Review: The Dream of Perpetual Motion

I enjoyed Dexter Palmer’s The Dream of Perpetual Motion while I was reading it, found it moderately interesting, thought there’d be plenty to think and write about it.

Now, a couple of months down the line, it seems it hasn’t quite “taken” in my memory. Likely I’m just very tired at the moment, for a range of reasons. Likely, too, I’ve just bounced off it for mysterious reasons.

It’s steampunk, at least nominally, and so should be very much my thing. Narrated by its protagonist Harold, it’s the tale of how he ended up imprisoned in an airship high above the earth, with only the disembodied voice of a woman named Miranda and a rapidly failing perpetual motion machine for company. The tale takes in Miranda’s fantastically rich and controlling inventor father Prospero Taligent, the grim travesty of a birthday party he throws early in his daughter’s life and his ominous granting to each of the randomly selected children who are his guests their “heart’s desire”. It’s a story of disillusionment and the corruption of meaning, the mechanisation of art and the ivory tower unreality of the rich.

It’s an anti-capitalist story, as far as it goes, figuring the industrial production that imbues Prospero with (eventually) near-despotic power as uncanny: in Palmer’s alternative world, mechanised labour is done by steam-powered mechanical men of varying degrees of intelligence. Prospero’s ultimate goal is to create a fully synthetic human, completing the displacement of the human by the artificial.

It’s an unusual treatment of steampunk, which tends to read industrialisation and mechanisation as progress and potential. I suspect part of the reason I’ve bounced off it is because it’s a little male-gazey: Harold’s interest in Miranda is somehow never about her but about an idealised version of her; the same is true of her father, literally, as a horrific late sequence in the novel shows. (Content warning for non-consensual surgery.) Steampunk usually is good at decent female characters (Gail Carriger’s Soulless, Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, let’s even throw in Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, why not), so perhaps it’s the departure from the genre that’s distracting me. This is steampunk being used as a literary device not a genre? Which is fine, but it calls for different reading protocols. And even if I’d read it as Literary, I don’t think I’d have been able to ignore the objectification of Miranda – I’m rapidly running out of patience with litfic’s treatment of women in general.

I might be tempted to read this again, though – it’s definitely the sort of thing that would reward re-reading, especially re-reading with greater attention. For now, though, it’s a case of wrong reader, wrong time.

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