Friday, April 9, 2010

What I'm Reading Now: Jay Lake's "Mainspring"

By Beau
What if the world as we know it wasn't subject to the unseen, untouchable laws of mass, gravity, and velocity but instead followed its normal helio-centric orbit by way of a colossal brass gear wheel encircling the equator of the earth along a Divinely-made brass track, with all the other planets of the solar system?  And what if the clock-work mechanics that kept the world spinning on its brass track around the sun were winding down and the earth was starting to slow and falter?
That is the premise of Jay Lake's clockpunk work, "Mainspring", set in a alternate, fantastical world of the early 1900's where the zeppelins and sea ships of the British and Chinese Empires battle for supremacy in Northern Earth while the colossal Equatorial Wall separates it from the exotic, mythological lands of Southern Earth.  Throw on top of all that a Christianity-like religion that had the Roman's crucifying the Brass Christ not on a cross but on a giant gear and wheel referred to as the horofix and we've got ourselves a novel, innovative story unlike anything, anywhere people have read before.

If one is "old school" then they would consider this kind of book science fiction however that term really only applies to books actually written about hard-core science and space-themed works.  Today everyone talks about the broad category of speculative fiction and all the sub-genres that have developed from it.  Alternate history, epic-apocalypse, cyberpunk, steampunk, dieselpunk, stitchpunk, and clockpunk round out deviating branches of a fascinating and growing library of reading within the speculative fiction universe.

"Mainspring" adds to this canon and could be one of the definitive works of clockpunk fiction.
The story itself is a simple quest-to-save-the-world story, where the protagonist is visited by what might be the angel Gabriel to find and wind up the mainspring of the world with a mythical item called the Key Perilous.  His journey ensues, leaving the comforts of a colonial New England still in the royal thrall of the British Empire and out across the world to find the Key if it exists, find where the mainspring of the world resides, and do what has to be done to fix the world, if he really was chosen as the only one who can.

I'm enamored of this story for several reasons.  It's a great adventure yarn to start.  The colonial-day setting which mixes the technology of the 1800's with the advent of a pre-Industrial revolution fits nicely together;  "electriks" are just starting to appear in the corners of the world but the majority of travel is via the zeppelin-like air ships of the Royal Navy. The journey is across a globe familiar to everyone since it mimics the Northern Hemisphere of our world and works almost as a delightful travelogue to interesting places, so much so that it had me looking them up and making my own map on Google.

Importantly, the characters and plot of the book are well written.  The protagonist and band of people around him have great struggles and interact with one another in believable ways that move the plot of the book along while building the story's tension.  Most notably, real historical figures are threaded throughout giving the book and the universe it is written in a strong bridge to our own history and make the leap into a more believable story that much easier for the reader.  It creates a foundation comfortable and familiar enough to not tax the brain in a way that takes away from the rhythm of the story itself.

But for me, the true gem of this book is the subtle and sometimes not so subtle religious context of the story.  I thought the idea of a Christianity-like religion based on a Christ seen through clock-work machinations was brilliant.  The weaving of brass, copper, gears, and mechanics into the religious and spiritual fabric of society imprints itself through the story in many little ways.  How would the Lord's Prayer read if it was written by a Brass Christ, one who was a clock-maker rather than a carpenter and Shepard?  It would start off as,
"Our Father, who art in Heaven 
Craftsman be thy name  
Thy Kingdom done
Thy Plan be done
On Earth as it is in Heaven"
The subtext that God's great hand in the creation of the World is so absolute and obvious that it cannot be denied and yet a whole foundation of people, the Rational Humanists do deny it.  It is they who must believe in and have unwaivering faith that the great Equatorial Wall with its enormous gear wheel running on the even larger, mind-boggling huge brass orbital track around the sun, is the work of something human rather than a Divine figure.  It turns the notion of our own religious beliefs backwards which I found intelligently written and thought out.  Who could look up in the night sky at the sun-illuminated brass track of Earth and Venus criss-crossing and deny God? Yet a strong contingent of seculars do and so a subplot of tension is built into what people of faith and no faith believe in and how they try to out-maneuver one another through direct and indirect means in the story.  Most interestingly, is the work of clock-makers in the story one that should be honored and held up as the proof that mortal men are their own creators or one that should be reviled as a heresy in trying to copy the work of God?  The story protagonist, as a clock-maker's apprentice, fits into an interesting niche of the story's philosophical approach.

Of course for me, the best part about a book I absolutely love, is that it doesn't end.  While "Mainspring" has a definitive, satisfying ending, Jay Lake leaps back into this same World in his next two book's, "Escapement" and the just released "Pinion" with a cast of bit players from the first book rounded out by new introductions in the later ones.  I'll be sorry to get to the end of "Pinion" if the author has decided he's told all the tales to tell form his clock-work world.

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