Saturday, January 5, 2008

Review of Mainspring -- Jay Lake

The fields of fantastic fiction continue to fragment as publishers, authors, and readers refine and assert their talents and tastes. Currently in vogue is the subgenre of steampunk, a strange mix of Victorian-era trappings with postmodern dystopian sensibility. The term is young and as a result, it is less than precise, having recently been applied to writings as diverse as China Mieville's Perdido Street Station and Christopher Priest's The Prestige. Here we have a new and popular offering in the steampunk genre: Jay Lake's Mainspring.

Hethor, an orphaned horologist's (clockmaker's) apprentice is visited by a clockwork angel named Gabriel and given a mission from God: to find the Key Perilous and wind the mainspring of the world:
The angel gleamed in the light of Hethor’s reading candle bright as any brasswork automaton. The young man clutched his threadbare coverlet in the irrational hope that the quilted cotton scraps could shield him from whatever power had invaded his attic room. Trembling, he closed his eyes.

His master, the clockmaker Franklin Bodean, had taught Hethor to listen to the mechanisms of their work. But he’d found that he could listen to life, too. Hethor heard first and always his own breathing, even now heavy and slow despite his burgeoning sense of fear.

The old house on New Haven’s King George III Street creaked as it always did. A horse clopped past outside, buggy wheels rattling along with the echo of hooves on cobbles. Great steam-driven foghorns echoed over Long Island Sound. The new electrick lamps lighting the street outside hissed and popped. Underneath the noises of the city lay the ticking of Master Bodean’s clocks, and under that, if he listened very hard, the rattle of the world’s turning.

But there was no one in the room with him. No one else drew breath; no floorboard creaked. No strange smells either. Merely his own familiar sweat, the hot-tallow scent of his candle, the oils of the house—wood and machine—and a ribbon of salt air from the nearby sea.

Was this a dream?

“I am alone.” He said it as something between a prayer and the kind of spell he used to try to cast in the summer woods when he was a boy—calling on Indian lore and God’s word and dark magic from the Southern Earth and the timeless power of stone walls and spreading oaks.

Finally Hethor opened his eyes.

The angel was still there.

It no longer seemed made of brasswork. Rather, it looked almost human, save for the height, tall as his ceiling at the attic’s peak, close to seven feet. The great wings crowded the angel’s back to sweep close across its body like a cloak, feathers white as a swan. Its skin was pale as Hethor’s own, but the face was narrow, shaped like the nib of a fountain pen, with a pointed chin and gleaming black eyes. The lines and planes of the angel’s visage were sheer masterwork, finer than the statues of saints in the great churches of New Haven.

Hethor held his breath, afraid to even share the air with such perfection. No dream, this, but perhaps yet a nightmare.

The angel smiled. For the first time it appeared to be more than a statue. “Greetings, Hethor Jacques.”

With voice came breath, though the angel’s scent was still that of a statue—cold marble and damp stone. Or perhaps old metal, like a well-made clock.

Hethor dropped his grip on the blanket to grab the chain around his neck and traced the wheel-and-gear of Christ’s horofixion. “G-g-greetings . . . ,” he stammered. “And welcome.” Though that last was a lie, he felt he must say it.

“I am Gabriel,” said the angel, “come to charge you with a duty.”

“Duty.” Hethor sucked air between his teeth and lips, finally filling aching lungs with breath he had not even realized he had been holding in the strangeness of the moment. “My life is filled with duty, sir.” Duty to Master Bodean, to his studies at New Haven Latin Grammar School, to his late parents and the church and the crown.

The angel appeared to ignore Hethor’s statement. “The Key Perilous is lost.”

Key Perilous? Hethor had never heard of it. “I . . .”

“The Mainspring of the world winds down,” the angel continued. “Only a man, created in the image of the Tetragrammaton, can set it right. Only you, Hethor.”
His quest undertaken in faith, Hethor immediately sets off to meet his destiny. The narrative begins in an appropriately Dickensian fashion: the orphan child, disdained by all those around him and trod upon by those in power, stumbles about in his quest, snubbed at every turn. But it is clear from early on that Greater Powers are at work, and slowly, miraculously, events lead young Hethor by turns toward the completion of his quest.

His adventures take him across a Victorian Europe, into the high staterooms of power, and into the lowest, darkest dungeons reserved for the blackest of outcasts. In true steampunk fashion, he soon finds himself aboard an airship, Her Imperial Majesty's Ship of the Air Bassett, bound for war to protect the Crown's colonial interests. The airship brings him to still more new and strange lands and into the company of friends and foes of startling variety. Eventually, with the help of many others, our intrepid Hethor reaches the mainspring of the world and finds his destiny.

Clockwork Wonder

The lavish detail with which Lake renders his tale is easily the best quality of the book. From the earliest chapters, we have a sense that we are there with Hethor, breathing the air and hearing the clockwork whir of a world "off track." From the mire-smirched streets of a London-that-never-was to the deck of an airship, we see sights that are familiar in a nostalgic, historical sense but wholly new in exciting ways.

Once Hethor is conscripted into the crew of the Basset, things really get interesting. The further we travel from the lands of Europe into the haunted seas of the south, the more wondrous the sights become. The heart of the novel is played out against a geographic feature not found in our world: the massive equatorial wall that forms the gear track which meshes with the orbital track around the sun. The descriptions of the miles-high construct are simply breathtaking. Upon the wall are countless microcosms of which we catch only glimpses--vertical cities, hollows of vegetation and strange inhabitants, even battlefields upon which Her Majesty's forces charge clockwork monstrosities the size of houses.

Hints of Something Deeper

The beginnings of the story are thoroughly grounded in theological themes and touch on matters of philosophical importance. Biblical references abound, and not only for period-authenticity. Hethor continually finds himself confronted with questions about the nature of God, the workings of our natural world and its relationship to God, and about man's proper place before God. The central conceit of the novel, that in this world, the clockwork universe is just that: a clockwork universe, and the "evidence" for a Creator is everywhere. There are philosophical materialists who explain it away using logic both appropriate to the period and consistent with the storyworld. Everywhere are hints that something deeper is being explored than merely Hethor's desire to fulfill his divine quest.

But here lies the greatest weakness of the novel. [spoiler alert] While fascinating questions abound in the first half of the novel, we find virtually no interest in exploring these questions in its second half. Ominous angel-like villains appear, further hinting that something interesting is going to be revealed about the antagonist and his purposes, or that Hethor is in for a worldview-shaking revelation, but no such event occurs in the book. All such questions are left behind once Hethor crosses the equatorial wall and encounters "The Correct People" in the dense jungles of the far side. He journeys with them to the pole where access to the mainspring can be found, and discovers that the Key Perilous is the love he has in his heart for his lover. Hethor is briefly granted divine power with which he rewinds the mainspring of the world and also resurrects his love. The climax of the book involves violence, suffering, and action, none of which seems to connect significantly to the larger questions raised by Hethor during his journey.

Jungle Love in a Clockwork Adventure?

In the second half of the book, Hethor transitions from one world to another, entering the jungles of the southern world. Here, he encounters the Correct People, with whom he journeys to the end of the world. The Correct People are a kind of sentient Lemur-people who dwell in lush jungle, untouched (mostly) by the western and European influences that dominate the northern part of the world. It is clearly Lake's intention to show us the unspoiled quality of the southern world in all its savage nobility. The Correct People have no leaders, no institutions, and virtually no taboos. They maintain a kind of faith in God and in his messenger, but no sense of traditions or religious behaviors of any kind. As a plot device, this could have been used as a contrast to the logical thinking of the northern world. But again, Lake seems more interested in the episodic progression of the plot rather than in engaging with the questions he raises.

In a bizarre turn of events, Hethor falls in love with a female of the Correct People in all her Lemur-beauty and savage charm. Here we find ourselves with very strange and graphic sexual description. Again, in a more complex book, might have been used to some effect to explore contrasts between worlds and societies. But with its unnecessarily graphic depiction and with the lack of meaningful connection to plot or theme, it comes across as merely perverse and voyeuristic.

For the Steampunk Spectator

Lake's Mainspring work remains a brilliantly imagined exploration of a clockwork world, a winsome creation of a clockwork mind. The vistas seen from the deck of the Airship Basset are worth the read. However, one cannot help but be disappointed in Lake's handling of his weightier themes. There are two possibilities in play here: the first is that Lake raised themes natural to his story, but did not have the craft to satisfactorily bring these questions to a narrative resolution within his own storyworld. The second possibility is that he deliberately raised the questions and intentionally left them unanswered as a philosophical statement. This last is unlikely, since the shape and structure of his narrative does not support this sort of playful or querying ambiguity. Let us hope that the first is true, and that Lake will grow as a writer such that his ability to play with such themes rises to the heights of his vivid imagination.

Clockwork lovers, pick up a copy at the library and follow Hethor to the equator, savoring the sights there. But the discerning reader will want to put the book down shortly after Hethor crosses the equatorial wall, and trust to their own imaginations as to where Hethor went and what he experienced along the way.

Cross-posted to Fantastic Fictions.

1 comment:

preacherman said...

Thank for the review. I hope you have a great 2008. I pray that God will shower his blessing on you abundantly this year in way you have never thought or have even imaganed.
In Him,
Kinney Mabry