BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Clockmaker Apprentice Heathor is visted by the Archangel Gabriel. Hethor is tasked with discovering the Key Perilous and re-winding the Mainspring of the world before it runs down and the Earth stops rotating.
PROS: Wildly inventive, filled with rollicking old-school adventure SF, Hethor is an interesting and sympathetic character.
CONS: Hethor escapes many deadly encounters, secondary characters not fleshed out, high body count and sporadically overly violent.
BOTTOM LINE: Mainspring is a wildly inventive novel infused with old-school adventure SF action. If you’re looking for something different that has lots of ‘sensawunda’, pick up Mainspring.
I’ve never read anything by Jay Lake before, as he only wrote short stories until Mainspring, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Happily, Mainspring is a terrific novel that delivers lots of SF action goodness in a big way. The first thing you notice about the story is the setting. Deism asserts that while there is a God that created the universe, He just set everything in motion, then retired to wherever He retired to, and let the universe run on its own, a ‘Watchmaker God’. In Mainspring, Lake takes this idea and turns it on its head. God as actually created the universe as gears in a clock. The planets orbit the Sun on a giant gear, known as the orbital track. Earth joins this track via its Equatorial Wall, basically a giant gear set at the equator that meshes with the orbital track. As the Earth rotates, this motion is translated into orbital motion around the Sun. I’ve seen Mainspring listed as steampunk. And while it is set during the Victorian era, and the British Empire does rule the Northern Hemisphere, steam itself isn’t a big part of life. Instead, clocks and gears as motive power is the main idea. I’d call it ‘clockpunk’, but that conjures the image of gangs of teenaged clocks hanging around corners, mugging people for their pocket watches. Horopunk or horolopunk just don’t sound right, so steampunk, with a heavy emphasis on clocks, it is.
The actual story itself revolves around Hethor, an apprentice clockmaker, who is tasked with re-winding the mainspring of the Earth before it runs down and Earth forever stops revolving. Within this grandiose setting, Lake tells a very personal story: With such gigantic examples of God’s existence as the Orbital Track and the Equitorial Wall, what place is there for faith in everyday life? Hethor starts out as a naive and ignorant youth, leaning toward Rational Humanism in spite of the examples of God’s work. Once charged with his task, Hethor embarks on a journey of discovery. Not only about the nature of the world, but also of himself and of God. As he progresses, he learns much about the nature of life, love and faith. Each encounter serves to re-enforce the seriousness of his quest and instills an unshakeable belief and trust in God and his work. Hethor even becomes a steampunk version of Neo from The Matrix, with great power over reality, but again, with a cool clock/gear motif. Hethor himself, while many times seemingly in way over his head, is an interesting and sympathetic character. Because he is a seeming innocent caught up in world-shaking events, we root for him to succeed in his quest and to grow as a person along the way. We see how much he has changed near the end when he makes a couple of difficult choices about himself and those around him.
As far as the setting, Mainspring is reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World. Hethor travels through many strange and exotic locales during his quest. The Equitorial Wall setting is very Lost World-ish in that it is miles high and is home to many strange and interesting societies. In fact, the top of the wall is the setting for a very cool scene in the book. Sidereal Midnight is the exact time when the gears of the Wall mesh with the gears of the Orbital Track. Lake manages to describe this event to make the reader feel like he is there, seeing the overwhelming sight and feeling the oppressive sound from the meshing. Very impressive and extremely cool. The other settings in the Southern Hemisphere are wonderfully different too and Hethor zips through them on his way to the South Pole and his encounter with the Mainspring. All told with typical adventure SF speed and style, but with a more modern feel.
The main issue I had with the book is a result of the choice to use adventure SF as the vehicle to tell the story. This leads to Hethor being involved in many deadly encounters, which he survives through luck or chance alone. Now, you could argue that Hethor is actually being helped through these encounters by God, a true Deus Ex Machina, but I think that interpretation weakens the faith and belief threads that run throughout the story. As it is, Hethor seemingly survives because the story needs him too. Secondly, the other characters in the book are introduced, get some page time, then are gone, usually killed. As it is, while there are some interesting secondary characters, they really don’t get a chance to be fully fleshed out and we are left wondering about them. This also leads to Mainspring having a body count only an early Schwarzenneger movie would love. Granted, many of these deaths happen off screen, or are over quickly. But there are a couple that are very violent and extremely graphic. So much so they jolted me out of the story. But the story quickly puts them in the rearview mirror and moves along to the next scene. One other thing I ought to mention. There is some ‘furry‘ action in Mainspring. If you aren’t bothered by Niven’s use of inter-species relations in his stories, this shouldn’t bother you, but it was unexpected and it did server to further the story of Hethor. Just something to be aware of.
The setting of Mainspring alone should vault this story to the top of ‘to-read’ lists everywhere. The fact that Jay Lake has created such an interesting, personal story to boot is just icing.