1/04/2011. Contributed by Neale Monks
The Japanese Devil Fish Girl And Other Unnatural Attractions by Robert Rankin. pub: Gollancz. 373 page hardback. Price: GBP 14.99. ISBN: 978-0-575-07873-4.
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In 'The Japanese Devil Fish Girl', Robert Rankin creates the world that might have followed on from HG Wells' 1898 novel about a Martian invasion of Victorian England, 'The War Of The Worlds'. Rankin supposes that the British not only reverse-engineered the Martian war machines, but used the remaining Martian rockets to launch their own invasion of Mars. The result is a British Empire that far outshines the other nations of the Earth and leads the way in relations with the civilisations of Venus and Jupiter.
The basic story involves the search for a legendary being known as the Japanese Devil Fish Girl by an itinerant showman, Professor Coffin, and his assistant, George Fox. Along the way George Fox meets and falls in love with a young woman called Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron. She is, of course, known in our timeline for her contributions to mathematics and computing, but in Rankin's world many of the notable figures of the age are playing quite different roles to those familiar to us. A good deal of the humour depends on this, including a rather wonderful portrayal of the ambitious young Winston Churchill much different to the old lion he's usually remembered as today.
In any case, once their adventure gets going, Coffin and Fox become embroiled in plots that put the very existence of the British Empire and perhaps the world at risk. Rankin orchestrates the tensions between Earth, Venus and Jupiter rather deftly and he builds not only a convincing backstory to the Martian invasions but also a rather chilling sequel in the way the British Empire snuffs out the militaristic peoples of Mars.
Rankin is known for his love of the steampunk genre and that's as good a way to describe 'The Japanese Devil Fish Girl' as any other. But it's also a humorous work, with much use of puns, farcical situations and historical jokes. One of the most amusing aspects of the book is Rankin's use of language, including quirky sentence structures presumably reflective of the supposed vernacular of the time.
'The Japanese Devil Fish Girl' isn't laugh out loud funny, but it is fast-paced thanks to a succession of incidents that befall the Coffin, Fox and Lovelace. There are some great twists on standard SF tropes including the Victorian equivalents of ‘The Men In Black’ and the overall novel feels rich and surprisingly believable. Overall, a fun and accessible dip into the world of steampunk.
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