BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The story of how mild-mannered Harold became trapped aboard the airship of an evil genius with only a handful of robots, the voice of his unrequited love, and the said evil genius (now in suspended animation) to keep him company.
PROS: Steampunk is used not just for flavor, but also as a vehicle to give the story more meaning; lush prose; attractive, retro-futuristic world building.
CONS: Sometimes tries too hard to be Literary. Because of the diary-like telling, you never doubt where the story is headed.
BOTTOM LINE: This is not only a good steampunk novel, it’s also a book with more depth than one might expect.
I’ve been on something of a steampunk bender lately, the latest entry of which is Detxter Palmer’s first novel The Dream of Perpetual Motion. Whereas much of today’s steampunk stories are about the romance of the genre, Palmer also uses it as a vehicle to make a statement about technology, thus making it stand out for being one of the most Literary steampunk books around.
Plot-wise, it’s the first-person narrative of mild-mannered Harold, a greeting card writer in the early 1900’s retro-future of Xeroville, a city that’s straight out of Metropolis or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Harold is being held prisoner aboard the airship Chrysalis due to the machinations of evil genius Prosepro Taligent, who is also on board…though he’s in a cryogenic suspension chamber. Despite a small team of mechanical men, Harold’s only source of human(-like) companionship is his true love, Prosepero’s daughter Miranda, who may or may not even be alive as she only speaks to Harold through a series of speakers placed around the ship.
As you may have guessed from character names, The Dream of Perpetual Motion is based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This is one reason that the book comes off as Literary-with-a-capital-L, though Palmer’s lush and well-crafted prose should also be credited. It goes a long way towards creating the steampunk retro-future setting which serves as the well-drawn backdrop for his retelling. Having not read The Tempest, I’m sure I was missing some of the references that were undoubtedly peppered throughout the story, particularly the scenes that seemed “weird” and otherwise out of place. However, there was a noticeable reference to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice via a quote from a stranger named Shylock (encountered inside Miranda’s magical “holo-deck” playroom) who cuts himself with a knife to prove he is human, not mechanical, while he asks, “Prick me. Do I not bleed?”
This question encapsulates one of the prevailing themes of the story. The book seems to have something to say about the rapid advancement of technology and how we are losing our identities (our humanity? our purity?) amidst the noise of turning cogs, moving levers and escaping steam pressure. The mechanization of society means we are losing control of our lives, as reinforced through several of Harold’s dreams which are used excessively to paint scenes of symbolism. And that technology will fail us, as witnessed by the apparent failing of the perpetual motion machine that drives the Chrysalis. This is the message supported by the steampunk setting.
Delivering a message is also a hallmark of Capital-L-Literature. Palmer just uses steampunk to do it. Instead of using the future to reflect the present, Palmer uses a retro-future, an early 20th century powered by coal and steam. But there are times when the author is trying too hard to capitalize that “L”, like in the scene where he himself shows up as a character; or the scene in which a single sentence runs for a page and a half, listing the multitude of sounds emitted from a bizarre piece of performance art involving Harold’s estranged sister, Astrid. (This last one you can experience for yourself, as read by the author, on St. Martin’s page of book extras.)
To be sure, the steampunk flavor isn’t only used as messenger. There’s still plenty of tasty flavor in the foreground. For example, there’ a sequence about how, as a child, Harold came to meet Miranda. He wins an invitation to Miranda’s birthday party at the Nickel Empire, a magical carnival where every attraction costs a five-cent piece that was set up by the mysterious magnate Propsero Taligent. Harold’s invitation comes in the form of a whistle that, when blown at midnight, summons a mechanical, flying robot resembling a demon to Harold’s residence. Inside the huge Taligent tower in downtown Xeroville, untold marvels await Harold and the 99 other children invited to her party.
And these marvels are shared by the reader as well. The Dream of Perpetual Motion is not only a good steampunk novel, it’s also a book with more depth than one might expect.