The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions
by Robert Rankin
Review by Gavin Pugh
Gollancz Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780575078734
Date: 09 September 2010 List Price £14.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
The mere idea of a Rankin-style Steampunk yarn has a virtually irresistible attraction does it not? He's been around for a good long while now, ladling out his own particular brand of wonderfully silly, yet compulsively readable genre buffoonery. This new one, The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions is now published by Gollancz. Robert Rankin is the stuff that cults are made of, for sure. Our correspondent Gavin Pugh gives us his view of this one elsewhere in this issue.
"The pickled Martian's tentacles are fraying at the ends and Professor Coffin's Most Meritorious Unnatural Attraction (the remains of the original alien autopsy, performed by Sir Frederick Treves at the London Hospital) is no longer drawing the crowds. It's 1895; nearly a decade since Mars invaded Earth, chronicled by H.G. Wells in THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. Wrecked Martian spaceships, back-engineered by Charles Babbage and Nikola Tesla, have carried the Queen's Own Electric Fusiliers to the red planet, and Mars is now part of the ever-expanding British Empire. The less-than-scrupulous sideshow proprietor likes Off-worlders' cash, so he needs a sensational new attraction. Word has reached him of the Japanese Devil Fish Girl; nothing quite like her has ever existed before. But Professor Coffin's quest to possess the ultimate showman's exhibit is about to cause considerable friction amongst the folk of other planets. Sufficient, in fact, to spark off Worlds War Two. "
There aren't that many people that can write genuinely funny fantasy but two author shine out - Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin. They are contemporaries, in some ways very similar and some ways completely different, and both had a huge influence in fuelling my teenage passion for reading.
I mention this as one of these authors I continued to read beyond my twenties and one I left behind. Rankin. If I'm honest I couldn't face reading The Sprout Mask Replica though I've kept it somewhere just in case I did in the future. At a rough count I've read 10 novels and started but never really got his Brentford Trilogy. I think what got to me in the end was the constant cycle of in-jokes and gags and I needed something fresh.
Well, The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions is most definitely something fresh! No stale fish here. Rankin presents his take on the after effects of H G Well's War of the Worlds, adding an injection of Victorian steampunk which all adds up to a rather impressive Rankin romp.
George Fox and Professor Cagliostro Coffin are showmen presenting the Celebrated Professor Coffin's Cabinet of Human Curiosities to the various crowds that attend travelling shows, but they are looking for a new attraction - one that could spark an interplanetary war - and to find it they take a trip on the airship Empress of Mars to Japan.
It's a wonderful playful take on the Grand Tour idea, adding into the mix, a quest, a love story, and spoonfuls of British Empire pride. You can loose yourself in the running gags like monkey poo and the name dropping of people like Babbage and Churchill, and the run-ins that George has with the waiter. And I have to say that Rankin's writing is never dark enough to be depressing, he does make you feel better the more you read and he keeps you thinking 'just one more page'!
Rankin is great at pacing and placing set pieces to amuse you. Not everything works but writing funny is hard and you have to to accept that things are funny because they are Rankin-esque. That isn't to say that you have to have read any of this stuff before but if you haven't, he does like to tell a tall-tale or two. And you just have to accept the truth as he presents it. There are some great footnotes reminding you that history is wrong about certain things - usually people's premature deaths.
The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions is one of the more accessible Rankin books I've read - he's dealing with new setting and new characters, though there is plenty of little nods and winks along the way to keep long-term fans smiling.
This isn't going to be a mind-blowing experience. It's going to be a mind-bending one. If you settle into it you get a complicated tale. Everything is set up for a payoff somewhere. He has characters you care about. He tells a story you've never thought of and won't find anywhere else. You smile a lot as you get sucked in and time flies.
And you know what? After finishing The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions I'm full of smiles and wondering if Rankin could give George Fox another adventure or two.