Just finished reading a short novel from the 19th Century: The Huge Hunter, or The Steam Man of the Prairies, by Edward S. Ellis. I first heard of the book from Jess Nevins at a convention panel a couple of years ago. Nevins is the author of te Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, an exhaustively researched book full of fascinating stuff. According to Wikipedia, The Huge Hunter was the first U.S. science-fiction dime novel, and the first known example of an Edisonade, a story based around a brilliant young inventor and his inventions. The illustration at right is from another Edisonade, a Frank Reade Jr. adventure featuring an electric man, inspired by The Huge Hunter.
In The Huge Hunter, the genius inventor is Johnny Brainerd, a hunchbacked dwarf who builds a steam-powered walking robot that he drives like a train. He hooks up with some prospectors in the American West, and they use the steam man to pull a wagon and scare off Indians while they try to get rich from a lucky gold strike. The writing is stiff, and the plotting is less-than-ideal. For instance, at one point, a man appears who is the nemesis of one of the prospectors. He shows up for about two pages, and then he's gone, never to be heard from again, which is too bad, because his presence could have brought some real dramatic tension to the book. As it is, there's no real drama in the entire story.
Which is not to say it's plodding or boring. It's fast-paced, and there is a lot of action. But as far as action that requires commitment and sacrifice and involves true jeopardy and moral choices, there's none of that. The boy builds a machine, the prospectors fight through a series of adventures, and they live happily ever after. A fun, fast read, but not an absorbing one, or one could say, a dime novel, not a real one. But I'd like to read more like it.
In fact, this book directly inspired the Frank Reade series, in which Reade first builds his own steam man, and later builds an electric man.
If you're interested in more information, start here and here. You might also be interested in reading about the real-life inspiration for the steam man, here.