 373pp, ISBN 978-0-575-07873-4
Robert Rankin, the grandmaster of comedic far-fetched fiction, has gone all steampunk with his latest, The Japanese Devil Fish Girl. It is the tail end of the nineteenth century and Britain not only has an empire but has retro-engineered the invading (Wellsian) Martian tripod technology and conquered Mars. Meanwhile Venusian missionaries are trying to spread their religion on Earth while jolly Jupiterians party and do the tourist thing on Earth.
An impoverished travelling fair showman, Professor Coffin, with George Fox his underpaid young assistant, struggle to make a living exhibiting a pickled Martian when a fortune-teller predicts that the future of the planets rest on George's shoulders if he finds the religious book of Sayito and 'Her', George is amazed. George then is dumbfounded as the fortune-teller is bundled away by 'the Gentlemen in Black'. 'Her' it transpires, is the mysterious Japanese Devil Fish Girl. With Professor Coffin sensing profit, and his Martian exhibit slowly dissolving in the formaldehyde of its exhibit tank, both he and George leave Blighty to set off around the World to search of the book and the Devil Fish Girl.
This is a little departure from the usual Rankin novel. True, the principal protagonist is a young man, there is an elderly paternal co-protagonist, Brentford gets a mention, and some old favourites, such as Hugo Rune, make very brief appearances. Where the difference is comes with a tweaking of the above formula with roguish behaviour turns into outright villainy, as well as the setting which is very steampunk. Additionally some of the humorous banter (and awful puns) seem to have been sacrificed, though we do get a share, especially early on in the novel. I have to say that I miss this last and I do not know whether this move was due to trying to get the book out and meeting a deadline, or whether to give the plot more gravitas, but from my perspective it was a retrograde step and this humour could have further counterbalanced the novel's darker elements.
However, overall Rankin is on form and has given us a more linear and a plot-coherent offering than some of his other works. (A few of his books have had plots that have been little more than a vehicle for a succession of sketches and jokes.) The historical references and historical persons in the book's cast are many: Adolf Hitler is a waiter on a super Zeplin; there is a monkey called Darwin, a young Winston Churchill; and a pervading sense that history as a discipline continually gets it wrong.
Rankin is a bit of a far-fetched treasure, a perilous purveyor of prodigious puns, a teller of tortuously tall tales, and a profound populiser of the pint and the great British pub. I do not know how well he is recognised outside of the British Isles, but if you like zany British humour such as of The Goons, Monty Python and so forth, then you may well find Rankin a riot. (If you do not like such humour then stay away as you will be unlikely to understand where it is that Rankin is at: supping real ale and giving toot in a free house near the Thames in west London.) Meanwhile I am hoping his future books will see a return of the great detective Laslo Woodbine and Barry the sprout. Please…
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