The book contains three novellas or short stories: Victoria, Hottentots, and Walt and Emily. It’s alternate history written in humorous style and has no respect for historically real people.
The first story, Victoria, is about young, rich inventor Cosmo Cowperthwaith. He inherited his wealth from his deceased father and uses it for all sort of scientific experimentation. His parents died in an accident involving a uranium-powered train.
Cosmo dabbles in biology. For example, by mixing growth hormones from newts and humans, he managed to grow a newtwoman whom he calls Victoria. He tried to educate her but much to his disappointment, she turned out to nearly mindless. Cosmo had no choice but to put her into a bordello where she services mostly upper class men.
One day, William Lamb, the Prime Minister and lover of the young Queen Victoria, meets Cosmo with troubling news: the Queen has fled her responsibilities to parts unknown. Lamb wants to keep it a secret and so wants to have a replacement on the throne until the Queen is found. Lamb wants the mindless, yet sex-crazed newtwoman to be that replacement. Cosmo agrees. However, Cosmo also thinks that he has to search for the Queen. He and his stalwart, if eccentric, American-born manservant Nails McGroaty set out to search the underbelly of Victorian London. Unfortunately, the silver-nosed (his nose was shot off in a duel and replaced by a silver appendage) Lord Chuting-Payne hates the royal family and is determined to find the young woman first!
I did rather enjoy this story although not without reservations. The Lord’s name was a hoot: I hope I’m not the only one who pronounces it as Shooting Pain. He and his Indian manservant were great! I also enjoyed McGroaty’s lengthy speeches even though they were a bit hard to understand at times.
On the other hand, I really disagreed with Cosmo that the only two uses for a woman was as a whore or an educated upper-class woman. Also, I felt really dubious about where the Queen had gone and why. I haven’t yet seen that a man has to go through the same before being fit to rule!
Hottentots is set in America where the Swiss-born Professor Louis Agassiz and his team are studiously examining the wonders of nature. Agassiz is ambitious and wants to climb high among the American men of science. He resents the black people whom he considers barely sentient. One night, to his horror, he receives unexpected company: the South African Jacob Cezar (who has a pronounced accent) and Cezar’s black wife Dottie. Cezar tells Agassiz a wild tale about a magical object which is now being hunted by several people. The object is currently held by a Hottentot shaman who intends to do mischief with it in America. Reluctantly, Agassiz agrees to pursue the object with Cezar.
This could have been great fun. Agassiz has to go to extraordinary lengths (for him) to get to the bottom of the mystery and has to go through a variety of unpleasant ordeals which are funny to the reader.
Unfortunately, his character is really not likable. He claims to be a man of science who investigates everything. Yet, he constantly denies even seeing the extraordinary animals and people around him. He is really racist and defends slavery with circular logic and constantly puts down Dottie. He’s horrified by Cezar’s and Dottie’s marriage. He’s convinced of his own superiority and claim for fame.
Otherwise, the story has rather enjoyable characters: Maurice Desor, a Socialist who wants to work for Agassiz while he tries to rouse the professor’s employees into a mutiny against the capitalist oppressors, Agassiz’s second Edward Desor who is trying to usurp the professor’s place, the loyal Dottie, and of course the villains who are rather maniacal themselves.
Walt and Emily is about Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Emily’s brother Austin is determined to find a way to communicate with his two aborted children. He met the Spiritualist Madam Hrose Selavy who claims that she can not only communicate with the dead but also transport the living into the land of Death, called the Summerland. This she does with liquid called ideoplasm which comes from her breasts. The journey is supposed to happen on a boat drawn by ostriches.
The usually withdrawn Emily is intensely interested in Whitman. Even though she’s skeptical of Madam Selavy’s talents, she agrees to hear her out and even to participate in a séance.
Whitman is a curious character with a booming voice and disdain for Victorian conventions. Emily is almost his opposite. Madam Selavy has two main companions who are convinced that they are doing science. Again, the characters are great and many things in the story are ridiculous. The story contains some poems from Walt and Emily.
Is it steampunk? It has more occult, things inspired by Lovecraft, and pseudo-science than science.
All in all, these are mostly good parodies of Victorian times. No doubt, people who know more about the times can get far more out of the book that I did. I did know, for example, that Queen Victoria and her Prime Minister where not lovers, though.