Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Get Mechanistic

If you've read this site regularly, you've heard the term "steampunk" used here and there, but here's a little refresher if you need it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steampunk

In Mainspring, Jay Lake has gone a bit beyond the typical steampunk world. His book is set in Victorian times, opening in America which here is still under English rule, but that's the least of what's unusual about the world compared to our own. The solar system in this book is purely mechanical, operating like an enormous clock. Each of the planets, including the Earth, rotates by means of gears and orbits the sun on a massive circular brass track hung somehow in space. The sun itself is a massive lamp in the center.

he story opens with Hethor, a clockmaker's apprentice, who is visited one night by a Brass angel calling itself Gabriel. Gabriel tells Hethor that the world's spring is in need of winding, and that he must find the Key Perilous which can wind up the world before everything grinds to a halt. As evidence of his visit Gabriel leaves Hethor with a silver feather. Despite some trouble in getting anyone to believe this tale and instead being accused of theft, Hethor takes it at his mortal duty to accept and carry out the task that God has apparently set before him. He commences a journey that will take him to the ends of his mechanical Earth.

Hethor's world is monumentally strange, full of odd men who form strange societies, bizarre and forgotten inventions, and everywhere, metal--springs and gears and plates and joints. But it is also a familiar one. For help, for instance, he visits the library at Harvard. He struggles with prosaic Victorian religious and sexual guilt. He finds his way often blocked by the simple class issues and politics so common to our world.

Driven on by both his faith in God and his empirical observations (Hethor is especially gifted at picking out the mechanical sounds that this wind-up Earth emits; he can hear its healthy ticking, as well as its painful groaning and grinding) he eventually finds his way aboard an airship, the Bassett, headed for the Wall, a massive structure wrapping the Earth's equator and meshing with the track upon which it circles the sun. On the other side of the Wall is an entirely different kind of world, one in which various humanoid creatures--some ape-like, some bird-like, and some really really tall--live more in tune with nature, both with its bounty and with its violence.

Mainspring is a great adventure. It's hero is anything but flashy, but he is stubbornly determined and you can't help but get behind him as he tries to do God's bidding even in the face of ridicule, imprisonment, mind-bending puzzles and deadly battles. But Mainspring is also an allegory which pits an intellectual, mechanistic, and puritanical view of the world against one which is organic, intuitive and magical. As Hethor negotiates these two extremes, his mind opens up to myriad possibilities of what God might be and how God might work.

It takes a bit of effort to get into Mainspring. The period-specific language is odd, a bit dense and distancing at times, but your effort will be paid off by fantastic imagery and enlightening ideas.

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