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The Dream of Perpetual Motion
By Dexter Palmer
St. Martin's Press
As I've mentioned here before, one of my favorites of all the new subgenres to emerge in the arts in the early 2000s is the so-called "New Weird," perhaps made most famous by Jeff VanderMeer in his now legendary anthology on the subject; it's essentially a catch-all term for the growing amount of post-9/11 speculative novels that don't really fit the narrow definitions of such existing genres as science-fiction, fantasy, horror, crime, supernatural and more. (And indeed, this is a particularly appropriate term for such books, being directly based as it is on the old "Weird" category of fiction from the 1800s, what the Victorians essentially called any speculative novel until the split into contemporary genres during the Modernist decades of the 1930s, '40s and '50s.) As can be expected, the quality of New Weird books in general can be real hit-and-miss; but definitely one of the "hits" right now is Dexter Palmer's stunning but literally unclassifiable literary debut earlier this year, The Dream of Perpetual Motion, which I just got a chance to read myself this weekend. Because when I say "unclassifiable," I really mean it; just going through my notes after finishing, for example, I found references to Willy Wonka, Frankenstein and other mad-scientist tales, steampunk, 21st Century alt-history, the Grimm Brothers, and even the complex verbal poetry we usually associate with more academic writers. (In fact, I think it no coincidence that Palmer received a PhD from Princeton in English Lit, and that his dissertation was on no less than comparing the work of James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon, which makes my head hurt just thinking about it; and I also think it no coincidence that this was published by the intellectual's friend St. Martin's Press, not exactly known for their sci-fi actioners.)
But of course, this leads us to the very first thing you absolutely must know about this book in order to have even a chance of enjoying it -- that despite the cover and all its marketing material, it's not a steampunk story, at least not in the way we conventionally define the genre, but is rather set in an alt-history version of our own times in the late 20th century, a speculative Earth that didn't see the Industrial Revolution catch on until long after it took place in reality, and with its innovations mostly being the work of a single individual, the brilliant but mysterious Prospero Taligent who's the very definition of crazed scientist (including living alone in a mammoth obsidian skyscraper in the middle of the New-York-like "Xeroville" metropolis where our story takes place). This then makes the development of technology progress in a profoundly different way in this alt-Earth, which like Terry Gilliam's Brazil actually creates a mix of steampunkish elements with contemporary touchstones -- it's a world where people now take for granted the ornate mechanical servants that dot the city, but where the idea of a machine that can do math by itself is still a miraculous wonder, a world where people still have telephone answering machines but where the messages are literally etched onto wax cylinders, and with the owner having to hand-crank it when they get home to hear what it says.
Knowing, then, that the book is deliberately supposed to be a cross-genre fairytale, deliberately told in a highly stylized way (think Steven Spielberg's AI: Artificial Intelligence...in fact, your reaction to that will largely inform what you think of this novel as well), it's easier to get into the spirit of the actual story being told -- the story of sad-sack greeting-card writer Harold Winslow, that is, who as the book opens is imprisoned on a cutting-edge zeppelin perpetually orbiting Xeroville (powered by the fabled perpetual-motion engine of the book's title), apparently as punishment for killing Prospero, with the rest of the novel basically a giant flashback to all the events that led to this moment. And it's this flashback story that is the main reason to read this book, for Palmer's extra-creative imagination and the thousands of stunning images he is able to conjure up -- genetically modified unicorns, handcrafted metal dolls, personal flying vehicles shaped like smoke-belching demons, the list just goes on and on and on. But like I said, the other main reason to read this book is for the exquisite language on display, a dense and formal style that sometimes reads more like poetry instead of prose, and will be just the ticket for you more academic literary fans who usually can't stand the pedestrian nature of most genre works.
Like I said, this book is most definitely not for everyone, as the rash of bad user reviews at Goodreads attests; if you're never able to get into the spirit of what Palmer is trying to do here, for example, or have no interest in the first place in reading this kind of story, there will be absolutely no way for you to salvage anything redeeming from your experience with the book, something that should be kept in mind before picking it up, and why today it's receiving a score that thoroughly acknowledges its genreriffic nature. But if you do happen to be a fan of these kinds of books (think China Mieville, the aforementioned Thomas Pynchon, and perhaps the most obtuse work of Charles Stross), it's almost guaranteed that you'll love The Dream of Perpetual Motion, the exact kind of complicated work that's made so many of us so excited this decade about the state of post-9/11 science-fiction. Caution should be exercised, but it comes highly recommended to those who think they might enjoy it, a good example of why such cutting-edge literary honors like the Philip K Dick Award were invented in the first place.
Out of 10: 8.5, or 9.5 for fans of challenging science-fiction