Yes, this is another steampunk novel. And yes, it does involve zeppelins, mechanical men and a perpetual motion machine. But this is isn’t your typical steampunk story. For starters, it’s one big reference and homage to The Tempest. And it isn’t focused on plot or mechanical wonders for their own sake. It regards its own creations with a degree of suspicion. Instead, THE DREAM OF PERPETUAL MOTION is a collection of noise, music and images: it is best read not as a novel, but as a mechanically precise and complex collection of images, fantasies, dreams, music, narratives and ideas.
The story begins with Harold Winslow on the Chrysalis, a zeppelin powered by a perpetual motion machine and staffed by mechanical servants so it need never touch ground. Winslow is imprisoned on the ship with the disembodied voice of Miranda Taligent, a woman he barely knows but loves as the only thing that matters in his life. Also onboard is the corpse of her father, Prospero, held in suspended animation, the builder of the Chrysalis and the industrialist inventor of the mechanical men and other modern technologies that helped bring an end to the so-called “age of miracles,” a pre-modern era always alluded to but never defined. The perpetual motion machine is failing ever so slowly, and so Winslow decides to tell the story of his life: how he came to be where he is and what the strange world he inhabits --- well-named Xeroville --- is like.
What follows is a curious story told in fragments with mixed sources and a certain sense of mourning about the age of machines: “Any story told in this machine age must be a story of fragments, for fragments are all the world has left: interrupted threads of talk at crowded cocktail parties; snatches of poems heard as a radio dial spins through its arc; incomplete commandments reclaimed from shattered stones.”
The wonders of Xeroville are spoken of without a hint of wonder. And though we get hints that it’s a shimmering metropolis, it hardly seems that way. Prospero’s tower, home to Taligent Industries, soars above the rest of the city, whose inhabitants, fleshly and mechanical, scuttle about their daily affairs in a cloud of polluted noise. The mechanical men are strictly mechanical and incapable of thought --- even the robot therapy cabs that charge a premium to listen to their passengers’ problems and offer advice --- and the humans seem to do little better. It’s obvious this bleak landscape isn’t “the way things are,” but it forms an appropriate backdrop for such an impressionist story.
Winslow is employed at the greeting card works, an office/factory that mills out pithy poetics at Fordian efficiency. Life --- drunken, friendless, colorless --- sucks. And so he brings us to his childhood, back when the age of miracles was only a memory for the old, not a distant myth. His childhood, while not unhappy, seems devoid of a child’s wonder, until he is summoned by a smoldering mechanical demon as one of a hundred children to attend Miranda’s grand 10th birthday party. Winslow and Miranda meet, awkwardly, and are reunited when Prospero decrees Winslow leave his school --- run by embittered teachers and aloof teaching machines --- to receive private lessons in Miranda’s playroom, a pure white space that, thanks to Prospero’s technological magic, can be reshaped to look like anything. Here we see children act with all the appropriate fantasy. Its time is brief.
Winslow and Miranda are forced apart and together two more times in the span of the novel, and the interim draws us into the