Before Jules Verne and H.G. Wells came onto the literary scene with their scientific romances, another genius inventor took the stage: Frank Reade, the 19th century whiz kid who tackled the globe with his fleet of electronic-powered vehicles in a series of popular dime novels. Scholars like Jess Nevins argue that Frank Reade and other Edisonades were the proto-sci-fi figures that influenced the steampunk subgenre today. If you ever picked up a classic Frank Reade story, (there are some available online), you’ll also find that they were very much pulp stories of their place and time, filled with adventure, innovative machines, juvenile writing, and the whiff of imperialist attitudes and racist stereotypes.
The premise of Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention takes these entertaining, if flawed, stories and turns them on their head for a modern audience. Authors Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett have played with history before in their previous book Boilerplate, where a fictional robot was inserted into actual history. This time around, though, Frank Reade touts itself as the “real life biography” of Reade and his family of inventor-adventurers, who were so iconic that dime novel stories (the actual pulp fictional tales) were written about their lives. This cute idea was a trend in dime novels: Buffalo Bill and Thomas Edison, for instance, got the same treatment. While the Reade family never lived, however, the feat that authors Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett accomplish is not just re-mixing fact and fiction, but writing it in a way that reveals the double-edged sword of glory during the Age of Empire and beyond.
Like in Boilerplate, Frank Reade starts off as the history of one family writ large, beginning with Frank Reade Sr, who started off building ships during the Civil War and then founded Readeworks, the factory where his famous vehicles were produced, exclusively for the family’s use. The book is packed with the authentic illustrations remastered in color, plus good use of the “historical” documents and photographs featuring the Reade’s various airships, steam-powered tanks, and elaborate submarines.
His son, Frank Jr., became the boy who dared to make the world his oyster. At age tweleve, he ran away from home to “chase Injuns” in the American West, and from then on, he traveled from the Middle East to the Artic Circle to the jungles of Africa and the South Pacific, looking for buried treasure or a good fight. Undoubtedly, Frank Jr.’s treasure-hunting and epic battles against foreign powers and non-Western natives alike has a darker side, and the ramifications of Frank Jr.’s actions are woven through the book with a biographer’s retrospective commentary. The mix of messages created by coupling fictional adventures with real politics has a rocky execution. A lot of the counter-commentary to the Reade storyline, for example, was found in the tiny captions of many photos. These facts were probably meant to be sly asides to the attentive reader, but I thought they came off as gestures that could easily be overlooked. Later on, however, it becomes remarkably clear that not all of Frank Jr.’s travels ended with some new discovery or daring escape. The section where Frank Jr. visits the Belgium-controlled Congo that suffered under colonial terror which wiped out millions of people is one of the darkest in the book.
Since Frank Reade is a companion book to Boilerplate, Archie Campion and his Mechanical Marvel make an appearance as well, with Archie acting as the pacifist foil to Frank Jr.’s pro-imperialist ways. Other colorful side characters round out the cast, such as his headstrong daughter Kate Reade, who becomes an explorer and innovator in her own right, and his travel companions Barney O’Shea and Pompei du Sable.
Excerpts from actual Frank Reade Jr.. stories give the reader an interesting comparison between the fictional Frank from the dime novels and the Frank that Guinan and Bennett create. Interesting moments in the book also show how the inventor’s original portrayal contained shades of complexity. One telling excerpt reveals the government oppression towards the Apache tribe he was sent to fight, and another takes a political turn when Frank states that his technological know-how must remain a secret for the good of the world:
“Then you do not intend to give the discovery to the world?”
“No sir.” The answer was emphatic.
“Why not?” asked the friend in surprise. “What could be the harm?”
“It would be incalculable. For instance, suppose that the French government obtained first the secret of the air-ship from me? She would of course instantly proceed to pay back her score against Germany. Revenge is sweet. By means of the air-ship she could sail over the Kaiser’s dominions and raze every city with dynamite. That would involve Europe and perhaps the whole world in war.”
Not to say that Frank Reade is all about the SRS BIZNISS of highlighting the oppression that has marked world history. A sense of wonder and excitement about the Reade travels pervade the book. The illustrations capture the magical potential that readers then and now had associated with technological innovations of the age. And the Reade family comes off much more three-dimensional than their inspiration counterparts. In the end, though, I have to say that I enjoyed Boilerplate more than Frank Reade; smoothing out the tensions between fact and fancy reads a bit heavy-handed in this book compared to their tales of a wandering robot. Nevertheless, Frank Reade is a pop culture spin on historical fiction that takes more poetic license with their fictional sources than with our historical realities, and that I appreciate.
Readers can find more info on Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention on their website, which includes their book trailer, sneak preview pages, and more. Guinan and Bennett are also on book tour this month, and you can check out their schedule here.
Ay-leen the Peacemaker is the founding editor of the multicultural steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana. People can stalk her in academia or on Twitter.