Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Dream of Perpetual Motion
by Dexter Palmer

I picked this book up off the new shelf expecting a steampunk novel, given the cover and the synopsis.  Oh, how misleading marketing divisions occasionally are.  This book, Dexter Palmer’s debut, is a hybrid book between literary fiction and science fiction, like The Time Traveler’s Wife is literary fiction mixed with fantasy.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I was simply taken by surprise.

The protagonist and narrator of the tale is Harry Winslow, a greeting card writer who has been imprisoned on a zeppelin, alone save for the disembodied voice of Miranda Taligent and a host of mechanical men.  At the novel’s opening, Harry has been alone on the ship for an entire year.  In a fit of boredom, and in a bid to not talk to Miranda, he writes his memoirs, starting when he was ten years old.  The memories he shares with us centers around his history with Miranda and her inventor father Prospero, leading up the present and how he came to be imprisoned on the ship.

Underlying the whole work is Shakespeare’s Tempest.  We obviously have Prospero and his daughter Miranda, but instead of being exiled they are exceedingly reclusive.  Harry is an extremely fleshed out version of Ferdinand, and Caliban occasionally pops up in excerpts from his journal that are quoted by Harry.  Instead of having underlying themes of magic, the novel centers on technology.  I should point out that while there are very strong ties between the novel and the play, Palmer is not retelling the Tempest.  The only character which bears a strong resemblance to the original is Prospero himself.

To me, this novel was not really steampunk.  But, then again, steampunk is not a very well defined genre, so perhaps you’ll find it wonderfully steampunk.  To me, steampunk is set in the nineteenth century, not the twentieth.  The novel, while it has a lot of technology going on, does not have specifically steam technology and not anything else.  Alternative steampunk histories usually freeze technology in the industrial revolution before Edison, Bell, and Ford change things drastically with electricity and combustion engines.  This novel has a lot of technology, like radios and electric lights, that don’t work on steam power.  There’s not a lot of exposed gear work, and the machines aren’t the size of a whole room.  In short, the novel is set in the twentieth century with early twentieth century technologies (aka, pre-computer).

Now, on the flip side, I found this book to be more of a dystopian novel like Huxley’s Brave New World or even Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  The main overarching theme of this book is how technology can divide us from each other and de-humanize us until we are little more than machines ourselves.  Prospero and Miranda are surrounded more by machinery than by humans, and Prospero is even obsessed for the early part of the book on making mechanical men and women.  As a result, Prospero raises his daughter in almost complete isolation from other people, to the point where at ten years of age she has only a loose concept of grammar because she never talks to anyone.  Harry is the most intriguing and important character to this theme.  When we first meet him, he’s also completely isolated from human contact aboard the zeppelin.  We see through his memories that as a child he was far more like what we expect children to be: he engaged with other people, got excited about things, and in general had healthy emotions.  As technology progresses throughout his lifetime, Harry and the everyday people around him become more and more emotionally distant from each other.  They become dysfunctional in every aspect of their lives, until they are the people we in our society would give major psychiatric treatment to.  By the time Harry enters the zeppelin, he is so devoid of emotion that he is not, and never has, grieved for the deaths of his sister and father.  Perhaps the only person you could say he cares about is Miranda, yet he spends the next year avoiding communicating with her at all costs.  Don’t worry; in writing his memoirs to us, Harry does deal with the fact that he’s become so detached from everything.

As you can tell from this review, the book is extremely literary.  There’s some light parts (including an incident that reminded me strongly of Charlie in the Chocolate Factory), but the point of the book is more to make you think than to entertain.  It’s extremely well written on all levels, and very readable.  It’s just not at all what I expected.  But again, that’s not a bad thing.


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