Steampunk emerged as a genre of science fiction just as I was finishing seminary. It went largely unnoticed as I continued my “serious” academic work, with my first introduction being Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Since then, I’ve picked up the occasional Victorian tale and enjoyed an escape into an alternative history. Most recently that escape took the form of one of the originals of the genre, James P. Blaylock’s Homunculus. Considered to be one of the first exemplars of the emergent literary type, it has rollicking, free-wheeling tone—full of strange characters who are attempting to find various hidden treasures. One of those characters is a latter-day prophet by the name of Shiloh, who believes himself the new messiah. Since, as an emerging genre, no rules had been established, steampunk was free to cast whatever characters it found intriguing. A religious fanatic who often drives the action through his own need for self assurance is a tried and true actor in any literature that considers what motivates the masses. Firmly in the cast of “bad guys” in the story, Shiloh patronizes the mad doctor who’s experimenting with reanimating the dead. And Blaylock manages to squeeze a bit of profundity into the role as well.
Nevertheless, the character with the best quote is the ambiguous Bill Kraken, on the side of right, generally, but deeply flawed. In a conversation about immortality, he says “I’m a man of science and the spirit both, and I don’t trust to neither one entirely.” In this he sums up the dilemma of the honest individual who takes science seriously, but who knows that science can’t completely encapsulate the human experience. He trusts science, but Kraken has seen the living dead. There’s an alchemy at work here, and that box he carries on his lap houses the very homunculus that gives the book its title. An alien, actually, the homunculus is sought after by Shiloh, who supposes him to be his father. It is the homunculus who animates the dead and flummoxes the scientists.
Fiction often leads us where fact simply cannot. I strongly suspect that Blaylock had no moralizing message here, other than perhaps to beware of fanatics, and yet a message remains to ponder. That which we seek the most is that which most wishes to escape us. In the end neither scientist nor religious aficionado ends up with the homunculus under control. This is an alternate reality, after all, and the limits of human experience remain untested. Perhaps such bright thinkers as Galileo, Newton, and Einstein had it right. Perhaps the universe in which we find ourselves is not either-or, but both-and. It was our religion that brought us to science, and it is sometimes our fiction that points to the facts.