The Dream of Perpetual Motion

My fingers and brain are engaged with another project.

As usual, that means a retro review for you. This one is from March 20, 2010.

Review: The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Dexter Palmer, 2010.Dream of Perpetual Motion

Locked in an airship slowly descending to Earth, our narrator Harold Winslow tells us a story – his first despite years of writing verse for the “sentiment development division of the Xeroville Greeting-card Works”. And quite a tale it is, an explanation of why his lifelong love Miranda is also aboard , never to be seen or touched by him, and why her adopted father, the mad genius Prospero Taligent, builder of the airship, is also aboard in suspended animation. It seems the dream of perpetual motion in the sky, tended by mechanical men, is not to be.

It’s a story full of literary concerns with language and sounds and storytelling. Several characters quite deliberately set out to shape the narratives of their lives and others. And, of course, there are the frequent allusions to Shakespeare’s Tempest. The plotting is definitely along the literary genre lines. In the crucial finale of the novel, we have to stop to hear not one but four characters’ stories.

Science fiction and steampunk fans should not expect something truly novel. Genre images and icons are appropriated, but there is not a great deal of speculative rigor here, the working out of an idea’s implications no matter how inherently absurd that idea is. We have a dash of cyberpunk in a world run by corporations and with no nation states though we never go beyond the confines of Xeroville or hear of any other cities. This is an alternate history of the vaguest sort. We only know this world diverged from our timeline sometime after Shakespeare. It is only in the last two parts of the novel that we are introduced to anything approaching an inherently interesting speculation and that involves the nature of Prospero’s imprisoned son Caliban. There are mechanical men and steampowered “demons” and other interesting machines, but they are mostly there for drama and color and not deeply pondered as technology. Despite Prospero’s aestheticism, we don’t revel in their beauty with long descriptions.

And yet it works. I’m not a fan of the modern literary novel, but I liked this amalgam. Palmer welds the literary clockwork assembly to the chassis of steampunk and retro science fiction imagery. The solder he uses is interesting dialogue and humor. I think I detected Philip K. Dick’s influence on some of Prospero’s wackier machines – particularly the shrinkcab. Prospero’s frequently appearing henchmen Gideon and Martin are funny and sinister. There is a literal wielder of acid. And the section involving Harold’s suicidally creative sister Astrid and the spouting of a great deal of litcrit jargon was funny and seemed to be Palmer’s poke at a modern aesthetic that values discomfort over beauty.


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