The Dream of Perpetual Motion
By Dexter Palmer
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Dexter Palmer’s fanciful novel of a perpetual 20th century seems to divide steampunk fans. Depending on what side you fall, it is either the epitome of the genre, its tropes, and its devices, or it stands in stark opposition to what steampunk is meant to be as a genre. In a 2010 review of the novel, Mike Perschon wrote: “I didn’t enjoy The Dream of Perpetual Motion as a story, which is why I haven’t bothered with a synopsis. I appreciated it as modernist critique… However, as a story, I couldn’t wait to be finished so I could get back to something that was…well, my colleagues will loathe me for saying this, but…fun.”
Personally, I’d prefer to sidestep this dichotomy by saying that The Dream of Perpetual Motion was probably more consciously aware of itself as existing within what I have argued are the three narrative characteristics of steampunk, than any other novel or short story I’ve read in the genre. I know this statement doesn’t exactly come off as a raving recommendation, so before I delve into the real meat of the novel I want to go on the record as saying that I found it to be a deeply engrossing, and yes, fun read.
As I write this I realize that my definition of fun doesn’t always mesh with traditional notions. The term usually means something along the lines of “action-packed.” As a fan of superheroes, science fiction, and even hard-boiled crime, I am sometimes embarrassed to admit that I often tune out during scenes of prolonged action. Nine times out of ten it’s clear how the conflict will resolve itself in these scenes: there is a good guy and a bad guy; the good guy wins. I think action and adventure is what Cherie Priest was referring to when she said “if you aren’t having fun when doing steampunk, you’re doing it wrong.” I love her steampunk novels, but I would also argue that the only reason one gives a hoot about the action and adventure in her stories is because they serve to explore more layered narrative themes such as social stigmas, control of technology, and regional cultural traditions. Without these aspects of her thoughtfully imagined alternate history, all the steam engine standoffs and zombie attacks in the world would be for naught.
All of the genres I mentioned fall under that broad umbrella categorized as speculative fiction, and it is the speculation that is at the core of what makes them fun. reading action is passive while contemplating ideas is active. I have a lot more fun when my literature encourages an active reading experience, and thankfully there are many ideas to contemplate in Palmer’s novel.
The Dream of Perpetual Motion is set in an early 20th century characterized by a utopian retrofuturism reminiscent of the aesthetic of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. More than mere alternate history, the city is defined by a surreal anachronism (1st characteristic of steampunk) in which steam-power and clockwork industrialism coexist with 50s era repression and nihilistic post-modern art movements. Prospero Taligent, an eccentric and brilliant industrialist serves as humanity’s benefactor, but also its feudal lord, dictating the city’s future in exchange for its citizens’ fealty.
By a set of fortuitous events, the novel’s protagonist, Harold Winslow, is invited into the Taligent tower, a monolithic panopticon that serves as a reminder of Prospero’s infallibility, for the celebration of his daughter Miranda’s birthday. Harold and Miranda develop an unlikely bond, only to have it torn apart when Prospero begins fearing the loss of his daughter’s innocence. However, he has already promised to grant all of the guests at Miranda’s party their hearts desire before they die, and he still intends to keep that promise.
As we read the novel, we already know from the opening sequence that ultimately Harold will be taken prisoner by Prospero inside an airship powered by his last and greatest invention (2nd characteristic of steampunk), the perpetual motion machine.
Harold’s heart’s desire is to be a storyteller, and it is our assumption that the realization of that dream is connected in some way to his future imprisonment. The story unfolds through a nonlinear series of vignettes and monologues, it is devoid of the perfunctory explosions, chases, and battles that comprise many entries in the genre, yet its sense of endless possibilities confound the readers expectations over and over again. there is no rule set or internal logic to the technological landscape of this novel, which maddeningly drives the reader to work harder to decode one, even though it will inevitably them.
But at the heart of this constant barrage of deus ex machinas, is the conflict between Harold and Prospero. The world that prospero has engineered is one that he is the sole author of. As he says to a young Harold:
“In the past age of miracles there were indeed many professional storytellers who travelled from town to town, paying for their room and board with tales of the lands they’d come from, or lands they’d just imagined. But those days are gone, child, and this is the age of machines. Have you thought of what will happen to you if you want to tell a tale and no one can hear you or has time to listen? Have thought about trying to tell a tale in a crowded room, where everyone is shouting to be heard?
“Storytelling – that’s not the future. The future, I’m afraid, is flashes and impulses. It’s made up of moments and fragments, and stories won’t survive.”
The third characteristic of the steampunk narrative is a the struggle for control over technology, in Dream of Perpetual Motion, that conflict is represented by the ability to create and receive original narratives. Throughout the novel, the world is divided into two distinct eras, the age of miracles and the age of machines. In the age of miracles, people could manifest control of their own lives by assigning meaning and significance to the “miracles” of the world, while in the present age of machines, the technology that rules their lives is devoid of meaning, it is pure fact.
The novel, as an artifact, could be read as the triumph of miracles over machines. It represents Harold’s words, miraculously preserved for posterity in the face of the greatest invention, slowly, but inevitably failing despite the will of its creator.
Yet one can’t help but notice the unsettling lack of female agency in this world. Miranda, though she occasionally rebels, and expresses opinions and emotions, is ultimately reduced to a currency traded between Harold and Prospero. This issue is one of central to disputes over the genre. The era was defined by sexism and oppressive patriarchal power structures, telling stories within that context is, well, lame. But revising history to make it a more female friendly time is problematic as well. The best stories seem to explore the challenges honestly, I wrote about some of them here. For what it is worth, both images of patriarchy, the overbearing father represented by Prospero, and the daring rescuer, as Harold tries to cast himself, ultimately fail. The agents of oppression, in this case, both take a hefty critical beating, yet little hope exists for the object of their oppression, a subtext that could have been given a much louder voice. Perhaps, her story which will never be told in earnest, signifies the failure of both miracles and machines.