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The Dream of Perpetual Motion (Playaway Adult Fiction) Hardcover – Deckle Edge, March 2, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Palmer's dazzling debut explodes with energy and invention on almost every page. In a steampunky alternate reality, genius inventor Prospero Taligent promises the 100 kids he's invited to his daughter Miranda's birthday party that they will have their "heart's desires fulfilled." When young Harold Winslow says he wants to be a storyteller, he sets in motion an astonishing plot that will eventually find him imprisoned aboard a giant zeppelin, the Chrysalis, powered by Taligent's greatest invention, a (probably faulty) perpetual motion machine. As Harold tells his story from his airborne prison, a fantastic and fantastical account unfolds: cities full of Taligent's mechanical men, a virtual island where Harold and Miranda play as children, the Kafkaesque goings-on in the boiler rooms and galleries of Taligent's tower. Harold's narration is interspersed with dreams, diary entries, memos and monologues from the colorful supporting cast, and the dialogue, both overly formal and B-movie goofy ("I'm afraid the death rays are just a bunch of science fiction folderol"), offers comic counterpoint. This book will immediately connect with fans of Neal Stephenson and Alfred Bester, and will surely win over readers who'd ordinarily pass on anything remotely sci-fi. (Mar.)
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Praise for The Dream of Perpetual Motion:
“Dexter Palmer has given us a novel that's magnificent and strange and maybe a little harrowing too; I don't know quite how he did it, but it seems to have something to do with his figuring out how to let words get out about and mean what they feel like meaning that day and yet at the same time be in a tempest too. Bravo for this beautiful book!”
--Rivka Galchen, critically acclaimed author of Atmospheric Disturbances
"The breadth and depth of Dexter Palmer's storytelling is exhilarating. He's written a smart, funny, sad, and beautiful novel, full of magic, mystery, mechanical men, and a delightful amount of mayhem."
--Scott Smith, New York Times Bestselling Author of The Ruins
“Like the majority of contemporary novelists, I have often fantasized about Jules Verne, Nathanael West, and Thomas Pynchon meeting up in some netherworld saloon and, upon discovering they have absolutely nothing in common save a mutual affection for The Tempest, agreeing to reify their enthusiasm via a three-way collaboration filled with zeppelins, androids, monsters, virtual islands, linguistic felicity, and state-of-the-art weirdness. And now I must thank Dexter Palmer for making my dream come true.”
--James Morrow, author of The Last Witchfinder and The Philosopher's Apprentice
“The Dream of Perpetual Motion is plangent, tender and sui generis: a steampunk The Tempest with the grim and rippling beauty of a fairy tale. Dexter Palmer is an ambitious writer, with vast reach toward the exploration of big ideas, among them what it means to create, the limits of the human body, and the uses and inadequacies of language. The marvelous kicker being, of course, that he has the moxie to do so in prose that sings.”
--Lauren Groff, New York Times Bestselling Author of The Monsters of Templeton
"Dexter Palmer has written a strange, passionate, enthralling first novel, a novel which is itself a kind of perpetual motion machine---constantly turning, giving off more energy than it receives, its movement at once beautiful and counterintuitive."
--Kevin Brockmeier, New York Times Bestselling author of The Brief History of the Dead
“In The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Dexter Palmer brings dignity coupled with an epic sense of fun to steampunk that I haven't seen since Jules Verne. Steampunk comes of age with this book.”
--Jonathan Maberry, author of Patient Zero
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This book is billed as "steam punk", but it is so CLEARLY not. Not even close. Sure, it takes place during some kind of weird 19th-20th century alternate reality, replete with rickety clock-work men and scientists wearing those strange goggles, but that does not make it steam punk.
I would consider this a Roald Dahl book for adults. Very ethereal and strange, filled with characters disconnected from their feelings and their bodies. The book has a lot of charm and atmosphere. It's almost enough to conceal it's lack of story. Really, very little happens. It builds and builds to an ultimate reveal (in fact, the whole book serves as foreshadowing to the very last line, so don't read the last page first, seriously). But personally, I don't think the last sentence really reveals much, nor resolve anything. Alas.
The book actually gets legs in the final quarter where you meet some interesting characters but they only live for a scene or two. It could have been a compelling novella if reworked. I'd pass unless you really dig a soup of steampunk, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Tempest.
This novel takes place in an alternate history in which the technology of the early 20th century was significantly more advanced than in the history we're familiar with. Some have placed this novel in the "steampunk" genre but the book does not rely heavily on anachronistic technology except for one element: robots (or in this case what the characters all refer to as "mechanical men"). The presence of robots apparently exists only to heighten the magic-like abilities of the main antagonist, Prospero Taligent...who has a daughter named Miranda...and a son named Caliban. Yes, all figures from Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Hence, the need for some kind of magic.
The basic plot is that Prospero is an extremely wealth techno-entrepreneur (and inventor of the ubiquitous mechanical men) who lives in his high-rise super tower with his adopted daughter Miranda. Miranda's something of an experiment for Prospero. His life's ambition is to raise her in a state of pure perfection, isolated and untainted by any of the messiness of Life. He does, however, introduce her at the young age of 10 to protagonist Harold Winslow. Precisely why he corrupts the experiment by introducing Harold, an unremarkable child from the poorer section of town, isn't really clear...beyond the need to have someone else narrate the story. Oh, and it's revealed right from the get-go that Harold, as an older man, is trapped aboard a zeppelin high above the city with Prospero's corpse and Miranda's disembodied voice piped through an intercom system. The story is narrated as a series of flashbacks explaining in the most roundabout way how he came to be in this odd situation. The story is more or less chronologically linear, running from Harold's youth forward through his adult life with only a few present-time interludes from aboard the zeppelin thrown in.
The premise was initially intriguing and Palmer's prose style is often promising, but the vast majority of the book consists of a series of rambling, dream-like incidents in which not a lot happens...or what does happen seems inconsequential, doing nothing more than offering Palmer an opportunity to opine on the dismal state of humanity. He seems depressed. Narrator Harold isn't really "there". Things happen to him, but he seems remote and indifferent. He never solidifies as an actual person. None of the characters do, really. Much of the dialogue is fantastical, ethereal and meandering.
A major section of the middle of the book has to do with a side character's art performance suicide which seems to do nothing more than provide Palmer with a platform for ridiculing impenetrably meaningless modern academic language, the type found in women's studies journals. Granted, this is an easy target for satire, but it seemed very out of place in this novel. (He also takes the liberty of briefly introducing himself as a character around this point. It drew attention to itself and seemed indulgent.)
The plot slowly advances as it covers the push-pull relationship between Miranda and Harold over the years. He seems intrigued by her. He seems to care, but she's a complete mystery. She goes through the motions of "liking" Harold but it's clear that she's so emotionally damaged by her father that she's incapable of honest emotion. Harold often says that he's bothered by a similar lack of honest emotions in himself. Frequently, these musings sound like author Palmer talking through his character, doing a bit of self-analysis.
The book doesn't get into high gear until the last 50 pages in which the crisis which ultimately leads to Harold's imprisonment aboard the zeppelin takes place. The plot finally moves forward. Substantial things actually happen and there are some great monologues by three characters living in Prospero's towering high-rise which reveal the missing details of Miranda's life to Harold. (Parallels with The Tempest again, I assume.)
In the end, there's just too much time wasted on dialogue that teases without delivering. I'd like to see Palmer's next novel because there's promise here. I just can't heartily recommend his initial offering.
I'm not kidding when I say that this book changed my life.
The author writes well, very witty and funny at times, sad and serious at others.
I have read this book 5 times and listened to the audiobook once. I can't get enough.