The Great Eastern
by Howard A. Rodman
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 4, 2019
I received an e-book ARC of this title from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The Great Eastern will be published in one month, June 4, 2019. It is an alternate history that combines real world people and events with fictional characters from two famous 19th Century novels.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a British engineer, considered one of the most brilliant and innovative of his generation, and for quite a bit of time afterwards as well. One of his first accomplishments was as assistant engineer, working under the direction of his father, of the first tunnel under the Thames River, which is still in use today. He also designed bridges, steam locomotives, complete railway systems, as well as several steamships. The Great Eastern was at the time of its launch in 1859, and for more than forty years later, the largest steamship ever built. Brunel died of a stroke shortly after its first launch, so he was not able to witness its first Atlantic crossing. The ship would later be used to lay the second transatlantic telegraph cable, with a fictionalized version of that event used for this book's plot.
Rodman proposes that Brunel's death was faked, his stroke and paralysis effected by drugs. A weighted casket is buried, but Brunel is spirited away by a man who has a grudge against both Great Britain and the telegraph. We later learn the name by which he is known to readers, but he is initially introduced as Prince Dakkar, from the Indian province of Bundelkhan, a survivor of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. His wife's death was indirectly connected to the uprising, with the prince swearing vengeance against the British. His objection to the telegraph was due to the fact it enabled organization and mobilization against the rebels, who as a subject race had not been allowed access to that technology. He kidnaps Brunel because he wants him to oversee the redesign of his ship, the Neptune. Brunel is resistant at first since he is essentially a prisoner, but the challenge of working on Dakkar's ship intrigues him enough to relent. More than two years later, the Neptune is rechristened the Nautilus. Dakkar now goes by the name Nemo, derived from the Latin, meaning "no man."
Another historic personage is Cyrus Field, head of the Atlantic Telegraph Company. The first transatlantic cable had been laid in 1858, but almost immediately exhibited problems. A second cable was designed, to be deployed by the Great Eastern, but Field felt he needed a seasoned sea captain to accompany the steamship to protect it, and hopefully determine what might have caused the earlier cable's problems. He hunts down John Ahab, whose first thought is the cable might have been severed by his nemesis, the great white whale, which on their first encounter took his right leg below the knee, and almost his life the second time. Little does he know that the Leviathan he now seeks is a man-made, underwater craft. Not only is Ahab still obsessed with the whale, he is also extremely prejudiced against the Great Eastern. To him a ship is made of wood and propelled by the wind in its sails. A metal ship run on steam is an abomination.
As far as I know this is Rodman's first novel, although I suppose I've read a short story by him, in the first Dangerous Visions anthology, although I don't remember it right now. He is a former president of the Writers Guild of America West, and has written several screenplays, and directed at least one television episode. It took a while to get into the rhythm of this book, but I eventually did and loved it. The style is anachronistic, not as dense as Melville, closer to Verne, but quite different than most contemporary literature. That alone might limit its appeal to today's genre readers, so I expect it to get more recognition from the mainstream. It starts in third-person, which continues sporadically, but other sections are in first-person, alternating from the perspectives of Brunel, to Nemo, to Ahab, later to one of Ahab's crew (not Ishmael). I've tried several times, but never got far into Moby Dick, and it's been decades since I read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, but this has made me want to read both, and rewatch the movie versions. I was already familiar with Brunel, but mostly from the 1975 Academy Award winning short animated film "Great". I should do some more research on his life and career. I rated this just 4 out of 5 stars on Edelweiss and Goodreads. The last hundred pages or so dropped my appreciation a bit, since they were anti-climactic, and the conclusion to one character's story arc was unbelievable. Otherwise ingenious and exciting. Recommended.
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