Exclusive Interview: Fiendish Schemes Author K.W. Jeter
With his 1987’s novel Infernal Devices, writer K.W. Jeter presented a unique and (ultimately) influential work of steampunk fiction. Now — after twenty-five years and as many other books — he’s following it up with Fiendish Schemes (Tor Books), a sequel of sorts that catches us up with the original book’s main character, George Dower.
In a general sense, what is the story in Fiendish Schemes and how does it relate to Infernal Devices?
Fiendish Schemes continues on with the adventures of George Dower, the protagonist from Infernal Devices. But not immediately so; it’s not like the first page of Fiendish Schemes starts right after the last page of Infernal Devices. There’s a gap of quite a few years, though perhaps not as long a one as the gap between the writing of the two books. So Dower’s older and a little more beat-up, plus he’s much more aware of how badly things can go wrong, whereas in the first book he hadn’t yet learned that.
As in Infernal Devices, a lot of Fiendish Schemes’ plot revolves around his late father’s crazy inventions, and Dower’s increasingly reluctant involvement with them. Plus in Fiendish Schemes we see a lot more of the larger consequences of a sort of hyper-developed steam technology on the larger Victorian world that Dower lives in. So in that sense, Fiendish Schemes is both a continuation and expansion of the themes I was working with in Infernal Devices.
Interesting. Though on the cover, it says Fiendish Schemes is “The Stand-Alone Sequel To The Seminal Steampunk Novel Infernal Devices.” Was it your decision was it to qualify this with “Stand-Alone,” or was it the publisher’s?
It was the publisher’s decision, though I don’t disagree with it. There’s a chronological gap of nearly a quarter-century between when Infernal Devices came out and the release of Fiendish Schemes. So there’s a good chance that there will be readers who might not have had the opportunity to read Infernal Devices but who might still want to go ahead and read Fiendish Schemes now. I constructed Fiendish Schemes in such a way that familiarity with Infernal Devices wasn’t absolutely necessary in order to enjoy Fiendish Schemes, and the “stand-alone” distinction is probably the best way of letting people know that.
Steampunk is not new, its roots trace back to H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. And your work has also been compared to that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But what other writers, especially non sci-fi and fantasy ones, do you think are an influence on your style?
I’m familiar to some degree with other writers of the period, besides the big names such as Wells and Dickens, etc. At one time, it was pretty difficult to find those books, especially the ones by Victorian and Edwardian writers who are too easily dismissed as trashy thriller writers; now you can find them on places like the Gutenberg Project pretty readily.
For people interested in that sort of thing, I always recommend Harrison Ainsworth, who was sort of the Stephen King of the Victorian era; real thriller guy, lots of action, insanely fast-paced. Ainsworth was a bestseller at the time, largely forgotten now except by enthusiasts like me. He’s probably best known for his novel Rookwood, which contains a famous account of the highwayman Dick Turpin’s ride from London to York, which Ainsworth reputedly wrote in exactly the same time as the events in the story would have taken. I’m quite an admirer of his novels Guy Fawkes and Dick Sheppard as well; there’s a real furious energy to all of his stuff. But there were a lot of other great Victorian thriller writers like him; it’s a field that’s well worth digging into.
How often do you see the influence of Infernal Devices in other works of fiction? And not just books but movies and other things.
As my friend Paul di Filippo said when he reviewed Fiendish Schemes, steampunk has become a cultural juggernaut, crushing everything in its path. So I’m certainly seeing a lot of stuff that looks like the materials that I was working with in Infernal Devices. But I don’t know if all these talented people are necessarily getting it from me; more likely they’re getting it from the same sources that were my inspiration. Though it’s always nice when some younger writer tells me that he or she read Infernal Devices way back when, that they enjoyed it, and it got them writing their own steampunkish stuff. Always the possibility, though, that they’re just flattering the old guy.
What do you think about the way steampunk has been represented in film, video games, comics, and other books?
I’m not as familiar with those areas as I should be, except the films and some of the TV stuff. And in that regard, if you want my honest opinion, I think we’re still waiting for the breakout representation of steampunk in the visual media, the sort of thing that would be what Blade Runner was to sci-fi movies, something that takes it to a new level. A lot of what I’ve seen so far seems very superficial, just a sort of thin steampunk frosting on otherwise unimpressive material. It’s probably going to take somebody coming up from the steampunk community to really pull it off, rather than the usual suspects in the movie and TV world noticing that steampunk is the hot new thing and trying to cash in on it.
Do any depictions stand out at being particularly good? Or particularly bad?
I thought the steampunk episode on the TV show Castle was particularly shallow and crass. But that’s hardly my favorite show, anyway. There were some steampunkish elements in Sanctuary that were at least visually effective.
What about ones that are different, that add something new?
As I said, I think we’re still waiting for those.
Have you ever been asked to consult on a steampunky movie or game?
Not yet. And I’m not quite sure what I would do if that were to happen. I’m kind of a set-in-my-ways book guy, and I think there’s sometimes a not inaccurate perception in the gaming and media worlds that people like me don’t play well with others. But if somebody were to ask me, I’d give it a shot.
While you wouldn’t know it from my line of questioning, you’ve actually written a number of books over the years, including ones in both the Star Wars and Star Trek universes, as well as the cyberpunk one of Blade Runner. Obviously, writing a book in someone else’s universe is a lot more restrictive than creating your own, but is there anything positive about writing a Star Wars, Star Trek, or Blade Runner book that you think has helped you in your original stories?
I think a writer can always find some benefit in putting down his or her own box of crayons, with its particular range of colors, so to speak, and using someone else’s, with a range that you might not have picked up on otherwise. Sometimes it’s just a matter of looking at something else and asking yourself the question, Why do people like this? Why do they find it interesting? What have these people been doing that I might not have been doing? So it can become an exercise in crawling inside someone else’s head and seeing what the world and its possibilities look like from that different vantage point. It’s similar to what writers and other creative types do when they’re stuck, and they try asking themselves what some other writer would do at this point. But then again, writers are always involved in a process of pretending to be other people, with varying degrees of success.
You’ve also written a number of original books as well. Is there one or two that you think fans of Infernal Devices and Fiendish Schemes might especially enjoy?
I’d recommend Farewell Horizontal, which I’ve come to think of as the best of my non-steampunk sci-fi novels. I think it’s got a lot of the same antic energy that shows up in Infernal Devices and Fiendish Schemes, though in a more futuristic guise.
I’d also recommend my horror novel In The Land Of The Dead. Like the steampunk novels, it’s a period piece, just set in the Great Depression of the thirties rather than the Victorian era. So in that sense, it represents another aspect of my taking characters and stories and using different eras in which they can play out. The worlds change, but what I’m trying to do seems to stay pretty consistent.
But then, I don’t see a big gap between my steampunk novels and the straight sci-fi novels; they might be children of different mothers, so to speak, but they’re all mine.