Friday, June 6, 2014


K.W. Jeter is probably best known (at least in my circles) as the guy who invented steampunk, or at least the guy who named it. And his Infernal Devices is one of the earliest and, for my money, best examples of the sub-genre.

Others know him as an author of novelizations, franchise works and authorized sequels to famous works by other, better known authors. And that's fine.

But Jeter is his own man, and his own stand-alone work is brilliant. He may never completely emerge from his friend Philip K. Dick's shadow (Jeter has also achieved literary immortality by serving as the model for the character of Kevin, he of the dead cat fame, in Philip K. Dick's VALIS; that's how tight he and Dick and their friend Tim "David" Powers were, yo), but he still manages to shine brilliantly within it, uneclipsed.

It's books like Madlands that demonstrate this most brilliantly. Yes, it has strong Phildickian and, for that matter, Tim Powersful*, qualities, but this book has an angry, noir-ish edge to it his friends' works mostly lack, together with a wonderfully baroque, Grand Guignol sensibility that makes reading it a wickedly enjoyable pleasure.

Jeter's dystopian future Los Angeles is quite literally the product of a deranged imagination; it is a sort of projected construct of the City of Angels' mostly fanciful celluloid past onto a weird void that seems to be all that's left of the world after some unspecified disaster. Reality isn't what it used to be in the Madlands, a zone in which thrill-seekers can come and experience multiple versions of reality all at once, see things their ordinary human eyes can't, etc. etc.** Weirdly, though, nobody who takes a day trip into this zone seems ever to feel like leaving, which has profound consequences for their long-term survival in that the field or wavelength or whatever that lets them experience other realities also messes with people's very cells, very molecules, and destroys their ability to remain organized as human bodies. So everybody who's been there for a while develops multiple cancers as a precursor to eventually becoming a slurpy pile of goo with vestigial eyes that plead for passersby to end the misery with a gun or sledgehammer.

See? Baroque.

Presiding over all of this is a giant egomaniac known as Identrope, who is somehow immune to the effects of the Madlands field, probably because he is somehow the source or cause of it. He is a literal and figurative cult figure, the ultimate TV star-cum-religious leader, who offers a weird and limited but very real (or at least "real") form of immortality to his followers that is the only way for ordinary people to avoid dissolving into protoplasm. And he has lots of takers.

Overlaying all of this weirdness is a plot that will seem almost wearily familiar to anyone who's read a lot of fiction: a crime noir betrayal and doublecross story. Identrope isn't the only guy in the Madlands who has weird powers within it, you see, and he seems to have nursed some vipers at his breast. But that's a good thing.

A very good thing.

And this little bit of familiarity actually winds up feeling pretty welcome among all the weird. Noir is a great anchor for storytelling like this. And this level of weird, well, it needs some anchoring.

The book is an absolute pleasure. Don't miss it!

*Madlands would make a wonderful companion read to Powers' early and underrated Dinner at Deviant's Palace. Identrope and Reverend Jaybush would have a lot to talk about over drinks of worshipper's cerebrospinal fluids or somesuch.

**I imagine this as something like the effects of the machine H.P. Lovecraft's Crawford Tillinghast creates to allow himself to perceive alternate dimensions in "From Beyond" writ very, very large. And permanent. And with much worse side effects.

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