I received a copy of The Best of Philip Jose Farmer for my birthday last week and have enjoyed picking and choosing some of the short stories from the book. So it should be no surprise that Farmer is on my mind of late, especially as I finish reading Jay Lake's apparently ground-breaking novel. And not to take away from its originality, the comparisons to Farmer are increasingly easy to come by.
Lake has envisioned an Earth that is run by clockwork: sky-watchers looking up into the night sky can see the track that the Earth runs around on stretching off beyond the horizons. The equator of the Earth is a giant mountain range, on the top of which is brass gearwork, the teeth that allow the Earth to ride in the solar system track. The history of this Earth is somewhat different too, but not apparently because of the major change in physics. The United States feels much the same but is a colony of England under the rule of Queen Victoria. And England has dominated Europe and the New World so that its nemesis is China, which has expanded across Asia. The two world powers use stereotypical steampunk technology, the air filled with dirigibles and steamships. We are introduced to young Hethor, an apprentice clockmaker, at the pivotal moment of his life: he is visited by the archangel Gabriel, who tells him that the mainspring of the Earth is winding down and that Hethor is the one who must wind the Earth back up.
What a delirious and exciting paradox—the Earth is more obviously mechanical than the one we live on, and yet angels appear to its citizens. And as the reader works his way through the novel, he finds that magic works too, as a special affinity for the mechanical underpinnings of the world. So in some ways Mainspring sets up as the classic fantasy quest novel: our young hero, not knowing the power he has, sets off on a near-impossible task as he grows into his potential. And yet I often see the book described as steampunk, or a new subgenre called "clockpunk." It has elements of that as well, a thrilling alternate history of the turn of the 20th century that acts as a backdrop for Hethor's quest.
And so I am reminded of Farmer: creating a strangely different world (like The World of Tiers series or Dayworld or Riverworld) and then exploring it with a character who is a part of it and appears to know something of it but learns very much more through their adventures. And like those Farmer books, the world itself is probably the most important character, leaving the protagonist of the novel somewhat flat and never really fully developed, while the wonders of this world are given detail…enough to lead to more questions. And like some of the more classic Farmer, there is discussion of spirituality and relationships: Hethor finds that everything is different on the southern side of the equator, leading to his questioning everything he knows is "right."
The world that Lake imagines truly is ground-breaking, though, opening all sorts of potential for story-telling. And using the manner in which Farmer studies his strange worlds, whether intentionally or not, is a good pattern to follow. While the story eventually plays out much as one might expect, it is exciting nonetheless, its philosophical passages fascinating asides to the action sequences. And the potential is huge. I look forward to finding the sequel and seeing the ongoing adventures of the clockwork Earth.