Imprisoned for life aboard a zeppelin that floats high above a fantastic metropolis, the greeting-card writer Harold Winslow pens his memoirs. His only companions are the disembodied voice of Miranda Taligent, the only woman he has ever loved, and the cryogenically frozen body of her father Prospero, the genius and industrial magnate who drove her insane.
The tale of Harold’s life is also one of an alternate reality, a lucid waking dream in which the well-heeled have mechanical men for servants, where the realms of fairy tales can be built from scratch, where replicas of deserted islands exist within skyscrapers.. As Harold’s childhood infatuation with Miranda changes over twenty years to love and then to obsession, the visionary inventions of her father also change Harold’s entire world, transforming it from a place of music and miracles to one of machines and noise. And as Harold heads toward a last desperate confrontation with Prospero to save Miranda’s life, he finds himself an unwitting participant in the creation of the greatest invention of them all: the perpetual motion machine. (Synopsis source: amazon.com)
Shakespeare’s The Tempest re-imagined as a steampunk fairy tale – I had high expectations for this novel when I picked it up, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Dream of Perpetual Motion is a beautifully written novel, as humorous as it is tragic and as meaningful as it is compelling. While Palmer gets a slow and somewhat tedious start, relating Harold’s first encounters with Miranda and his mundane work as a writer of greeting cards, he uses these pages to establish an imaginative and elaborate world that provides an excellent backbone for the rest of the story. Palmer’s steampunk London, while safely within the genre’s conventional confines, is unique in that it suffers the psychological and philosophical consequences of its futuristic technology. The Dream is a novel that questions the function of language using language, and it does so by creating a world in which technology has replaced talking. With the amazing technologies created by inventors like Prospero Taligent, real conversations are no longer necessary. People still communicate but they don’t really use language to do it anymore.
Who better to narrate such a world than Harold, whose job is to write soothing, meaningless platitudes that are mass-produced and given to people in lieu of actual letters? Well, for a start, Miranda, daughter of the man responsible for the loss of language. My main qualm with The Dream of Perpetual Motion is that it chooses a rather mundane, everyman narrator over a pair of fascinating and much more complicated characters. This is a narrative choice that offers Palmer a few conveniences in terms of story-telling, but forces him to sacrifice a first-hand investigation of a world that has abandoned language. Fortunately, Harold tells the story of the Taligents effectively enough that this is not much of a distraction. The Taligents are enjoyable characters even when viewed from an outsider’s perspective. Prospero – true to source – is a morally complicated and emotionally damaged man whose self-destructive tendencies make him a “bad guy” only in that he does not have the capability to make the right choices; Miranda is a naive and perpetually childlike woman who fails to recognize her father’s faults because she has no context in which to put them. Neither character is much like Harold or the rest of his society – but strange as they are, they exemplify the direction in which Harold’s world is going.
From this point on, the novel becomes not only a discussion of the role of language in relationships, but in defining what it means to be human. Caliban, a demented creation that Prospero considered a failure, records his experiences in a journal with more eloquence and emotion than that displayed by either Miranda or her father. So are they really more human than the mechanical monster? And in a world where technology can replicate human communication, is language a way to measure humanity anymore? As The Dream of Perpetual Motion builds to a complicated (somewhat muddled, in fact) and twist-packed climax, Palmer reveals that Miranda herself is the perpetual motion machine. Prospero’s greatest scientific accomplishment is his emotionally broken, psychologically disturbed daughter, whose isolation from the outside world has made her the perfect machine but the biggest disaster of a human imaginable.
Despite the few kinks in Palmer’s debut – The Tempest shouldn’t, I think, have been name-dropped within the narrative – The Dream of Perpetual Motion is a wonderfully insightful and entertaining read that I would recommend for fans of steampunk, Shakespeare, or good story-telling.