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Blaylock, James P

Entry updated 22 January 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1950-    ) US author, born and based in California, whose first published sf was "Red Planet" for Unearth #3 in Summer 1977, and whose "The Ape-Box Affair" (April 1978 Unearth) (see Apes as Human) may be the first consciously Steampunk tale; his first books were two fantasies in his Elfin series, The Elfin Ship (1982; original version as The Man in the Moon coll 2002) and The Disappearing Dwarf (1983). The series, which includes the later and more assured The Stone Giant (1989), is remarkable for its geniality and quirkiness, and the general likability of most of the characters, even the unreliable ones. Though dwarfs and elves are featured, it is difficult to imagine a fantasy series less like J R R Tolkien's in tone, if for no other reason than its constant subversion of quest motifs.

A similar tone – variously shared by several other authors of the Pacific Rim – continued in Blaylock's next two books, which more closely resemble sf: The Digging Leviathan (1984; rev 1988) and Homunculus (1986; rev 1988), the latter being the winner of the Philip K Dick Award for best paperback original (coincidentally appropriate, since Blaylock was a friend of Philip K Dick during Dick's last years). It was by now clear that Blaylock's talent was strong, but sufficiently weird and literary as to be unlikely to attract a mass-market readership. Among his obvious and acknowledged influences are Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767 9vols), Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens. His earlier books in particular feature grotesques and eccentrics, whose fantastical relationship to the world is viewed with whimsical affection. The protagonists of later books continue to have crotchets and obsessions, but live in increasingly mutable worlds whose deep strangeness, as it were, transcends their own eccentricities, and their attempts – sometimes earnestly scientific – to make sense of things. The events of Blaylock's books fall into odd patterns rather than linear plots, though the later works have a stronger narrative drive. The Digging Leviathan, the first volume of what may be called the Digging Leviathan world, is set in a modern Los Angeles (see California), beneath which is a giant Underground sea (it may be the first Los Angeles novel to feature one, though it is certainly not the last), and some of whose inhabitants hope to penetrate the centre of the Hollow Earth, which serves as the primary venue for Zeuglodon (2012), where the entire inner reality may be the Invention of a man asleep, who may be a Secret Master, or who may not.

Homunculus, a kind of thematic prequel to The Digging Leviathan, and which also serves as the first volume of the Langdon St Ives sequence, is set in a Dickensian nineteenth-century London, and is likewise imbued with the spirit of scientific or alchemical inquiry, along with space vehicles, Zombies and the possibility of Immortality through essence of carp. Lord Kelvin's Machine (mid-December 1985 Asimov's; exp 1992), a direct sequel, carries on in the same vein; both have been assembled as The Adventures of Langdon St Ives (omni 2008). The sequence, which variously and lovingly explores Steampunk's initial and characteristic nostalgia for scientific method, continues with a group of novellas, The Ebb Tide (2009), The Affair of The Chalk Cliffs (2011), and The Adventure of the Ring of Stones (2014) – collected with two additional long stories as The Further Adventures of Langdon St. Ives (2016) – and River's Edge (2017), with at least one more to come; two full-length novels, The Aylesford Skull (2013) and Beneath London (2015), confirm somewhat St. Ives's resemblance to Sherlock Holmes.

These spirited concoctions are reminiscent of the less-benign work of Blaylock's good friend Tim Powers; indeed, Blaylock's Homunculus and Powers's slightly earlier The Anubis Gates (1983) – both set in an Alternate History quasi-animate London in which Urban Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] motifs are driven by magically efficacious steam-driven technologies in language also evocative of various pulp sf conventions – are generally credited with fathering Steampunk. Blaylock and Powers, in fact, share not only a steampunk vision and venue, but also certain characters, and their work as a whole could almost be regarded as comprising a kind of metaseries. The best-known character shared by the two is the fictional nineteenth-century poet William Ashbless, originally a joint pseudonym for poetry published while at college, later a character in various fictions, and the "author" of more than one pamphlet [see Checklist below]. Like many of his Postmodernist generation of writers, including Powers and another of his friends, K W Jeter, Blaylock has no interest at all in generic purity, mixing tropes from Fantasy, Horror, sf, magic realism, adventure fiction and Mainstream literature with great aplomb, as if it were the most natural thing in the world (see Equipoise; Fabulation).

Blaylock's later novels, beginning with Land of Dreams (1987), increasingly settle into a supernatural fiction default, with sophisticated glosses from other patterns of the fantastic in literature, and increasingly with a sense of some deep sadness magically averted, for the nonce. The Last Coin (1988), the most exuberant of the later works, features an ex-travelling salesman who turns out to be the Wandering Jew, and is anxious that the 30 pieces of silver used to betray Christ should be kept from the hands of a Mr Pennyman, who will use them for apocalyptic purposes. Land of Dreams is set in the same fantastic northern-Californian coastal setting as Blaylock's excellent short story Paper Dragons (in Imaginary Lands, anth 1985, ed Robin McKinley; 1986 chap), which won a World Fantasy Award. The Paper Grail (1991) is a quest novel, also set in northern California, mingling Arthurian Legend, Hokusai paintings, pre-Raphaelites and Steampunk technology. From Night Relics (1994) on, his supernatural fictions, some of them clearly imbued with autobiographical intensity, increasingly address what could be called – not at all frivolously – the Matter of California. The mysteries unravelled under south California in Pennies from Heaven (2022) are Equipoisally adjunct to the violence of Climate Change. But in these novels, which may be his best, he has travelled very far from sf. [PN/JC]

see also: Del Rey Books; Gothic SF; Great and Small.

James Paul Blaylock

born Long Beach, California: 20 September 1950




  • The Elfin Ship (New York: Ballantine/Del Rey, 1982) [Elfin: pb/Darrell K Sweet]
    • The Man in the Moon (Burton, Michigan: Subterranean Press, 2002) [rev vt of the above as coll: containing rediscovered original manuscript of the above plus "The Hole in Space", rediscovered manuscript of the first Langdon St Ives story: illus/hb/Phil Parks]
  • The Disappearing Dwarf (New York: Ballantine/Del Rey, 1983) [Elfin: pb/Darrell K Sweet]
  • The Stone Giant (New York: Ballantine/Del Rey, 1989) [Elfin: pb/Darrell Sweet]

Digging Leviathan

Langdon St Ives

individual titles

collections and stories

miscellanea as by William Ashbless

about the author


previous versions of this entry

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