Whenever I read people complaining about how steampunk isn't how it used to be, I always wonder if they've actually read any of the original steampunk works from the California trio of Jeter, Powers, and Blaylock. Usually these diatribes are based on the idea that steampunk starts with Moorcock, and while I'd readily concede Moorcock's Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy belongs to the family, there's a world of difference between the political subthemes of Warlord of the Air and the gonzo fun of James Blaylock. I agree that steampunk isn't what it used to be, because aside from Gail Carriger, I can't think of very many people who are writing playful, whimsical steampunk.
Blaylock's 1978 short story, "The Ape Box Affair," is arguably the first steampunk work written in the United States, preceding Jeter's Morlock Night by a year. I know some people consider works like Pavane to be early steampunk, but I don't, and this isn't the post where I'll tell you why (I'm saving that for when I write about Pavane, which at the rate I'm going, should be sometime in the 2020s).
When I posited my theory on the steampunk aesthetic, I was speaking of what's been going on in steampunk since 2000. Steffan Hantke had already done a bang-up job of assessing things pre-21st century, so I have been focused primarily on what Stephen Hunt calls the "Lighting the Boiler" and "Full Steam Ahead" periods of steampunk literature. Nevertheless, for the sake of contrast and comparison, I read the early works as well. Blaylock's one of my faves, and not just for his steampunk writing.
The story in brief is about an orangutan landing in St. James Park in a spherical flying ship, where he is promptly mistaken for an alien. I won't go into particulars, since the joy of this short story lies in the intersections between the orangutan's adventures, and an attempt to deliver a jack-in-the-box to a child. Without giving away the game, I'm simply let you know, hilarity ensues.
It's easy to imagine "The Ape Box Affair" shot in the silent era, and then played on the wrong speed of projector (something we did across the board before we figured out we were doing it wrong), so that all the action was rendered herky-jerky. The story has physical slapstick of the Keystones Cop variety, but is also riddled with dry, ironic statements about how Victorian Londoners might react to an "alien invasion." Contrast H.G. Wells's "Exodus of London" in War of the Worlds with this line about the Lord Mayor's response to the "alien" in St. James' Park: "He rather fancied the idea of a smoke and a chat and perhaps a pint of bitter later int he day with these alien chaps and so organized a "delegation," as he called it, to ride out and welcome them" (15).
This dry humour and slapstick action are hallmarks of most of the fiction I've read by Blaylock. In addition to these, Blaylock includes a highly-eccentric-but-perceived-as-mad character type he revisits in The Digging Leviathan and The Paper Grail. Sometimes these people are genuinely unhinged, but usually just exceedingly odd. These lightly-loony characters are usually pitted as an antagonist to someone who wants the universe a little more orderly; the eccentric character infuriates them, and they fly off the handle, often with humorous results. In "The Ape Box Affair," it's toymaker Wilfred Keeble who's the eccentric, and his brother-in-law Lord Placer provides the requisite straight-man. Again, I can't give details on what happens to Lord Placer in his rage, but I can tell you this much: it had me giggling out loud and trying not to wake my wife.
The most telling line of "The Ape Box Affair" comes halfway through the story, after highjinks and shenanigans have already reached a fever pitch: "It was at this point that the odd thing occurred" (21), as though the ape landing in St. James Park alone weren't oddity enough. This is the style of Blaylock's steampunk, and it doesn't fit my aesthetic worth a damn. Sure, it takes place in the nineteenth century and there's some technofantasy, but it isn't really a retrofuturist thing. Blaylock isn't looking into the past to say something about the present. He seems to be looking into the past because he thinks it would be a fun place to play for awhile, a place where aliens arriving in London is met with the hope for a smoke, a chat, and a pint of bitter, rather than the London of today, where an alien might be met by the military:
In short, Blaylock's steampunk is a world where whimsy rules. Welcome to the journey in that world.