BY NICO VREELAND
[This awesome sci-fi novel is a C4 Great Read.]
Author: Dexter Palmer
2010, St. Martin’s Press
Filed under: Literary, Sci-Fi
These days, almost every new novelist’s debut work provokes a messy orgasm of praise from both critics and other writers (praise that often exudes a clinging desperation, the way I imagine drowning rats grab each other in hopes that together they might float). I was not surprised, then, that Palmer’s first novel came festooned with gushing blurbs and breathless capsule reviews.
But I was surprised that it delivered.
The Dream of Perpetual Motion is indeed “dazzling” and “endlessly inventive” and “an achievement” and all the other overused praise phrases. It’s smart, intricate, and superbly written, and it deserves every bit of acclaim it’s received. Whether you’re a sci-fi nut or a book club snoot, you should read this book. Let me tell you why.
In an alternate-history twentieth century, after “the age of miracles” ended when magic gave way to machines, 30-year-old Harold Winslow wrote greeting cards in Xeroville, one of the precious jobs that couldn’t be performed by mechanical men. Prospero Taligent, the city’s famous overlord, invented these ubiquitous mechanical men and developed newer and weirder marvels, such as a beautiful living unicorn that he gave to his daughter Miranda on her tenth birthday.
But all of that is in the past. In the present, Harold writes his life story from the prison of Prospero’s zeppelin (continually circling the earth, powered by a perpetual motion machine that might not be real), where he’s been trapped for a year after killing Prospero. The unicorn is “dead and rotted away.” Miranda taunts him with daily broadcasts from somewhere in the guts of the ship; Harold can’t find her.
Motion takes the form of Harold’s memoirs, bouncing among dozens of narrative threads and timelines and characters and episodes, because, as Harold says, “Any story told in this machine age must be a story of fragments, for fragments are all the world has left.”
These fragments comprise the novel’s biggest weakness, as the plot sags and drags in the middle, between the firework show of its opening, and the final act, when Palmer again crafts a third of an arc on which to land the narrative. The most riveting moments come when Palmer fits his fragments into a larger scheme, as opposed to largely non-essential episodes like the story of Harold’s artist sister, during which Harold meets the author, Dexter Palmer, at a party.
But even the non-sequitur fragments make for worthwhile reading, as they illuminate each other and the characters around them.
[MINOR SPOILER BELOW—to skip it, click here]
For instance, take a trio of fragments involving the unicorn mentioned above. These occur over the course of several hundred pages, and the unicorn is never a central feature in the main story.
When we first hear of unicorn, it’s been dead for some time, a detail that both displays Prospero’s power (it’s known that he’s a mechanical genius, but the creation of a living unicorn borders on magic), and tells us that he’s lost it (he’s dead, after all, and his triumph is, too).
The next time the unicorn appears, it’s at Miranda’s tenth birthday party, when it is introduced to Miranda and the world. It was Miranda’s heart’s desire (a recurring theme involves the dangers of getting your heart’s desire), and it’s truly magnificent. This section is told from Prospero’s perspective, humanizing him as a put-upon man trying to entertain the children he invited to share his daughter’s big day. (Another theme is that Prospero loves Miranda to an unhealthy, suffocating degree.)
The final time the unicorn appears in the narrative, Prospero forces Miranda to watch as he drills a hole in a horse’s forehead and grafts on a fake horn. He wants to show her the dangers of her wishes, and the messiness of real, unmechanized life. Prospero is revealed as a monster and Miranda, of course, is horribly scarred.
There’s an amazing amount of detail and effort evident in this novel, and it’s a book that rewards attention and reflection. Not to worry, though: if you don’t pay such attention, it still entertains with ideas and beautiful prose, weirdness, acuity and wit. Like this quietly beautiful, musical sentence:
I can see clouds massed beneath the zeppelin as if they are the turbulent surface of a dreamed sea.
Or this weirdly, nerdily funny moment, when Harold loses his virginity to Miranda:
They argued for a a good half hour about which position to use, as each carried certain symbolic overtones of dominance and submission with which one or the other was uncomfortable. By the time they settled on a position (missionary, if you’re interested, because it allows the deepest possible penetration and contact between the males pubic bone and the clitoris, according to a radio program that Harold had heard one afternoon on the subject), Miranda had lost any trace of sexual arousal, and so Harold had to go through this elaborate business of foreplay (which he was already finding he hated) in order to get her “turned on” (to coin a phrase) again. So.
It’s both funnily surreal and an insightful reflection of real life, which about sums up the book as a whole. And, while Perpetual Motion‘s ocean of constellated fragments plumbs deep enough to write a dissertation about (regarding, say, the parallels to Shakespeare’s The Tempest), it’s also entertaining enough to make for a heady vacation novel. In other words, it’s a dazzling achievement.
Similar reads: The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway, for another outstanding sci-fi romp (although Harkaway’s is funnier and less intellectual). How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu, was a similarly gushed-over literary sci-fi novel, but it wasn’t nearly as good as Motion.