Monday, April 29, 2013

A Dream of Perpetual Motion

I finished Dexter Palmer's Dream of Perpetual Motion a little bit ago, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around it and what it says about our world.  It was one of the best, most thought-provoking novels I've read in a long time (and that includes Cloud Atlas, much as I loved that book as well)

I'm still finding it difficult to write coherently about the novel, so, forthwith, some general thoughts...

Palmer has written a book with the trappings of steampunk, but A Dream of Perpetual Motion doesn't really have a steampunk vibe.  Part of that is the way that most of the trappings Palmer uses have an important thematic function rather than just functioning as stage scenery.  For example, the novel is full of attempts to mechanize what we normally see as things that make as human.  Most obvious of those is the mention that Prospero wants to create an artificial/mechanical soul.  But we also see the ubiquitous mechanical men as attempts to supplant human beings (with a specific mention being made that it might be more efficient to have them not look human, but then it wouldn't achieve the aesthetic goal of replicating humanity).  And, of course, Harold's job at a greeting card factory, making ersatz sentiments, ultimately reduced to parody when he and his co-workers are told to create individual rhyming couplets that can be strung together by someone else in different combinations to create new greeting cards.

One thing I think was really interesting is that Miranda is rarely described, except for having long hair.  We just sort of tend to assume that she's beautiful because she's (in some sense) the heroine.  When the sculptor finally mentions that, in fact, she was kind of ordinary and had bad skin, it's a call-out to the way we romanticize and objectify others, just as Prospero, in a much more horrific way, objectifies Miranda and denies her agency.

There's also a theme of noise-as-destruction that runs through the novel.  Harold's telling his sister about noise-cancelling waves leads to her self-destructive art project; the musical constructs that go insane near the end of the novel are producing noise instead of music; and there's a mention somewhere in the novel that we need to find the music under the noise of life so that we can connect.

These are really random thoughts about the novel, and none of them is particularly profound -- partly because Palmer does such a great job of twining everything together.  It's sometimes said that if you can summarize everything that a book is trying to say into a few paragraphs, then you didn't really need the book, and I think that Dream really demonstrates the truth of the saying.

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