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Frank Reade: Like Forrest Gump, but with Steampunk!

Updated on October 16, 2012

"Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention" is an odd duck of a book. A fictional biography of a real nineteenth century pulp hero (in that the focus of this book was a character in actual dime novels of the latter half of the nineteenth century), this book also places its hero and his family in the middle of many famous historical events, from the Civil War to the run-up to the Second World War, showing how they affected events. Paul Guinan and Anina Bennet, the book's writers and visual artists, also bring Archie Campion and Boilerplate, the focus of their previous fake history book "Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel," into this story in cameo roles, which was an interesting decision that rewards people who have read the earlier book.

The book revolves around Frank Reade, Jr., a steampunk (well, electropunk technically) inventor whose airships and armored vehicles allow him to go on adventures around the world, often on the urging of the US Office of Navy Intelligence who used him to advance the United States' interests in various world conflicts (including tracking down the renegade Apache chief Geronimo, helping out during the 1905 San Francisco earthquake, and getting involved in the various Banana Wars in Latin America). This allows Reade and his family to meet many real-life people of the area, and have a role in various real-life events. In addition, Guinan and Bennet include excerpts from the original Frank Reade dime novel stories, on which this is all based, which was a cool idea, even though I was initially confused by this, and thought that Guinan and Bennet themselves had made up the dime novel excerpts themselves.

What results is an interesting mixture of steampunk nostalgia, science fiction, and historical fiction. Guinan and Bennet do a good job of incorporating their characters into the history of the times, and you could probably easily learn things about American colonialism, the slaughter of recalcitrant Native American tribes, and other such topics by reading this book.

This is a very interesting and laudable way of going about things, but it does result in one of the few major problems of the book: while Frank Reade and his family appear to have been involved in many world events, their presence doesn't change much in how those events play out, meaning that Guinan and Bennet have to downplay what the actual real-life actors did in the events they place the Reades in, which has some unfortunate implications. It might have been more interesting to go full alternative history, and see where world history would have gone had Reade and his family actually changed events, rather than have their presence cause the events recorded in world history.

All in all, however, I liked this book,. which was certainly an interesting concept. The quality of this book makes me want to read the earlier "Boilerplate" book (which I own but have not yet read), as well as the proposed future book that Guinan and Bennet have hinted at, dealing more exclusively with Frank Reade's daughter Kate and her adventures as a US government agent in the run-up to World War II. If you see this book and are interested in world history, steampunk-esque science fiction, or early pulp literature, this is something you should check out.


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