Book review: Elizabeth Hand reviews 'The Dream of Perpetual Motion' by Dexter Palmer

(Courtesy Of St. Martins - Courtesy Of St. Martin's)
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By Elizabeth Hand
Wednesday, April 7, 2010


By Dexter Palmer

St. Martin's

340 pp. $24.99

Standardized testing has come under fire of late -- all those questions, and who makes them up, anyway? Surely, only a wizard could parse the shadings of meaning among, say, "prodigious," "wondrous," "extravagant" and "admirable."

It turns out there is a sort of wizard behind the words, a GRE/SAT test developer named Dexter Palmer, and he has written an extravagantly wondrous and admirable first novel inspired by "The Tempest." Palmer's "The Dream of Perpetual Motion" riffs on Shakespeare's play by setting it in an alternate America powered by Rube Goldberg engineering and overseen by the brilliant, mad Prospero Taligent.

Prospero -- "reclusive genius, the richest person in the known world, the inventor of the mechanical man" -- is head of a global concern that manufactures the automata, cameras obscurae, hydrogen-fueled zeppelins and clockwork orchestras that are as ubiquitous in Palmer's imaginary world as computers, the Internet and airplanes are in ours. He and his adopted daughter, Miranda, live in the immense Taligent Tower, waited upon by mechanical servants and surrounded by machine-generated vistas of tropical beaches and desert isles.

Like her Shakespearean namesake, Miranda has grown up without the company of other humans. But for her 10th birthday, Prospero invites 100 lucky children to a party in her honor, including the novel's narrator, Harold Winslow. In a scene reminiscent of Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," Prospero promises each child a gift: "Each and every one of you will have your heart's desires fulfilled." Harold, chosen to sit beside Miranda, wishes to be a storyteller. Prospero tries to dissuade him: "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."

Harold and Miranda are dogged by heartbreak and thwarted romance as they grow up, and Prospero's clockwork world gradually spins out of control. Imprisoned by the inventor in a vast zeppelin propelled by a motor "the size of a child's fist," Harold records the dreamlike events that brought him there and, by recounting them to us, achieves his heart's desire.

Palmer's publisher is touting his novel as steampunk, but the work it most resembles is Angela Carter's hallucinatory tour de force "The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman" (1972, released in this country as "The War of Dreams"), whose protagonist also makes his way through a nightmarish alternate future to confront a perpetual motion machine. Yet Palmer's vision is his own, with its Henry Dargeresque dream sequences and Crystal Palace cityscapes: an elegy for our own century and the passing of the power of the word, written and spoken. "This world will begin and end in silence," says one doomed character.

But not even a desert island is forever empty. As Shakespeare's Caliban says, "The isle is full of noises." In his airship prison, Harold eventually breaks his self-imposed spell of silence and utters the words that will renew this beautiful broken world.

Hand's novel "Illyria" will be published this spring.

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