the-aylesford-skull-book-cover[Titan; 2013]

With quotes from Criminal Man, Cesare Lombroso, trans. Mary Gibson, 2006

James P. Blaylock has had a long career as a major author of the fantasy subgenre of steampunk — novels written in a style that merges the Victorian adventure novel with historical fantasy and powers it with steam. He has written over thirty books, a number of which fall in a series centered on the adventures of Victorian explorer Langdon St. Ives. In an opening scene of Blaylock’s most recent novel, The Aylesford Skull, St. Ives walks through his club, where overheard conversations and narrative descriptions serve to locate the novel’s themes both historically and thematically:

[Two] mad doctors, who sat nattering away in Latin; one of them a wild-eyed French phrenologist and the other a crackpot criminologist from Turin University named Lombroso, whose work with imbeciles had impressed certain members of the Royal Society, especially Secretary Parsons, who was happy with the idea that the greater part of the world’s population suffered from imbecility.

St. Ives thinks to himself in a flippant aside that he is “currently inclined to include himself in that number,” in light of the spectacular failure of his recent case. The flippancy of this remark is obviously intended to distance the hero of Blaylock’s series from the “crackpot” theories of Cesare Lombroso, whose ideas about criminality were heavily based on the racist pseudoscience of phrenology. This distance is not borne out through the novel. The villain of The Aylesford Skull (as well as the earlier St. Ives novels), Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, remains a Lombrosian “type,” an evil madman bent on destruction for reasons beyond human ken.

Blaylock’s novel includes a grave robbery, a kidnapping, at least four murders, three failed rescue attempts, a dirigible, parkour, and Arthur Conan Doyle — not to mention magic, ghosts, and obscure references to Lovecraftian horrors. Dr. Narbondo intends to use the skull of his murdered half-brother — rendered powerful through occult means — to open a gateway to Hell in the middle of a London cathedral. He has also kidnapped St. Ives’s son, Eddie, though whether he intends for Eddie to serve as a new source for a magic skull or a blood sacrifice remains unclear. St. Ives, his bodyman Hasbro, a friend recently returned from the dead, Narbondo’s mother, a former circus performer, and an assortment of other characters (including Arthur Conan Doyle as a medical pugilist) race to London to thwart Narbondo’s plans. Unfortunately, it becomes evident through the course of the novel that Dr. Narbondo’s competence outmatches that of the protagonists; while the British Empire is saved, it is mostly through accident.

There is a penchant in writers of historical fiction, and especially historical fantasy, to construct their characters as antitheses to the predominant ideas of that time. These characters tend to be accepting, anti-racist, even feminist — whether they live in the thirteenth century or the nineteenth. They embody what we might consider today, with a gentle nostalgia, as the lost qualities of their time (chivalry, good manners, a delight in adventure, Victorian fashion) while simultaneously renouncing those qualities or institutions that most of us are happy to dispense with (arranged marriages, religious persecution, colonialism, Victorian fashion). Humor aside, dehumanizing theories of the past can and must fall under those renunciations.

Cesare Lombroso is known as one of the founders of modern criminology, but even social scientists of his time took issue with Lombroso’s diagnoses of criminal atavism. “If we compare criminals with the insane,” wrote Cesare Lombroso in 1876, “we find the former exhibit a similar or perhaps greater number of cranial abnormalities. . . . At the moment I will not go into all the reasons for these cranial abnormalities in criminals, but I cannot avoid pointing out how closely they correspond to characteristics observed in normal skulls of the colored and inferior races.” Essentially, criminals are born such, and commit crimes because they were “less evolved” than the rest of (white) society; furthermore, the skulls of criminals, madmen, and non-whites are fundamentally identical in their “abnormality.” It is easy now to disavow Lombroso’s ideas: put this blatantly, they are repugnant to us. The remnants of this discourse today, however, prove that the truth is not so simple. How many times have we heard in the past few months that mass murderers, for example, shoot up schools or theaters because they are mentally ill? “This isn’t about guns,” we say, “this is about mental illness in America,” despite the fact that those with mental illness are statistically more likely to be victims of violent crime than to commit it. This is not to say that the discussion about mental health care in the United States is not a discussion we should be having, but rather to point out (as others have before me) the hypocrisy inherent in calling for such a discussion only when those with mental illness can be framed as criminals.

Why bring this up now, in a review of what is, admittedly, a rather pulpy historical fantasy novel? I’ve alluded before to what I see as the social responsibility of genre fiction, and especially of speculative fiction, to live up to the progressive ideals of its own time. The Aylesford Skull is a fairly straightforward adventure story, but Blaylock’s attempts to situate his novel in a historical moment backfire. Dr. Narbondo, in the climactic scene, is given a chance to explain his motives — and this chance is foreclosed by the man himself. We are left only with his earlier confession to his mother that he remembers the day she stopped loving him. While some of the secondary characters are given motives for assisting Narbondo — largely greed — Narbondo himself seems to lack any reason other than madness for desiring to destroy the Empire, and possibly the world (no one, after all, knows what the effect of opening a gate to Hell in the middle of London will be). The “crackpot” theories of Cesare Lombroso, which situated the reasons for criminal behavior in atavism, or the savagery of an evolutionary throwback, are thus actualized through the narrative, rather than rejected by it. Criminal behavior, in Blaylock’s world, is prompted by madness or inherent evil, and his rejection of Lombroso’s theories proves to be mere lip service belied by the text itself.