Sunday, August 28, 2011

Review of The Japanese Devil Fish Girl & Other Unnatural Atttactions by Robert Rankin

The year is 1895 and Britain has emerged resurgent and resplendent in the wake of the Martian invasion recounted by H. G Wells in his most excellent history of The War of the Worlds. An expeditionary force of the Kings own Electric Fusiliers has subjugated Mars and the red planet is now the newest jewel of the Empire. Peaceful contact has been established with Jupiter and Venus, trade and relations established and for those at the very apex of society, life has never been better. But all that glitters is not gold, for the opulence and splendour of Empire is (as has ever been the case) carried aloft on the shoulders of a great mass of struggling lower classes.

Near the bottom of this heap, but ever yearning to climb higher is young George Fox, a runaway who has fallen in with the self styled Professor Cagliostro Coffin. When first we meet, they are earning a precarious living exhibiting the stinking and rapidly disintegrating cadaver of a Martian invader. Unlike many of the “attractions” touted by their fellow fairground showmen the Martian is genuine, but as George is about to discover, little else connected with his employer is as it seems, and he is soon to be propelled into a terrifying adventure in search of the mysterious Japanese Devil Fish Girl.

This is my first encounter with author Robert Rankin, and I must confess that on the evidence of this novel, it seems I have been sorely deprived. Rankin writes in a charmingly irreverent nod and wink style, such that you shouldn’t go into this book expecting him to adhere to the style of H. G Wells or in any way provide a rational sequel. Rankin wants you to embrace the silliness, and to this end throws in sundry characters and events with little care for their historical accuracy, (history records the date of The War of the Worlds differently for one) and so quite happily supplies footnotes blowing raspberries at anyone who might dare to complain that people who are dead (and hence should know better), are alive and well. Hence Charles Babbage, inventor of the tragically unrealised Difference Engine here gets to build his fabulous computer and a certain Herr Hitler is to be found much out of his time, sullenly serving drinks on the airship Empress of Mars.

Much of the humour in the book is built on the implausibility of these random collisions in space and time, but (and don’t please construe this as criticism) it’s not a laugh out loud experience, rather it’s a comfortable warm blanket kind of humour, not particularly subtle, occasionally childishly scatological (I make no apologies that a dung throwing monkey is one of my favourite characters), yet written with such cheerful careless abandon that seldom are you without a wry half smile on your face. It’s fair to argue (and here comes a criticism) that Rankin flings, like his simian character Darwin, a lot of dung at the wall hoping it will stick, and occasionally the sheer quantity elicits a groan rather than a chuckle, but that’s like complaining the restaurant has piled on too many chocolate sprinkles on your desert, you may feel a tad queasy by the end, but the journey getting there was worth the occasional discomfort.

And what a journey it is for our hero George. Shipwrecked when the Empress of Mars does a Titanic, faced on one hand with cannibals and on the other with bureaucratic Martians, he finds love along the way and much against his will is prophesised to be the saviour of mankind, a long shot indeed when London becomes the focus of a three pronged assault by Martians, Jovians and Venusians. Done so well, I don’t think H. G Wells would be at all perturbed by this reverential rifling of his imagination, so it seems reasonable then to conclude this review in the style of Mr Rankin. A phantasmagorical cornucopia of Wellsian whimsy, dizzying intergalactical intrigue and daring doings that seldom fails to divert, delight and amuse.