A Curiosity of the Solar System, by Ian Anthony - 5 Stars

It is hoped herein, dear readers, that by entreating ladies and gentlemen of discernment and no little inquisitiveness and discretion, one might inflame the discussion, discursive as it must be, about the rather peculiar yet amusingly instructive cabinet of marvels that constitutes A Curiosity of the Solar System, by Master Ian Anthony, of that ilk.

The dusty desarts of philology aside, this is a semi-steampunk tale following an alternative reality where the British Empire made an early foray into outer space, plopping its size 12 boots into fertile new soils (after a bout of terraforming) and didn’t scar the natives even unto the tenth generation because there weren’t any. How dastardly! They’ve avoided conscription by not existing. Earth’s young men and women are spiritually renewed in their vigour for an exploratory life, apart from the women who have to stay safely locked in their drawing room in Surrey, presumably because Victorians always needed one member of the family to spend at least sixty years drawing things while their men were out duelling.

Plucky young chaps with moustaches biff off, see Mars, biff about, biff off, see Neptune, biff about, biff off, see Pluto (still a planet), biff about, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, until their biffing days are done and they’re remembered as top hole and a regular brick. The enemy, usually rebel colonies, are polite rather than barbarous in their forlorn attempt to stand up to the manliness, adventurous spirit and complete lack of risk assessment that are commonly termed the Army and Royal Navy. There isn’t an air force, not yet, or indeed horse-drawn carriages and long distance linguistic communications. One thing at a time chaps and chapesses. Don’t trouble the boffins by demanding too much progress at once when we’re still coming to terms with changing at break-neck speed from the wheel to the atomic space engine. Break-neck, yes, that’s what one reprehensible old cove does, until he gets himself a brass and cog steampunk collar that allows him to rotate his head like an owl and shake a sword at people behind him. Hurrah! By Jimminy and the crows.

As this story is set a few decades after the Napoleonic wars, grandees in exile appear scattered about the solar system too (take him down a peg or two) and literary figures pop in (build him up a peg or two), although the discoveries that make it all possible are brought forward by a woman who masquerades as a man, in the style of a 19th Century novelist. As other nations from old Earth get in on the act (Prussians, Russians, French and Americans), a rare old scrap for land breaks out in timeless colonial fashion. Concessions are promised and you get the impression they won’t be honoured later, as ‘Earthman speak with forked tongue’ seldom changes.

This is an affectionate caricature of a long since departed, thrusting generation’s energies, foolishness and how they stood closer to and then tasted apples of wonder that we can only read about. Get involved, interact with your world, feel the over-engineered mechanics of heavy, moving things, the pulling of levers, the hiss, trundling off in tooting contraptions made of brass knobs and proper rivets for wild times where life is cheap and the daily choices come down to excitement or brandy. Or excitement and brandy. Make roaring noises. Why not? Have a good splutter. Think big and let your capabilities lead on. No litigation, no rules, safety fences or hand rails between you and the fun. I think we’ve lost that. I think we’ve taken a step back from immersing in life and experiencing everything, which is what this book shows us.

What will you do with your life? Be safe? Stay in the drawing room of the 21st Century?

Apart from the jolliness and general whacking about, which you may celebrate as a lost art or object to depending on your cultural origin, the surreal images in this book are quite beautiful. The idea of a man with a large clock descending 7,000 rungs down a ladder from a floating city to the surface of a planet would fit seamlessly into the oeuvre of Salvador Dali (what would that ladder weigh?) and the boys clambering across the nets that cover a hundred thousand vast balloons that hold the ships and city in the sky is a Mervyn Peake roofscape or a Jonathan Swift scene if ever I read one. Beauty is a picture in the mind, an exquisite moment that is then lost to the drawing room of the soul. To those of us witnessing the spectacle of three dimensional living, inflation is no longer an economic concept. Stand aside, stand aside. I applaud. Who can say whether the balloons from which starships hang as they rise through the atmosphere would inflate too far and pop before their ships’ motors could engage but such questions are immaterial when you have Brunel in charge of the engineering. Need a tunnel on Venus? Can I build you a railway to run through it? Hang the cost when you’re operating on the epic scale. Marvellous! A century and a half later, the relieving officer from South West Trains will be along to run it down and balls it up.

The other interesting angle this book presents is that of language. It isn’t over the top, like my silly review, but contrasts well with the modern dog-English in popular usage today, yet the language is also shown to be adapting, as it would when dispersed across new worlds where people survive and, somehow, remarkably, cling on without daily recourse to Sweet’s Anglo Saxon Primer. Good Lord, how they must have suffered. I’d like to see these settlements depicted a hundred or two hundred years further on, just to test the author’s imagination when English off the collar has reached beyond a national form and has become a multi-faceted wonder of a dispersed age. Language is a living thing, not an unadaptive system, so if you’re going to re-write history and throw a stone this big into the pond it therefore follows that some words would never have happened and new ones would have moved into acceptance as they fitted the quite different needs of the day.

Setting aside the pedantic observation that perhaps the indentations were too deep and the author could have saved themselves a couple of pages, this is a very well edited book and I can’t remember seeing any mistakes. The pace is strong and even but does linger a little for the sojourn on Pluto.

I rated this book as better than a 4 but not necessarily a 5 because it isn’t full of elaborately charming and memorable sentences to quote or jaw-dropping revelations, but then that would be unusual to expect. What splits the difference and earns the upgrade is originality and imagination, writing in pictures and thinking great thoughts that trigger new questions for the reader. That’s worth something beyond Boy’s Own fare or a competent adventure. That’s indie writing doing what it’s supposed to do, painting a world that we’re compelled fall into, to be fond of and respect; unless we’re Victorians, in which case we can shoot it and stick it up on the wall, mislabelled ‘Nairobi, 1815, Montgomery & Foyt. It gored Foyt.’

That’s it really. A book that gives an airing to your senses. Get up into space, young lads and lasses. It’s spiffing, by Jove and all things Jovian. Balloons up! Hoorah for King George and may the Devil take the laggards!