The Dream of Perpetual Motion

Image of The Dream of Perpetual Motion
Release Date: 
January 31, 2011
Reviewed by: 

The Dream of Perpetual Motion is a steampunk fairytale set in an alternative twentieth century. It is the story of a reluctant hero, Harold Winslow, whose life is controlled by the mad genius, Prospero Taligent. Harold’s sad and dysfunctional family leave him ill-equipped to deal with the interest shown him by the powerful Taligent family. While Harold falls under the spell of Prospero’s closeted and lonely daughter, Miranda, her father plans to fulfill Harold’s heart’s desire—no matter what it may cost them.

Like most alternative histories, The Dream of Perpetual Motion is an allegory. The connections between the names of the characters and Shakespeare’s The Tempest are not coincidental; the discussion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses late in the book only really makes sense if you are aware that it was one possible source for the bard’s play. This novel is a literary work, and the allusions are important to understanding it. Not that they are heavy handed, but they are always present. Miranda’s ”brother” Caliban, is a monster, yes, but the ”beast,” imprisoned as he is in Taligent Tower—Prospero’s island in the city’s heart—is also part Ariel.

Like most allegorical novels, this one has a message. It is about us having taken a wrong turn, having spurned the lamented “age of miracles,” and having embraced an age of machines. Harold’s own father and Prospero Taligent suffer parallel but divergent declines into madness, one pining for the time when angels and devils walked the Earth, the other longing for a perfect future of progress and mechanization. Harold himself, an emotionally stunted writer of greeting cards, walks an unhappy path between the two extremes, studying creative writing yet putting his skills to use in creating ”modular” doggerel for use in cynically manipulative products.

It is, overall, a gloomy novel. The clanking, steam-spurting mechanisms—including mechanical men—and the heavily industrial nature of the city itself are oppressive. There are several dark and disturbing themes involving obsessive control, loss of ”purity,” a cynicism toward heroism, and a pervasive fear of change. Yet the book is not without humor—or, at least, whimsy. There is a deliciously brutal lampooning of feminist, post-modernist art criticism, and Miranda Taligent’s tenth birthday party almost turns into a pastiche of a Hollywood treatment of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The choice of steampunk as the style for the book’s background is itself, this reviewer suspects, an ironical joke—a world that has supposedly rejected magic has, in fact, embraced a magical, impossible technology, brought about by the wizard Prospero.

The Dream of Perpetual Motion is big-L literature, wrapped in steampunk fantasy, served on a bed of good old-fashioned hero-quest storytelling. It is an interesting synergy and a bold piece of writing (very good writing, too, by the way) for a debut novel, but this reviewer wonders if any of the potential audiences for literature, fantasy, or adventure stories will be wholly satisfied with it.