James Blaylock is one of the originators of steampunk, so I started The Aylesford Skull excited and ready to get me some steampunk deliciousness. The novel didn’t completely live up to my perhaps obsessive and already-preformed judgements, but it did offer some interesting features:
- There are interesting class tensions involved. The villain (who is cartoony at best, which might be part of the point) comes from the solid working poor but with a couple of twists – his mother has worked her way out of poverty in a highly moral fashion, having developed a farm that helps refugees from addiction and spiritual malaise recover. There seem to be deep-pocketed donors behind the scenes, and her entrance into the upper middle class seems remarkably pretension-free, but the class movement that Blaylock creates here fits with the general interest in class in the novel.
- Every moment at which I thought I was going to subject myself to a moment of the ultimate British upper-class moral warrior rescuing the peasants they failed. Even the denouement is botched – characters I cared about died, and the protagonist only saves the situation by misflying his dirigible into a cathedral. Whatever Blaylock’s intentions, this novel inverts part of what I found troubling about the Rober Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films, the Otherification of the working class.
- At some level this could be read as a Horatio Alger myth, with the plucky working class kid who survived his early experience with an orphanage by picking pockets, and I can’t ignore that part of the binary that Blaylock creates.
- As always, I guess, perspective and subject position matter in our reading…
- Empathy-wise, though, I had trouble reading beyond the stereotypes. Perhaps that’s what this novel does, to idealize (and reify) cultural myths about class mobility. The almost sympathetic portrayal of anarchists (and constant references to Guy Fawkes) makes me wonder if Blaylock isn’t attempting some sort of re-reading of these myths and treating them more as anxieties, looking at the work that tales of class mobility did for Victorian audiences.