Tag Archives: sci-fi

The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer

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.

Recommended

Girl in Landscape by Jonathan Letham

At the age of 13, Pella Marsh loses her mother and her home on the scorched husk that is planet Earth. Her sorrowing family emigrates to the Planet of the Archbuilders, whose mysterious inhabitants have names like Lonely Dumptruck and Hiding Kneel—and a civilization that frightens their human visitors.
 On this new world, spikily independent Pella becomes an uneasy envoy between two species. And at the same time is unwillingly drawn to a violent loner who embodies all the paranoid machismo of the frontier ethic. (Synopsis source: amazon.com)

Most summaries of this novel will describe it as Lolita in space, but that is both inaccurate and unfair to the harrowing, beautiful masterpiece that is Girl in Landscape. Letham is clever enough to make a well-worn technique work when he uses setting as a metaphor for psyche – Girl is not only an intricate coming-of-age story but an inventive and enjoyable sci-fi novel. As Pella leaves behind the familiar comforts of her home on Earth – including, most notably, her mother – she ventures into a foreign, frightening new realm populated by imposing, alien creatures: outer space. But also adolescence. With her mother gone, Pella is left to navigate her new world and its strange occupants alone, save for the company of her detached father and childish brothers.

Acclimating to the planet of the Archbuilders has unforeseen complications. Namely, the surreal experiences that some describe as “indigenous diseases” and Pella herself describes as her “deer form,” so named for the small, feral animals that run invisibly over the surface of the planet. Pella, who is herself small and prone to feeling invisible, finds herself periodically slipping into a strange trance state in which she describes herself as unable to be detected and therefore privy to the arguments and accusations that are otherwise kept behind her neighbors’ closed doors. Though Pella’s vaguely sexual relationship with enigmatic outsider Efram Nugent forms one of the novel’s most darkly compelling conflicts, Girl in Landscape is primarily the story of a fledgling community on an isolated frontier and not of a couple with an age disparity issue.

That said, Girl is invested enough in its narrator to narrow its focus on her conflicts rather than those of the entire planet, a choice for which I was thankful. Girl in Landscape is one of those rare novels which takes on an organically adolescent voice without actually becoming a YA angst-fest. Pella is a sympathetic, engaging narrator whose characterization is strong, complex, and absorbing. Girl in Landscape is as much an extended work of portraiture (note the title) as it is a story, and by the time Letham brings his work to its thunderous conclusion, he has drawn a figure in whom we can see every dimension of earthly adolescence reflected back at us through the lens of otherworldly experience.

 Recommended

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

The City is inhabited by the recently departed, who reside there only as long as they remain in the memories of the living. Among the current residents of this afterlife are Luka Sims, who prints the only newspaper in the City, with news from the other side; Coleman Kinzler, a vagrant who speaks the cautionary words of God; and Marion and Phillip Byrd, who find themselves falling in love again after decades of marriage.

On Earth, Laura Byrd is trapped by extreme weather in an Antarctic research station. She’s alone and unable to contact the outside world: her radio is down and the power is failing. She’s running out of supplies as quickly as she’s running out of time. (Synopsis source: amazon.com)

The Brief History of the Recently Dead had the appearance of a soft sci-fi novel with literary inclinations, which caught my interest and urged me to look past its bland premise: a pleasantly mundane, purgatorial afterlife set against a harrowing, painful earthly existence. I was therefore disappointed to find that the most interesting thing about The Brief History turned out to be that rather uninspiring premise. The City is entertaining enough, but when the novelty of Brockmeier’s afterlife concept wears off, it becomes a dull read, in large part because Brockmeier fails to generate empathy for his already dead characters or insert meaning into their existences. There is no reason why the reader should care that any of these people still exist, or are doomed to soon not exist. They are not interesting human beings; they do not have fates, destinies, or concerns which need to be addressed.

Yet The Brief History is at its most boring when it chronicles Laura Byrd’s ill-fated trek towards death. As she slowly comes to the realization that an epidemic has left her alone on Earth, Laura questions her existence, drifts through a series of mundane childhood memories, and plays word association games. She also speculates about the role of the corporation she worked for in the epidemic, which is intended (probably) to create some sort of existential crisis but fails to do so. Laura is no more interesting than the people in The City. Alone, unaffected by the madness, genius, or tragedy that makes the internal journey of an isolated character memorable, Laura is like a performer who stands in the middle of a spotlight and does nothing.

The Brief History of the Dead fails most deeply when it forgets that a novel must give a reader some reason to keep going. In other words, The Brief History required momentum which it did not have. There is no suspense in The Brief History. There is no need for closure. No cliff-hanger. No mystery. And, though it appeared that there might be one near the end, no literary meaning either. It seemed inevitable that Laura would die. That when she did die, the City would probably disappear. I waited for that to mean something within Brockmeier’s grand scheme of existence, but it did not. Not a very satisfying conclusion to a novel that answers few questions and seems to pose even less.

Not recommended