Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Reviewed

Disclaimer 1: I won this book in a randomly drawn contest hosted by S. Jae-Jones on Twitter. Even though she's an editorial assistant at St. Martin's Press, the imprint that published the book, I don't think the contest was intended as a "give a book away to people who'll promote it" maneuver, even if I've been known to be wrong about people's objectives. However, since I did win the book and I did read it and enjoy it, I feel obligated to review it. 

Disclaimer 2: I tried to avoid spoilers but there might be some anyway. Ye be warned.

I put my name into the running for The Dream of Perpetual Motion because 1) steampunk and 2) allusions to Shakespeare, with 1a) requisite zeppelin. This is about all I knew going in. If I remember right, my brain put those ideas together and got "steampunked Shakespeare with action scenes!" 

Surprisingly or not, that's an incredibly inaccurate plot summary. A better one would be "man on zeppelin records his life story in a series of scenes and voices, and by doing so documents a society in transition". It's definitely a good book, but not fluff. It's a book to think about, to mull over, and to take slowly. I recommend it to anyone who wants a book that's more literary than fantastical and wants to have their conceptions of right, wrong, and sanity challenged.

Once I got past the initial "oh, so it's not a retelling of The Tempest", which took about a page, and got used to the bouncing times, perspectives, and voices (by page 20), I was hooked enough on the story that I had to find out how it ended, though not hooked enough to read it in one sitting*. The hints, allusions, and premise suckered me, and to a lesser extent so did the voices and the structure. 

I don't read a lot of literary fiction and what I have read has tended to be more or less linear and constrained to one or two narrators. The Dream of Perpetual Motion, in contrast, has at least six narrators/speakers**, who tell the story in first person present, third person limited, dreams, excerpts from media and diaries, recorded conversations, and other formats I'm surely forgetting. And it works, which I'll admit I didn't expect. I probably got a clearer picture of the characters and the world from reading the fragmented narrative than I would have any other way. I'm also pretty sure the structure plays into the big theme of the novel and allows for a lot of supporting symbolism that would otherwise be difficult to bring in—such as the stuff that crops up in the dream sequences.

The characters: I never really bonded with any of them, not even Harold Winslow, the narrator. I felt for him, Miranda, even Prospero and Caliban, but I don't think I really liked any of them. Possibly they were too true to life for me, with too few shining qualities or points of commonality. On the other hand, I did want to hit various people occasionally, which I've learned to take as a sign of good characters and good writing. If I can get worked up enough to want to stop a fictional person from being an idiot, or to stop a fictional person from hurting another fictional person, the author's done something right. So, the cast of The Dream of Perpetual Motion get my vote in the Well Done category.

The ideas: Since the book's mainly about ideas and challenging the readers', I should probably say a little about them. On one level, the story's a conversation between Good/Past/Simplicity and Bad/Future/Mechanization, though of course the people speaking for Future would have you believe it's Good. The conversation's never really resolved, which lets readers form their own opinions. In my case, I'm not thinking too hard about the ideas and not going out of my way to form a definite opinion. I have a sneaking suspicion that if I do, I'll end up not liking the results, or myself, because of how the juxtaposition of Past and Future ties into my Now. I think I'd have preferred a character arguing for a middle road between low-tech and high-tech, but I kind of get why there wasn't one.

Two minor points before I wrap up, because they go back to my initial expectations. First, the elements from The Tempest are there symbolically, to serve as a comparison of sorts between that story and this one. At times the story veers towards Tempest: A Tragedy, but I don't think it ever quite gets there. Second, I don't think The Dream of Perpetual Motion is exactly steampunk. It's got the zeppelin, the perpetual motion machine, the "mechanical men", and the heightened technology at the dawn of the 20th century, but I got more a sense of the Golden Age sci-fi futures, and Metropolis, than I did Verne and Wells***. It's not a bad thing; I'm just saying.

To reiterate: Good book. Recommended. Asks questions. Literary. Lots of symbolism. Good plot, too, though I didn't talk about that much because I didn't want to spoil. Not your average steampunk. Author to watch.

Story: 7/10
Execution: 9/10 

*It's incredibly rare for me to find a book that does that. Something about my ability to remember things forever, I think.
**I'm not entirely sure child!Harold, young!Harold, and zeppelin!Harold are the same narrator, or what is reported conversation and what is a new voice.
***They're always my baseline references, somehow.

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