Warren Ellis is no stranger to science fiction. It’s a genre he has explored before in comics format – in works such as Orbiter, Ocean, Switchblade Honey and Ministry of Space, among others. Nor is he unfamiliar with alternate history, as Ministry of Space posited a British space programme following World War II. It could be argued that Aetheric Mechanics is actually steampunk. Certainly, it appears to be, as it’s set in 1907, but with “apergy”-powered flying machines and clunky giant metal robots. But steampunk is a meta-generic construct, a blend of tropes from worlds presented in other genre fictions. It almost never includes its own origin story – to steal a phrase from the other genre in which Ellis works. Steampunk tropes just are. Sometimes, there is some authorial handwaving to “explain” this new Victorian (or Edwardian) England – Stephen Baxter’s anti-ice in Anti-ice, aether in Colin Greenland’s Harm’s Way, for example. But often as not the reader is expected to recognise the origin of the tropes and accept their placement in a steampunk fiction as an expected characteristic of the sub-genre.
And from the opening page of Aetheric Mechanics, there are tropes a-plenty on view: the aforementioned flying machines and giant robots, but also flying ships held aloft by “cavorite”. Ellis, we soon learn, has thrown his net further afield. Dr Robert Watcham has returned from the Front in Britain’s war with Ruritania. His friend, Sax Raker, is London’s greatest detective. And Watcham is back just in time to help with ‘The Case of the Man Who Wasn’t There’.
An engineer specialising in aetherics was murdered outside the Royal Society by a man who flickered in and out of existence. Another body soon turns up, found in the mud of the Thames. Raker identifies some of the mud as belonging to the River Fleet. Present in the crowd watching the sleuth at work is Innana Meyer, Raker’s great rival, and the object of his affections. Raker spots her, and she admits she is now working for Raker’s brother in the British Secret Service.
As a vast force of Ruritanian aeroplanes begins bombing London, Raker, Watcham and Meyer enter the River Fleet’s underground channel to find the man who wasn’t there…
Ellis has played fair in the past, and he plays fair in Aetheric Mechanics. He’s not telling stories in science fiction settings, he’s telling science fiction stories. Which is where this “graphic novella” demonstrates that it is indeed pure-strain science fiction and not steampunk. There is an explanation, a reason why Watcham’s London exists. And why the story of Aetheric Mechanics could not have taken place anywhere, or anywhen, else. It’s a satisfying resolution to a tale which has already enchanted through its borrowings and usages.
Of course, no review of a graphic novella would be complete without mention of the artwork. And in Aetheric Mechanics, Gianluca Pagliarani’s clean black and white art is an excellent complement to Ellis’s script. The setting is recognisably early twentieth-century London, and yet there is plenty of detail clearly demonstrating that this is not the world we know. Pagliarani’s steampunk visual aesthetic is inventive without being derivative or obvious.
Science fiction and graphic novels have never made easy bedfellows – the visual invention never seems to match that of the story; or vice versa. Ellis is probably the leading authority in reconciling the two, and in Aetheric Mechanics he has shown once again why he holds that position.