Category Archives: Sci-Fi Experience

The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer

The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer

St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2010

Read for the Sci-Fi Experience.  Borrowed from the library.

This is one of those books that I am not sure how to write about. I enjoyed it but had some problems with it.

Harold Winslow, held prisoner in a  zeppelin propelled by a perpetual motion machine, is trying to tell a story.  His only companions aboard the Chrysalis,  the cryogenically frozen corpse of one Prospero Taligent and the disembodied voice of Prospero’s daughter Miranda.  The direct references to The Tempest are only the beginning of literary connections made in this multi-layered novel that many reviews have labeled steampunk.

I am going to tell a story now, and though I’ve made a life out of writing words, this is the first time I have told a story.  There are no new stories in the world anymore, and no more storytellers.  There is nothing left but the fragments of phrases that signal their telling: once upon a time; why; and then; the end…  From page 3

Through Harold’s written memories we learn of his childhood, his family and his connections to Prospero and Miranda.  We are introduced to place where they all live,  Xeroville, a city of an alternate twentieth century, filled with amazing machines and mechanical men that, according to Harold’s father, is moving quickly from the miraculous to the disastrous.

“When I was your age,” Harry Winslow’s father says, “miracles were commonplace.  To me my childhood and adolescence seem as if they happened just a little time ago, just on the other side of  the line dividing centuries.  But you, who cannot remember a world that was not filled with machines, will never be able to imagine the drastic differences between your youth and mine.  When I was young people could fly without the need of jerry-rigged contraptions that were just as likely to explode as not.  When I was young angels and demons walked the city streets.  And they were fearless.”   From page 32.

Allen Winslow looks up from his desk and squints at Harold through the jeweler’s loupe clenched in his eyesocket, his eyebrows asymmetrically arched.  “But words are not enough to give shape to miracles – there’s nothing left that’s miraculous anymore, and that’s your loss for being born too late.   Of course, this fellow Prospero Taligent, who’s always on the radio shilling some new device or other – many of the things his company sells are called miraculous, like the high-speed egg-hatching machines and the mechanical men.  But that’s nothing but advertising.”  From page 35

Moving back and forth in time and following several points of view, including  Harold’s sister Astrid, Prospero and Miranda,  I was drawn into this mystery.  Harold is trying to unravel the mystery of Miranda’s voice, to find her if he can and rescue her from this flying prison created by her father. Palmer’s writing is rich and brilliant in places, in others there seems to be too much crammed in, too many thoughts and ideas, and I found myself bogged down and loosing interest in the story, but I kept going.

There is so much stuffed into this novel that it felt like an exploding clockwork at times,  crazed and filled with chaotic energy.   Maybe that is the author’s way of showing us the world we have entered, one filled with noise and empty of miracles.  In the end the thing that may save us is love.

In the middle of all the world’s incessant noise, her message was music, and music was the thing that I had mostly lived my live without.  In the ten years since I’d seen Miranda she’d somehow come to stand for all the things I didn’t have in life that were thought to make us human, all the absent music and touch and sympathy; in my mind she lived a separate life apart from her real one, and there she grew more pure and perfect with each passing day.  Silly, prehaps, given what’s passed and what’s to come, but if you know the kind of man I am, then you cannot blame me for this, no more than I could blame my father for his addled daily rewrites of my mother’s life before he passed away.  In my mind Miranda had become a miracle.  From page 259.

The Dream of Perpetual Motion feels like it was written by some combination of  Jules Verne and Thomas Pynchon with a dash of Phillip K. Dick thrown in for good measure.   There are parts of the novel that are frightening and parts that are very funny.  As I was reading I kept visualizing scenes out of films by Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet .   In the hands of either it would make an amazing film.  Dexter Palmer is a brilliant writer with an absolutely wild imagination, I am curious to know if he has another book in the works, this one took him over ten years to finish.

Other reviews:

Fantasy Book Critic

Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

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Filed under Review, Sci-Fi Experience, SciFi, Steampunk, Steampunk Challnge

The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chaing

The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang

Subterranean Press, Burton, MI, 2010

Read for the Sci-Fi Experience, borrowed from the library.

Ted Chiang is one of my favorite speculative fiction authors.  I first heard of him on a science fiction blog, I can’t remember which one.  Someone was raving about a novelette called The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate and luckily my library had a copy.  I loved it and went on to find more of his short stories including Exhalation, the 2009 Hugo Award winner.  You can listen to Exhalation at StarShipSofa, or download a PDF at Night Shade Books.  It is amazing piece.

At 150 pages I believe The Lifecycle of Software Objects is Chiang’s longest work and much of our culture and technology is packed into this small book.

In 1950 Alan Turing asked the question “Can machines think?”, opening up the idea of artificial intelligence.  Ted Chiang explores this possibility, by having IT companies create beings using “genetic programming” and giving them lots of training.   These creations, called digients, are first brought to “life” in an online game space like Second Life, then given the ability to jump  into anthropomorphic animal robot bodies.

Lifecycle follows two people who work in computing as they “adopt” and raise digients, much like Tamagotchi pets or characters in an online game.  The story follows Ana and Derek over ten years as the technologies and economics of digients and virtual game space shift around them.  The final question, are these beings truly alive and what is a person’s  responsibility, if any, towards them?

I found this story fascinating, perhaps because I have played online games with avatars, but none of my creations “learned” new skills on their own.  I’m sure there are companies out there using feedback training in robotics, maybe even using robots to train other robots.   I think Ted Chiang’s The Lifecycle of Software Objects are a glance into our future.

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Filed under Review, Sci-Fi Experience, SciFi, SpeculativeFiction