Fiction Reviews

The Mechanical Messiah
and Other Marvels of the Modern Age

(2011) Robert Rankin, Gollancz, £16.99, hrdbk, 485pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08635-7


In 1987 a couple of years after Worlds War II (that followed what we should take to be 'the War of the Worlds') and civilisations from all over the Solar System are known to humanity, with ambassadors, business folk and wealthy tourists from these coming to Earth and specifically to London, the centre of the British Empire whose dominions now include Mars.

The musical hall is one attraction that both locals and visitors from other worlds flock. However when star turn Harry 'Hurty-Finger' Hamilton literally explodes on stage, it is time for consulting detective Cameron Bell and the talking monkey Darwin to track down the killer. This project will take them to Venus, involve a duel in zero-gravity and numerous high-jinx with much daring derring-do…

Robert Rankin is known for off-the-wall wit embedded in the absurd. As I have said before, he is something of a marmite author: you either love his books or hate them. With the The Mechanical Messiah we have an offering that is firmly in the steampunk tradition as the British Empire has retrofitted Martian War of the Worlds technology. It also builds on the setting established in The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and other Unnatural Attractions, but you do not have to read that book to enjoy The Mechanical Messiah as this reads perfectly well as a stand-alone novel with just the pseudo-historical setting and some of the characters straddling the two works, and so no knowledge of the former is need to enjoy the latter.

Naturally Robert's most ardent fans will enjoy The Mechanical Messiah especially as there are reference to a number of features in his other works, not least of which is the London suburb of Brentford. And, as said, steampunk fans with a sense of the silly and absurd will also get off on this novel (though perhaps steampunk fans more grounded with a more sober perception might not). However – and as a long-term Rankin reader it pains me to say this – The Mechanical Messiah lacks the witty conversation (toot) and truly terrible (which means 'groan out loud enjoyable') puns that litter many of his other works. This is a huge shame as it is the toot that successfully lubricates the plot development of much of his novels to date. Instead of the witty conversation and puns we have a surfeit of absurd situations and oddly named characters and events. For me this was overkill without the sweetener of the conversational humour I have previously enjoyed. Indeed as the book progressed I became increasingly less entertained by the introduction of yet another oddly named dimension to the book drawn from more contemporary life (such as the Earl Grey Whistle Test musical act named after the 1980s BBC2 music show). True, I am not a huge fan of steampunk unless it is written well and presented in a hard SF context and so this aspect of The Mechanical Messiah, which may well sustain some, did not keep me going: indeed I positively struggled to keep my interest engaged halfway through. But it takes all sorts and one can't blame a writer for trying something a little different even if for me it decidedly did not work. Perhaps The Mechanical Messiah will attract many readers and if so then good luck to Robert Rankin. If not then I suggest he returns to the styles of writing that have given him past success, and takes his time to write his next novel with greater care and a good dollop of toot.

In short, though Rankin regulars will no doubt lap up The Mechanical Messiah and some steampunk fans may get off on the trope, this is not a novel I would recommend to newcomers to the author. For me, far better places to start would be The Brightonomicon or Retromancer (also on the Gollancz backlist) and, of course, the original seven books that make up the Brentford trilogy.

Jonathan Cowie

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