UK Science Fiction novelist Stephen Palmer’s latest book takes place in a new genre for him. Having written dense and tricky novels with a far future ecological theme, he now turns to what is best described as steampunk, but it’s steampunk Victoriana through a peculiarly Palmer-esque lens.
Hairy London begins as a slightly Pythonesque pastiche of those tales of Victorian and Edwardian adventurers discovering impossible new lands, new peoples, new wonders, and then returning to their Gentleman’s Club in London for a good meal and perhaps a spot of tea. The club in Hairy London is the “Suicide Club” and our adventurers, Sheremy, Velvene and Kornukope, begin their latest caper with a wager to discover the true nature of love, the prize being their collective fortunes. Each of the three represents a different aspect of the upper class Victorian in literature – the ladies man, the virgin, the married gent.
The following day all of London is covered by a thick coat of hair, an absurd conceit that becomes the other main driver of the story. Each chapter then cycles through the three characters as they try to uncover the cause of the hairy plague while also either actively working to discover the nature of love, or interacting with characters who represent some aspect of it.
Their adventures become a picaresque romp through a bizarre London made more strange by the imposition of the hair on daily life. The initial narrative frame is of a timeless Victorian London – it feels like the end of the 19th century but along with Marx, Freud and the Suffragette movement, there are references to Einstein, Ghandi and the atomic bomb, all figures in the post-Victorian 20th century. King Victorian and Queen Alberta sit on the throne, Ghandi is fermenting revolution in Kew Gardens, and civil war eventually begins, lead by the Pearlie King and Queen. I mentioned steampunk, and I do think it fits, albeit uneasily, within the genre: there are alternate technologies in the city – I particularly like the Archimedean flying machines though I’m unsure whether they’re some kind of hybrid ballon and primitive helicopter or what.
In addition to the nature of love, the story throws together all of the great themes and narratives of the Victorian period and its literature and then uses his character’s adventures to explore each one. I emphasise that its not an exploration of Victorian (indeed, Edwardian) literature but of Victoriana, the fiction that plays with, fetishises perhaps, the history, politics and art of the time.
A better description of the theme than “what is love?” might be “What is Victoriana?” The London of the Suicide Club is a London made strange, serving as a device to interrogate Victorian attitudes to race, gender, and class, empire, colonialism and revolution, and perhaps by extension, to interrogate the tropes of steampunk. At the same time, Palmer reminds us that feminism, Marxism, imperialism are all stories, all narratives, and he further weaves in some of the great Victoriana (and post-Victorian) narratives – Jack the Ripper, the Titanic, the Romanovs, the Great War and shell-shock.
Each character is forced to confront their prejudices about women, for example. Sheremy, established in the first chapter as a ladies man, meets a series of strong and decidedly non-standard women – one from the moon, one from the lower classes – before he meets a suitable paramour from his own class. Kornukope must learn to accept his resourceful Indian wife Eastacia as his equal, and it is telling that, late on in the book, as she becomes more central to the plot, her narrative takes the place of her husband in the three-part chapters.
The interrogation of Victorian sexism – by exaggeration (women can only enter the Suicide Club with bags on their heads; one must be sewn for Eastacia to enter the Club) – and by throwing the series of female characters at Sheremy has clear satiric intent, and Sheremy’s realisation that his assumptions are plain wrong is pantomime, but enjoyable pantomime.
Velvene’s explorations are more varied – his exploration of love takes him through all the greats of psychoanalysis – from Freud to Jung to Reich, and through religion, Catholic and Buddhist, but his transformation from upper class twit to class warrior is particularly good fun.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the way the hairy plague forces our triumvirate (quartet if we include Eastacia) to confront these different stories, it does become episodic at times, and few of the minor characters are more than pastiches or parodies, but then that’s the nature of the book. It really does remind me, at times, of Monty Python: When the newly radicalised Velvene raids a factory with his new socialist friends to free the workers from their bonds, it is the workers who shout at them, echoing the peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:”You’ve not thought this through” and certainly the three can be read as upper class twits whose outlooks and assumptions need torn apart through ridicule.
The Hair disrupts the natural order and allows for carnivalesque uprisings – home rule for India, class warfare in the East End, a woman in the cabinet, but if I had a criticism it is that the initial status quo of the novel (also seen in Palmer’s short story Xana-Li, his version of the mysterious lost city of wonder story) is already so strange, so clearly exaggerated for comic and parodic effect, that I would have liked to spend longer in it before the new hairstyle is applied. As a reader I was still trying to grasp the narrative world when it was given a new barnet, so to speak.
The episodic nature of the novel does also mean that the efficacy of the resolution to the “what is love” storyline is not all it could be. That said, the journey is great fun, though it requires some knowledge of London and 19th and 20th century British history. Palmer has a lovely turn of phrase – I laughed out loud when I found Sheremy describe visiting prostitutes, common for gentlemen of his class in real Victorian London as “strumpeteering” – the conflation of the vile sex trade with mountaineering symptomises the blasé way the ruling British classes treated everyone and everything that came under their influence.
In the end I was left wanting more. Palmer has written a short story, Xana-La, in the same setting as Hairy London and it is available for a modest sum as an ebook, but I hope he returns to the Suicide Club, perhaps further into the twentieth century, so we can see his funhouse mirror image of that period.