Of all the Steampunk novels I have read until now, The Dream of Perpetual Motion is the strangest and most bizarre tale. If I had to sum it up in one sentence it would be this:
Shakespeare’s The Tempest set in a Steampunk world while Shakespeare was on a bad trip.
Mr. Palmer draws heavily on The Tempest in his novel, I also recommend everyone to get themselves at least somewhat acquainted with the plot of The Tempest and the protagonists and their role. Knowledge about this play adds a lot to the joy of reading The Dream of Perpetual Motion. The original features on several occasions and we meet strange versions of Prospero, Miranda, Caliban and Ferdinand. They are all protagonists in The Dream of Perpetual Motion to varying degrees of importance. Prospero has some resemblance to his namesake in The Tempest, but he is a dark version of the Shakespearian character. A technological necromancer more at home with devices and machines than humans and other living beings. Miranda shares the innocence of Shakespeare’s Miranda but this innocence also harbours a dark secret. Caliban, any closer description of Caliban would spoil too much so I shall have to skip him. Personally, I found him the most likeable of the Taligent family. Ferdinand is a character from the margins. We also meet other, strange characters like the drivers of shrink-cabs (taxis which also sort your psyche out) and a sculptor who for 25 years did nothing but portray Miranda. Now he is an obsessed and insane wreck and a chilling testimony to corrupted art.
The plot itself begins in the childhood of the narrator, Harold Winslow. He narrates the story from his cabin aboard a giant Zeppelin, the Chrysalis. We learn that as a child he lived in poverty with his father and elder sister in Xeroville and by fortune or fate his life became intertwined with that of the city’s ruler, Prospero Taligent, and his adoptive daughter, Miranda.
The story follows several strands, some in the recent past of the narrator’s life, some recollections of his childhood and youth, which makes the novel a bit difficult to follow at times but it all makes sense in the end.
All lines converge , all the riddles are solved and all the mysteries revealed. Although The Dream of Perpetual Motion is not the easiest novel to get through (my only point of contention), Dexter Palmer manages beautifully to draw the reader into the the story. Once one has gotten into the plot, it is hard to put the book aside.
We learn about the city through Harold’s eyes and as his life progresses it becomes clear that everything is not headed towards the scientific Utopia which is the promise the future holds when Harold is a child. Instead, we witness the decay of a society under the influence of too many machines and too much science and logic for its own sake.
In between there are almost dreamlike sequences when Harold recalls his visit to Prospero’s tower. The Tower is a strange and haunting amalgam of smoke, mirrors, strange inhabitants and high technology. It is haunted by Prospero’s dreams, both those he made real and his final dream, which eludes him almost until his death.
Prospero’s dreams are what is revealed to be the driving force behind everything in Xeroville. Prospero wants to be a benefactor, a loving father and a philantropist. But he cannot really understand his fellow men and all his endevours eventually end in frustration and horror. As the story progresses, Dexter Palmer starts paint a chilling picture of an increasingly alien and yet hauntingly familiar culture and society, dominated by a monolithic cooperation and its dictates on human lives. Reality itself becomes mutable just as it is inside Prospero’s tower. It begins with the seeping-in of casual insanity in places we do not expect and ends with the unravelling of Prospero’s and Caliban’s true nature and the final fate of Miranda.
Also, although I would hesitate to call The Dream of Perpetual Motion an action-novel, the tension never leaves the story. It always feels like there is a revelation, something marvellous, unexpected or horrifying waiting on the next page. When a revelation does occur, Mr. Palmer still manages to have it come from an unexpected angle and thus surprise us.
The Dream of Perpetual Motion to me is a moral tale of the wonders of technology gone mad, of human endeavours being corrupted by misunderstood motivations and ill-placed good intentions. It is a haunting and harrowing tale and it is not for the casual reader. This said, I believe it is already a classic and I would not be surprised to one day find it on a “required reading” list for a Shakespeare seminar. Dexter Palmer’s debut let’s him take a place among the masters of Steampunk literature. It is my hope that the somewhat open end of this tale leaves enough space for a sequel.