From Paul Di Filippo's "SPECULTATOR" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
Has steampunk jumped Captain Nemo's clockwork shark yet?
The genre -- succinctly described as a mix of archaic tech (either real or fanciful), the supernatural, and postmodern metafictional tricksterism, set in the consensus historical past or alternate timelines -- was first christened in 1987, a lifetime ago as cultural and literary fads are measured, in a letter to Locus magazine from the writer K. W. Jeter. Of course, the actual roots of the form extend back even further, perhaps as early as 1965, when a certain television show named The Wild, Wild West debuted.
Some literary styles and tropes wane with their cultural moment, but others have proved exceedingly long-lived, with writers continually discovering unexplored narrative possibilities within elastic bounds. Perhaps the best example is the Gothic, still with us today, and flourishing, despite being a couple of centuries old.
But steampunk has exfoliated beyond the merely literary, into the daily lives of its fans. Like Civil War re-enactors or medievalist members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, "steampunks" now include those for whom the novels and stories have been superseded by cosplay, crafting, music, partying, artwork, manga, anime, feature films, and the creation of props or working hardware. For every reader and writer of steampunk fiction, there are probably hundreds or thousands of other activists who gleefully embrace some non-written manifestation of the steampunk ethos.
Generally speaking, by the time a subculture such as steampunk secures the attention of major media, resulting in extensive coverage of the craze, said phenomenon is already on the way out. But despite numerous and growing features about steampunk in the national press, such does not seem to be the case, at least in terms of fiction. The juggernaut that is steampunk, like Dr. Loveless's giant mechanical spider in the 1999 film version of The Wild, Wild West, seems capable of crushing all naysayers.
Yet what of the literature itself -- now transformed into something of an appendage -- that spawned the movement? Has it exhausted all the radium bullets in its Gatling gun, or is fresh work still capable of surprising the reader?
Well, the latter half of 2009 proved to be a fine period for steampunk, and 2010 seems to be starting out likewise, with a new novel that manages to do some uncanny things with the genre. (As well, readers should be alerted to Steampunk Reloaded, a forthcoming anthology compiled by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer.)
For certain readers, a lightbulb of recognition will likely flare during the opening pages of Dexter Palmer's eccentrically fantabulous debut novel, The Dream of Perpetual Motion. Our hero, Harold Winslow (currently imprisoned in an ever-aloft zeppelin), is introduced as a nebbishy writer of greeting-card sentiments whose pre-work anxiety forces him to ride a "shrinkcab" to the office ("Shrinkcab's fleet of drivers are all rigorously trained in clinical psychiatry and licensed to dispense prescriptions…") amidst a landscape rife with mechanical men indistinguishable from humans.
Dexter Palmer has had the brilliant inspiration to meld Philip K. Dick with steampunk.
In a story that moves from one unpredictable moment to another (the author himself even makes a metafictional appearance), Palmer deploys all the trademark Phildickian riffs with wit and grace: the manipulative, demiurgic industrialist (Prospero Taligent); the devouring love interest (Miranda Taligent); the put-upon Everyman accidentally at the center of the storm. But the thrilling novelty is that they occur in a fully realized steampunk milieu (with a refreshing 1930s veneer: take the kludgy teaching machines young Winslow is subjected to, for example) evoking the creations of another off-kilter mind: Terry Gilliam.
The ex-Python gets too little credit as an outlier of the steampunk movement. Films such as Time Bandits and, essentially, Brazil, certainly share affinities with hardcore steampunk, and Palmer echoes Gilliam's method, moving his characters through an insulting, humiliating, and needlessly complex and hostile environment -- in this case, the city of Xeroville. But, as in Gilliam's films, it's also an environment that offers glimpses of magic and wonder: consider the Nickel Empire, a vast amusement park where every astonishing treat and improbable ride costs precisely one five-cent coin, and where young Harold's destiny is first intertwined with that of the capricious Miranda.
Crafting his prose as finely and evocatively as Nicholas Christopher or Mark Helprin, Dexter Palmer conjures up a new flavor of steampunk, showing us that there's a tumble yet in the clanking, hybrid Victorian bawd.
Read an Excerpt
THE DREAM OF PERPECTUAL MOTION
By Dexter Palmer
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Dexter Palmer
All right reserved.
Chapter One Hello? Hello.
Hello. My name is Harold Winslow. Yes. I need help.
Yes, I've used your services before.
Don't tell me everything's going to be fine. It's not. You can guess I know better than that.
I need help. This is one of my bad mornings. Some of the dreams I have are worse than others. This one isn't the worst, but it's bad enough for me to need your services.
I need to be taken to the Xeroville Greeting-card Works. I have to get to work.
No-no I still don't have insurance. I'll pay cash.
No-no I don't have a voice of my own.
But if you need a voice I can give one to you. It's the thing that I do best.
Chapter Two Some of the dreams I have are worse than others, and though the one I had last night wasn't one of those especially vivid ones that keep me riveted to the bed and soaked in sweat for a half hour after I've woken from it, it was bad enough to warrant placing the call for a shrinkcab. It is there waiting for me by the time I hang up the phone, dress for work, and descend to the lobby of my apartment building-except for the light on its roof, white instead of the usual yellow, it is indistinguishable from the hundreds of other cabs that clog the city's downtown streets each rush hour. The drivers of shrinkcabs usually make a gesture toward dressing a bit better than the usual cabbie, and as I slide into the backseat, I see that this one is wearing a starched shirt with silver cuff links-unfortunately, the intended effect is spoiled by a sleeve sporting scattered stains of ketchup and scrambled egg, the remnants of a breakfast sandwich whose foil wrapper lies discarded in the passenger seat.
Without a word the shrinkcabbie starts the meter and pulls off. Then, unconscionably, he turns on the radio, as if he intends to listen to me with one ear and the news of the world with the other. This is not the grade of service I expect. Periodic static interrupts a parade of voices as he twiddles the dial.
"-after fifteen years of marriage you can see her disgust whenever she looks at you. You know her heart's a block of ice."
"-full fadom five thy father lies, of his bones are coral made-"
"Hello out there! I just want you to know that I'm just like you, and, just like you, sometimes I have a little trouble holding things together."
"-but then you give her the greeting card. And she opens it, and she reads it, and the color comes back into her cheeks. And the smile spreads across her face that you haven't seen since both of you were young. And she bakes the casserole that you like. And she enters your bedroom and kneels before you.
"The Xeroville Greeting-card Works. When you need a reliable immediate intense targeted emotional response-"
"-those are pearls that were his eyes: nothing of him that doth fade-"
"-and I'm just like you. And between a seventy-hour workweek and a romance that's crumbling before my eyes, who can spare an hour to go to a therapist to get the help we all desperately need, every once in a while, to help us hold things together? To stave off the oncoming specter of insanity? Not me, I tell you! Not me. That's why, every once in a while, only when I need it, I pick up the phone and call a Shrinkcab. Shrinkcab's fleet of drivers are all rigorously trained in clinical psychiatry and licensed to dispense prescriptions, and will happily help you combine your necessary psychological therapy with your morning or evening commute for the maximum in twentieth-century convenience. Our cabs are handsomely upholstered in soothing colors and completely soundproofed for the ultimate in comfort. You just sit back, open up your head, and-"
"-our proprietary emotional-provocation technologies. Xeroville Greeting-card Works. The key to the human heart. The best in the business." -fffffsssssfffff-
"-sea nymphs hourly ring his knell. Hark: now I hear them. Dingdong bell."
"-relax. We'll help you hold things together."
I lean forward and tell him to turn off the radio in a tone meant to be peremptory, but the intended note of command in my voice has too much squeak and quiver. Nonetheless, after looking at me for a moment in his rearview mirror, he reluctantly shuts off the radio, leaving us in soundproof silence.
Then I begin.
Chapter Three This is costing me a lot, isn't it. By the time we make it into downtown Xeroville I will have spent two days' pay in cab fare. So I guess I'd better start talking, and get my money's worth.
My name is Harold Winslow. I'm in the sentiment-development division of the Xeroville Greeting-card Works. Right now we're working on Christmas cards. That's right-even though it's the middle of July, we're working on the Christmas cards for next season. Time is always out of joint in the greeting-card works. Outside the works heat-shimmers rise from concrete; inside the works it's ice-cold, that special kind of ozone-flavored cold that machines make, and we've got Styrofoam snow strewn across the floors and red and green tinsel hanging from the walls. For inspiration. You'd be surprised: it's hard to summon the Christmas spirit in the middle of July. We hired a group of dwarves to dress up in elf outfits and run up and down the hallways, carrying lovingly handcrafted wooden toys and singing high-pitched, cloying songs of holiday cheer.
I've become disillusioned with my job: that's part of my problem, I think. I am a failed writer. I went to a university, hoping to become a successful writer, but I failed. Miranda, back then, tried to tell me that terrible things were in store for me, for all of us. But even though she was wise beyond her years, she was still young, and so was I, and all of our words were drowned out by the noise of our beating hearts, screaming at us that we were, after all, creatures of flesh and blood. So instead of taking our only chance of escape, we went back to her magic island when we had no business there. In a life full of failures, that was yet another.
I'm a failed writer with no voice of my own. What I do at the greeting-card works is this: I try to guess what kind of voice a voiceless person would choose if he could have any voice he wanted, and then I try to speak with that voice. I speak the words of love and affection that people would speak for themselves if they could. If they weren't paralyzed. If their lips didn't lock every time they even thought of expressing their own love for themselves. You have seen them, drifting up and down drugstore aisles like ghosts, their hands shaking, their teeth grinding, their jaws locked as they try to find the words that say the thing they mean to say. They are blind and dumb. I don't know what they'd do if they were confronted with greeting cards that were blank on the inside. Paralyzed. Blind and dumb.
My special talent is greeting cards that are designed to be given by boys between the ages of nine and sixteen, when they are too old for naïve sentiments that tumble clumsily off the tongue, and too young for cookie-cutter blank verses about love that perseveres through ravaging Time. My masterpiece is a greeting card I wrote for the Father's Day season three years ago, a large two-dollar affair that opened out into three panels, illuminated on both sides in brilliant pastels. As far as greeting cards go, it was an epic. The text was in iambic pentameter. The son, the implied speaker and the person presenting the card, details a fantasy in which his father is a monster, and the son is a smaller version of his father, a monster as well. And the father and son do monstrous things together, like throwing around automobiles and knocking down buildings and breathing fire and biting the heads off innocent bystanders. Then on the climactic final panel, the son thanks his father for being a "monster of a dad!" and for making him a "monster of a son!" It was a big seller. It went into several printings.
I know what little boys like. Little boys like monsters.
I have a recurring dream that goes something like this. I am lying naked on my back in the midst of an endless field of poppies, staring up at a blue sky. It is dead quiet, the way it is never quiet in the world anymore, now that machines are everywhere. Even when you think a room is quiet, there's always some damned machine in it, making some kind of noise: plumbing; an air conditioner; a fluorescent lamp. But in this endless field of poppies it's dead quiet, as it must have been when the world was still young.
Then the virgin queen comes. I can tell she's coming because, although I still have my gaze fixed on the sky, I have also shifted it to look at the queen as she leisurely walks across the poppy field with their retinue trailing behind her, in that way in dreams that you can look at two things at once and see them both with crystal clarity. The queen is wearing a crystal crown that glitters in the sunlight, and an intricately embroidered dress shot through with threads of gold and silver. She is accompanied by several small boys. Some are naked; some are clothed. Some are dressed like girls, with long dresses and two pigtails tied with red ribbons. Some have human torsos, but haunches and horns and hooves, like creatures out of myths.
Then the queen stops walking and sits in the midst of the poppies and crosses her legs and smiles and laughs, and the boys assemble in front of her and begin to enact some complex kind of dance, taking slow steps, moving in interlaced circles, swaying their bodies to a rhythm that only they can hear. Then the queen turns to look at me, and it's just before I see her face that I wake up.
Waking up from the dream is the worst part. It always takes a few seconds. It's like ... suppose you were underwater and naked and running out of air, deep down where all the light's gone, and you have to come up for air. And you spend every last precious ounce of your life's energy in the effort to rise to the surface and take that badly needed breath, and just as your head breaks from the water you remember, too late, to your horror, that you are a fish.
Why don't you just let me off here. I'll walk the rest of the way.
Chapter Four In the morning, when the sun is rising, the building that houses the Xeroville Greeting-card Works is eclipsed by the long, yawning shadow of the Taligent Tower. The Tower is the uncontested dominant piece of architecture in the city, the defining element of its skyline, and it is owned by Prospero Taligent, reclusive genius, the richest person in the known world, the inventor of the mechanical man.
Prospero Taligent's tale is one of the last real entrepreneurial legends of the twentieth century. Not many people that anyone knows have actually been inside the Tower, a forbidding monolithic place with obsidian walls rising straight up to the sky, but it is said that Prospero endlessly walks the darkened corridors inside, that he never sleeps, that he has knowledge and talents that border on wizardry, and that miracles are commonplace within the Tower's walls. That there are manufacturing devices with tolerances so small that they can be used to make gears and pulleys and cranks that are nearly invisible to the naked eye. That Prospero's mechanical servants are so intricately and ingeniously constructed that they can play chess competently with masters of the game. That, at this moment, on the top floor of the Tower, a team of engineers and mechanical men under Prospero's direction are at work on the largest zeppelin ever made, a fantastic flying craft that will have a motor the size of a child's fist, and that this motor will be powered by the world's first and only perpetual motion machine.
And, of course, everyone knows about Prospero and his beautiful daughter, Miranda. How one of Prospero's servants found the toddler crawling about naked and grime-covered in a street in the red-light district and, moved to tears, brought her back to sanctuary in the Tower to sue for Prospero's help. How the never-married, childless Prospero fell in love with the girl on sight, used his considerable legal muscle to rescue her from her biological father, an abusive alcoholic semipsychotic schizophrenic gruel salesman, and adopted her to raise just as surely as if she were his own flesh and blood. How Miranda's playroom takes up an entire floor of the Tower, and that it contains creatures for her playmates of all kinds, both human and animal, both living and automatic, including, as the playroom's centerpiece, a breathing, warm, real, magnificent white unicorn.
I could confirm some of these myths if someone asked me to. When I was a child, I saw that unicorn and rode on its back. But now I am no longer a child, and that unicorn is dead and rotted away.
Chapter Five Ophelia Flavin was six and a half feet tall, and beautiful. "For the first time in years," she said, "I feel young."
Ophelia and Marion Giddings and I were sitting in the writers' lounge of the greeting-card works. Outside, in the city, it was stifling hot, the immense mirrors of skyscraper walls beaming down the sun's scorching rays on asphalt streets. Inside the greeting-card works Christmas morning hung suspended in glass.
Marlon slouched in a corner next to a watercooler, wearing a poorly tailored brown suit, the top button of his shirt undone, the knot of his faded tie loosened, lighting a new cigarette off the tip of the one he'd just smoked down to the butt. "I'm gonna suck some neck tonight, Harry," he said, "you mark my words. I will be sucking neck before dawn tomorrow."
Sugary Christmas music dripped from tinny overhead speakers. Reclining in her chair, Ophelia reached up with a long arm and absently plucked a long, glittering strand of red tinsel from the festooned Christmas tree behind her, pulling it down and winding it around her neck as if it were a feather boa. Ophelia's specialty was birthdays, especially the arbitrary lines that we've invented to separate youth from old age: thirty, forty, fifty, sixty. Jibes about the loss of eyesight; mean-spirited jokes about gravity's hands clawing at the bodies of once-beautiful women, stretching them like putty, twisting them out of shape, painting stomachs with marbled scars. "I feel young again, for the first time in years," she said sleepily. "This morning I had a dream of what it must have been like before the machines. There was a song that you sang when you were young. But only under specific circumstances. The rules were these: if you spotted a male and female alone in each other's company, frequently and willingly, you were to sing the song, immediately, without hesitation. I cannot exactly remember the lyrics, but the song itself was part accusation, part admonishment, part threat. It began with an insinuation, that the youths had been indulging in certain moderately erotic physical contacts in the false security of arboreal camouflage-"
"I want you to smell my neck," Marlon Giddings said to me. I was lying on a couch, staring at the ceiling with my gaze unfocused, trying not to think about the machine noises: the refrigeration unit in the watercooler; the hum of the air-conditioning units behind the walls that were doing their damnedest to simulate winter in the dog days of July; the hissing white noise submerged beneath the high strings and horns of Christmas music. "Smell my neck!" Marlon said. Suddenly I found that he was huddling over me as if he were about to embrace me, and the tip of my nose was pressed against the underside of his chin. I blinked.
"Do you smell that?" Marion said, standing up and taking a drag off his cigarette with a flourish of his hand. "That, my friend, is Love. That is why I'll be sucking neck tonight. A woman said I looked loveless, and she gave me Love in a bottle.
"This is what happened," Marlon said. "Listen. I was walking through a department store, and this woman behind a perfume counter, with too much makeup and the plumage of a peacock ready to mate, pointed her finger at me and said, 'You look loveless.' I spend a lot of time in department stores because they're good places to meet women. Women are very open to suggestion when they're shopping. Their defenses are down. I have a collection of name tags that I stole off the shirts of different workers in department stores. How I steal them is: I just walk up to a clerk all confused- looking like I need help finding something and the guy says, 'Can I help you?' and then I say, 'I'll take that!" and I rip the tag right off his shirt be- fore he can even blink. And he just looks at me thinking, what the hell, that guy just stole my name tag and now he's running away, what would he want with that, my shirt is ruined, that was a remarkably irrational act, and I am troubled. Meanwhile I'm ollie ollie oxen free.
Excerpted from THE DREAM OF PERPECTUAL MOTION by Dexter Palmer Copyright © 2010 by Dexter Palmer. Excerpted by permission.
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