#CBR4 Maneuver #44 – The Falling Machine
Profile: Steampunk, Superhero Fiction
Summary: Taken from the back cover, “In 1880 women aren’t allowed to vote, much less dress up in a costume and fight crime…
But twenty-year-old socialite Sarah Stanton still dreams of becoming a hero. Her opportunity arrives in tragedy when the leader of the Society of Paragons, New York’s greatest team of gentlemen adventurers, is murdered right before her eyes. To uncover the truth behind the assassination, Sarah joins forces with the amazing mechanical man known as The Automaton. Together they unmask a conspiracy at the heart of the Paragons that reveals the world of heroes and high-society is built on a crumbling foundation of greed and lies. When Sarah comes face to face with the megalomaniacal villain behind the murder, she must discover if she has the courage to sacrifice her life of privilege and save her clockwork friend.
The Falling Machine takes place in a Victorian New York powered by the discovery of Fortified Steam, a substance that allows ordinary men to wield extraordinary abilities, and grant powers that can corrupt gentlemen of great moral strength. The secret behind this amazing substance is something that wicked brutes will gladly kill for and one that Sarah must try and protect, no matter what the cost.”
After Action Report:
Confession time. I accidentally left my Kindle at home over the Thanksgiving vacation and was forced to pick up some reading material in the airport. I wasn’t super excited about The Falling Machine, but it had a pretty cover. And I was in a hurry. Publishers, take note.
There is very little of substance to Falling Machine. It is a wannabe comic book that draws so heavily on its inspiration that there isn’t much left for the reader to discover. If you’re at all familiar with the steampunk genre, or the plot of Watchmen, you’re already covered most of the territory. What fills in the gaps is bland but inoffensive writing. On the plus side, there’s not much in the way of technobabble, but the science is so flimsy it might as well be a fantasy.
Falling Machine features three protagonists in more or less equal parts: Sarah, daughter of the masked hero, The Industrialist, who is a little too precocious for her own good, The Sleuth, a cross between the Batman and The Question, and the Automaton called Tom. When Dennis Darby, founder and leader of the Society of Paragons, is killed and a critical piece of technology stolen, the three protagonists find themselves at the heart of a mystery. Conspired against from within and without, Sarah tries to balance her father’s desire for her safety and her growing involvement in the world of superheroes and villains. The Sleuth and the Automaton, both members of the Society, are confronted with the grim reality that there may be a traitor among the Paragons, and that traitor is trying very hard to put Tom permanently out of commission.
The plot ambles along at a sluggish pace to accommodate the planned trilogy. It also conspires to make everyone who isn’t one of the big three look like a total moron. Every side character has been saddled with somewhere between two and six major personality defects, most of which are temper and pathological stubbornness. It’s so bad that even Victorian Princess Barbie/Sarah starts to look good in comparison. The pacing and short length means that we only get to the first big confrontation with the Big Bad by the end of the book, something most comics manage in two or three issues.
Superhero stuff normally gets a pass when it comes to science, since the whole thing is supposed to be built on some sort of supernatural foundation anyway. Of course Superman can travel back in time by running around the world really fast. But, either as a symptom of the setting, or because it’s a novel, the science in The Falling Machine comes off as incredibly hokey.
The core element for all the super tech is a substance called Fortified Steam, a fairly well used concept when it comes to steampunk. In fact, Steamboy, one of the icons of the steampunk genre used something very similar. But Mayer’s Fortified Steam is also responsible for the inexplicable sentience of the Automaton, which doesn’t appear to be stored in any physical way. Tom is also capable of near magical self-modification on the fly, up to and including jamming a Gatling gun into his arm socket and getting a working gun-arm. Even more ridiculous is the conceptual opposite to this super steam, Fortified Smoke, which mutates flesh and has electrical properties, but is otherwise ordinary smoke.
Part of the appeal of steampunk is the use of Industrial Revolution technology to accomplish Modern Era feats. When you base all of the steampunk tech on a piece of superscience, some of the draw of the setting leaks out. The challenge of coming up with ways for cogs, springs and gears to take the place of circuit boards and transistors is one of the things I most look forward too in the genre. I would even go so far as to say that The Falling Machine doesn’t quite fit into the steampunk niche anymore.
About the best thing I could say about The Falling Machine is that it isn’t terrible. It desperately wants to be a comic book, though I’m skeptical about that solving all of the book’s problems. The concept itself isn’t bad, but Mayer has handled it badly enough to ruin any of the intrinsic value. And that’s a shame, because steampunk superheroes sound awesome.