Thursday, September 4, 2008


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.


  1. Hi - I don't know if you remember me, but I'm Susan Szews and I worked with you at Exide for a summer and then Bell & Howell for a year or two. You made a huge impression on me - I totally wanted to be like you! - so I have to thank you for your unknown (to you) influence in my stunning career success to date. That was sort of sarcastic. The stunning career success, not your influence.

    Gosh, I'm stammering in writing because I'm flustered. ANYWAYS. Sometimes I google search you, not often, I'm no stalker, but you're hard to find what with Fred Perry being a fashion company and all. Guess I got lucky today.

    In any case, hello! Nice to see you have a blog. I've got one too, here:
    in case you want to check it out and think I'm still as ridiculous as I was in 1999.

    Right now I'm the sys admin for our CMS (content management system) for all public safety documentation at Motorola - so the infrastructure that runs any police, fire, EMT radios in most of the US and EMEA. I'm allegedly supposed to be good at XML, Perl, VB, FOSIs, DTDs and other assorted scripts and blah blah blah, but we'll just see how that goes. I'm still new at that whole ballgame.

    My apologies if this feels like intrusion to you, though I hope it doesn't. My apologies, too, if you don't remember me. Just consider fan mail. :) It's great to read that you're married, congratulations!

  2. Well that'll teach me to look at my comments more often. I hope I haven't appeared completely heartless or terrifying by not responding, as that would be the last thing I intended.

    Of course I remember you, Susan. After circumstances caused me to have to leave Exide in an unexpected hurry, you provided me a lead at Bell+Howell and removed me from the rolls of the unemployed (which in turn led to my current employment at the world's largest privately owned software company!). Not to mention I considered you a friend--lunches in our really small eating area, discussing TV and books, and picking on Bart. Do you remember going to the fair and seeing part of a performance by the Commodores?

    As you can tell from my blog, I am now a world-renowned critic and thought leader by night, while during the day I am a mild-mannered documentaton team leader, a veritable wallflower (that's sarcasm folks!).

    Hey, did you ever get your Flash comic book appraised?

  3. Oh heck, your response wasn't late - it's Internet Time after all. I'm just glad I didn't send a comment to a blog that had just recently died or something. These days I pretty much live on the internet, so I'm well aware of time shifts and response lags. *smiles*

    I do remember the fair! That was one of the best times going. I also remember that you loved the Moody Blues and I didn't get it. Apparently I had to age some, because now I dig 'em too.

    No, never got the comic book appraised - I should do that one of these days. Maybe next time I make it to Raleigh. That will probably be in 2009 sometime. We should meet for drinks or lunch or something. I'll let you know in advance when I'm in town.

    My email is if'n you want to switch to email rather than comments in your posts. I believe I've read your entire blog now, and I have to say - you're pretty good at this book reviewing stuff. You even make me sort-of want to read the science fiction/fantasy genre. SORT OF. You can check out what I like at Just do a search for betawriter. In fact, if you google betawriter, you'll pretty much find everything. Wait, that sounds presumptuous. Hm.

    Anyways, yay! for you responding back. Hopefully we can keep in touch after a what? 10 year break?