Review: The Forever Engine

In 1989, Game Designers’ Workshop (GDW) launched Space 1889, a science fiction role-playing game dealing with the Victorian Era as pulp science fiction: jungles on Venus, canals on Mars, Verneian and Wellsian superscience, and a plentiful supply of bowler hats, derring-do and stiff upper lips. It was a labor of love by designer Frank Chadwick, but despite GDW putting a lot of supplements on the market in just one or two years, the game failed commercially and was discontinued. A pity for us enthusiasts, but Space 1889 remained alive on a smaller scale, with articles and supplements getting concocted on a fan-basis.*

Frank Chadwick is nowadays also a science fiction author and recently I got hold of his steampunk novel The Forever Engine. I read it in a week during my metro journeys between home and office. So, what did I discover? Well, this is not a story belonging to the game’s canon universe, even though there are numerous similarities; that quickly became obvious by references to the Confederacy having survived the American Civil War and the Revolutionary Commune ruling France since 1871. However, this “revisionist” approach is probably an advantage, because Chadwick gets free hands with making an exciting plot without having to pay too much attention to whatever facts have already been published.

Story Overview with Hopefully no Significant Spoilers
in 2018, history professor and Afghanistan veteran Jack Fargo of Illinois gets involved with a British time-traveling project. The endeavor backfires badly and Jack gets involuntarily catapulted back in time to the 1880s. However, it is not the Victorian Era “as we [or Jack] know it”, but another one with interplanetary ether flight, airships, Martians and other peculiarities. The puzzled Jack is arrested as a spy, but presents credible evidence for being an American scholar and a time traveler. The British powers that be therefore recruit him to a scientific investigation/undercover operation, in which the participants are about to face a James Bond villain. Jack joins the team with the hope of finding a way of returning to his beloved daughter.

Jack Fargo is, however, no Bond protagonist; he is a widower with a daughter, and he is scarred by war experiences and family tragedies. He has a sharp mind and good military skills, but he gets shot up quite badly during the investigations. His sidekick, Communard spy Gabrielle Courbiere, may look like a Bond girl, but she has a serious case of Asperger’s syndrome and a troubled past. Their adventures in London, Bavaria and the Balkans are portrayed in a gritty, almost noir manner.

Covert operations easily go awry in reality, and in this story they do, too; I appreciate Chadwick’s realistic approach to what nightly skirmishes are like and how gruesome it is for a human to kill or maim other humans. The final confrontation between Jack and the boss villain is cleverly set up and Jack must use wits rather than brute force to resolve an extremely dangerous situation. Nuclear bombs are our destroyer of worlds, but this place has other equally frightening weapons.

The expression “forever engine” refers to a machine built by the master villain with Martian technology, a contraption that appears to be a perpetuum mobile. The British scientists in the novel know that such devices are impossible and Jack, using his 21st-century science knowledge and clues accumulated during the adventure, manages to figure out how it really works and what threat it poses to humanity.

The villain is also a more complex character than one would expect, and despite being a brilliant scientist, it turns out that he is short on manpower and that he is a poor schemer. Ergo, he has high intelligence, low wisdom, to speak in role-playing terms.

My Verdict
I enjoyed The Forever Engine. Sometimes I was thinking faster than the protagonists and sometimes not. It is nice to be surprised when reading a spy/action story; at my age I have read so many that I am familiar with many tricks of the genre and its clichés therefore bore me. Here I was rarely bored, though at two-thirds of the running time, the story got sluggish for a while.

The supporting cast was a pleasantly diverse lot: a British army officer with courage issues, an tough and competent Afro-American sergeant of the Ottoman army (a former slave from South Carolina; all of it makes sense in context), a not-too-efficient Bavarian feldwebel, and an unpleasant Royal Navy commander. Plus an assorted collection of Britain’s brightest physicists.

Also, the Tolkienian ending was to my taste. (“It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”) The hero’s cup is filled with a bitter draught — Jack Fargo has to empty it before the ordeal is over.

My main disappointment was the absence of Mars and Martians. I hope Frank Chadwick will compensate for that shortcoming in future stories about professor Fargo: I want trans-planetary canals, teeming bazaars, eery temples, ancient conspiracies, and foul horrors beneath the two moons!

My verdict: four red planets out of five.

* My gaming group started a Space 1889 campaign in 1990 and we still keep it running, visiting its Mars for some adventures once a year or so. In the 1990s, I also wrote a few Space 1889 articles for Swedish gaming magazines such as Rubicon and Sverox. Read some of the texts in English here >>>

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