This late in the day of the science fiction and fantasy genres, has it all been said? Depending on temperament, this is a question that can garner quite different responses. For some, brusque dismissal is sensible: novelty is not the point; there is nothing new under the sun anyway. For others, the question is an invitation to postmodern revel: what matters now is the dizzying potential for combination and reference. For still others—and Harold Winslow, the protagonist of Dexter Palmer's ambitious, nuanced first novel, falls into this category—the response may be anxiety, born of an inability to either ignore or fully accept the question, and a fear that the answer is yes. That is to say, fear that the age of story is over, that meaning has been rubbed away by repetition, and all that is left is noise and incompleteness. "Any story told in this machine age," Harold fears, "must be a story of fragments, for fragments are all the world has left." But there is also quixotic hope: "I still have enough faith in language," he writes, "to believe that if I place enough words next to each other on the page, they will start to speak with sounds of their own" (p. 4). And so he begins to tell the story he has to tell: the story of his life.
As promised, it begins as fragments, as though Harold can't quite find a way into his memories. A one-sided transcript of a telephone call; snatches of radio programmes; a therapeutic monologue delivered to the driver of a shrink cab; some conventional (if still divided into small chunks) first-person narration. This lasts until Harold realises he needs to tell the story of his childhood, at which point he switches primarily to third person, with occasional interjections from other voices, often through the inclusion of found documents such as diary pages or newspaper articles. Periodically, Harold will return us to where we first met him, where he is writing: the Chrysalis, a majestic high-altitude zeppelin. Designed by "that most prodigious and talented of twentieth-century inventors" (p. 1), Prospero Taligent; run by Prospero's mechanical men and other machines; flying over Xeroville, the city where Harold has spent his life; powered by what Prospero claimed is a perpetual motion machine; and haunted by the voice of Prosopero's daughter, Miranda. (The names, in a novel so explicitly concerned with finding life within story and story within life, are barely a surprise.) Through all of this, the background is filled in only in hints and snatches. But this is some kind of alternate world, clearly soaked in past dreams of the future, one that remembers an "Age of Miracles" when real magic may have been possible, and that has been transformed by Prospero Taligent's elaborate creations.
Harold's father recalls some of those miracles for his son: a toothless man, for instance, who restored a young boy's sight by placing a silver coin on his forehead. But nowadays (Howard's father sighs), there are only inventions, which unlike miracles have initiates. They can be figured out. He found the mysteries more comforting:
. . . they granted us permission, and in fact made it necessary, to believe in a God to Whom all mysteries had solutions. With belief in God comes the certainty that the world that He masters has an order. That every single thing in it at least makes sense to Someone. (pp. 36-7)
The process of transformation—how the world got from one state to the other—doesn't matter. What's important is that this is the world Harold has been born into, a place of disillusionment and confusion. ("The future's always ordinary by the time you get there," someone tells him later.) What we recognise is the path that Harold traces as an innocent in an experienced world.
It's a path that intersects that of the Taligent family at an early age. On a trip to the local Nickel Empire—a fairground filled with marvellous contraptions and exhilarating rides—the young Harold finds himself drawn to the Camera Obscura. Inside, from two men employed by Prospero, he obtains a whistle; when blown at the right time, the whistle summons a mechanical demon ("eight feet tall, its skin a red burnished metal, with shoulder blades that extend into large, delicate, batlike wings," p. 72); and the demon in turn conveys Harold, and the ninety-nine other boys to have received this twisted Wonka invitation, to the formally gendered fairytale that is Miranda Taligent's birthday party. Once there, the attendees are promised that they will, before they die, receive their heart's desire, which for Harold (we assume) means the ability to tell a story for a world that has forgotten how to listen. And Harold appears to be Prospero's favourite. Indeed, he is allowed to be Miranda's companion. They play together in the paradoxical, more-real-than-real landscapes that Prospero has created so that his perfect daughter need never experience the mess of the world; they talk of growing up, of dreams and story.
It doesn't last. Harold is ejected, and goes on to live a comprehensively normal—in the sense that it resembles the pop-culture image of a lower-middle-class American college student in our world—slightly melancholy life, culminating in a forgettable career as a writer of greeting card sentiments: "placeholders for thoughts that people didn't have the balls to think for themselves" (p. 249). (And a way for Harold to avoid writing anything that bites.) Eventually, Miranda re-enters Harold's life, and we're told the events that lead to his imprisonment aboard the Chrysalis.
The straightforwardness of this arc never becomes a drag on The Dream of Perpetual Motion, not only because it is told (until Harold finds his voice) out of order and in fragments, but also because Palmer makes the journey so very beautiful. His novel's central theme—the search for authenticity—is always clear, but the variations offered upon it range from the deeply serious to the frankly gleeful. (There is perhaps a comparison to be made here with a series like Justina Robson's Quantum Gravity, which also offers a rich stew of images and tropes, and shifts gears regularly and very adroitly.) All is artifice and automation, from Miranda's heart-stopping chambers, powered by the dreams of others, to a ludicrously elaborate mechanical orchestra; from the clattering critic-o-matic that rates students' cut-up reinterpretations of The Tempest to the extraordinary soundscape created within the Xeroville Planetarium by Harold's sister, Astrid. Palmer's control of tone, of register, is near-perfect, whether playing it straight, or whether shifting between sections to undercut the poetic-mythic with the mundane, as when Harold and Miranda first sleep together. Each change seems perfectly judged; each set piece well chosen and well executed.
Which is to say that the novel carries the sense that everything in it makes sense to Someone; which is, I think, the point. The Dream of Perpetual Motion is never unaware of what it is doing, and not averse to letting you know that it knows. Often, such interventions come from the novel's Caliban, imprisoned in Prospero's tower but able to listen in on every other room (except Miranda's), and pre-occupied with writing journals that (he is quick to tell us) contain much wisdom and profundity. "Ideas of the magnitude of those contained in these notebooks," he writes, "must be far too rich for you [. . .] must be leavened with cheap cardboard narrative to make it palatable" (p. 124). ('twas ever thus?) Perhaps most significant for our purposes is this claim:
People think they want to see the future. But do they not truly desire to see a past that never existed when they speak of this future? Do they in their old age not want to return to some misremembered pastoral childhoods, full of daisies and innocence, censored of its beating and suffering? (p. 270)
To read this in a novel as knowingly retro as Palmer's, with its art-deco machines and baroque inventions, is to know that you are being played with: to be asked whether it's good enough to just enjoy a familiar ride. (This late in the day, why are you reading science fiction and fantasy?) But it's also to know that whatever's coming will strive to break free from a narrative whose characters sometimes know their actions are nothing more than a repeat performance; from a narrative in which Prospero gives Harold Winslow his heart's desire, and uses his artificial (if not mechanical) daughter to do it. And to know that The Dream of Perpetual Motion is striving to say something in its own voice, to create meaning from old cloth, to find the song in the noise. Beneath the novel's adventurous exterior, you realise, beats a heart that is—depending on your temperament—either touchingly or frustratingly traditional. But either way, Harold is worth hearing.