Mark Hodder’s The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack takes the grandfather paradox and runs with it in spectacular fashion. It starts out as a steampunk novel that uses historical figures as characters (such as Sir Richard Francis Burton, Algernon Swinburne, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel), but it becomes rapidly apparent that this novel is more than that when we start to learn the history and motivations of the eponymous Spring Heeled Jack. I would have finished this book sooner, but I had to keep running to Wikipedia to find out what really happened with these characters. As I read, I was astounded to see just how much actual history Hodder incorporated into his fiction. It’s amazing what Hodder’s done just by throwing a time traveler into the mix.
Two things struck me about this book. The first is the technology.The Victorian Age was a time of remarkable scientific and technological achievement. The Victorian Age of the novel is like that, but on crack. Not only are inventors and engineers creating steam-driven marvels, but eugenicists create genetically-manipulated creatures for transportation, communication, and sanitation. And it all happens within a few decades. Hodder drops in extracts from advertisements to show just how far things have gone. He’s also keen to show the downsides of the technology, something absent from most of the other steampunk novels I’ve read. The detail is not quite Dickensian, but the topics are: orphan chimney sweeps, rampant pollution, abject poverty, and conscienceless violence. Instead of a bright, shiny world of steam vapor and bronze goggles, the world of Spring Heeled Jack is very dark. Burton, the chief protagonist, constantly compares places like Wapping and Whitechapel to darkest Africa–though Africa was not quite as bad as the East End.
The second thing that struck me was the use of the grandfather paradox. When we learn what Spring Heeled Jack really is and what he’s after, the novel really takes off. I hate to give too much away, but I will say that Jack is an inventor from the future, a descendant of a man, Edward Oxford, who tried to kill Queen Victoria. In order to erase this stain on the family history, Jack (actually Edward John Oxford, born in 2162) travels back in time to stop the assassination attempt. But every time he tries to change something, he just makes matters worse. As his time travel suit malfunctions, Oxford starts to go mad. In other time travel novels, I’ve seen authors bend over backwards to explain away or prevent grandfather paradoxes. They usually boil down to either a) history protects itself or b) one person can’t change history. Hodder goes in the absolute opposite direction. Not only do all of Oxford’s actions backfire, but even casual conversations with locals change history.
The language of this book is occasionally overblown and, at first, this is an unpleasant distraction. I chose to read this book as a more imaginative version of a penny dreadful. After I made that decision, this book was an absolute hoot to read. It’s wild. It’s inventive. It’s gripping. I can only hope that Hodder’s future books measure up to this one, because The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack will be damned hard to top.