Jun 13, 2014

Mainspring Reconsidered - in memory of Jay Lake

Jay Lake made me famous. Well, as famous as any academic working on steampunk can ever be, but it was when I posted my review of Lake's steampunk novel Mainspring that I saw my visitors shoot from the tens to the hundreds, and then over a thousand. Back then, I was still in my old-school book-review blogger mode, and I assessed Mainspring, not from an academic view looking to determine the steampunk aesthetic, but from the perspective of whether or not it lived up to my expectations. Consequently, I said I didn't like it. Lake posted a link to my unnecessarily critical review, and suddenly, I had a much bigger audience.

Lake could have called me a jerk. He could have said I was out to lunch. Instead, he just wrote, "not so much with the liking," and linked to the review, rather than ignoring it entirely. I'd come to understand later, after being introduced to Lake in person by Christopher Garcia, and getting to know him a bit through Twitter and Facebook, that it was because Lake was a just a cool, laid-back guy.
You know you're famous in the steampunk scene when you get your face on a set of Bicycle cards done steampunk pirate style.

I felt badly about the post, so I promptly followed up my review of Mainspring with a laudatory post about Lake's short story in Extraordinary Engines, which I enjoyed very much. Thing was, I found myself thinking an awful lot about Mainspring as I proceeded with my research. My initial dislike of the work was based on flawed expectations for what steampunk should be, a concept I've since divested myself of. The more I thought about the book, the more I liked what it did. And I kept thinking, "I need to revisit and reconsider Mainspring."

I was given the opportunity to do so in a course on nineteenth century works: I wrote a paper comparing Mainspring with Conrad's The Secret Sharer. My prof hated it, mostly because he thought science fiction was rubbish, beneath academic attention, but I kept meaning to share the results of that paper online. Lake had wanted to see it, but it was one of those things I kept putting off, and never got around to. Add that to my list of things I'd do differently.

We have lost Lake's voice to the future of SF and Fantasy, but his previous words are preserved. And so, while I'd meant to have this later this year, I'd like to make this my tribute to Jay Lake, who passed away June 1 after a long, and touchingly public battle with cancer. I cry just about every time I read through his posts on that struggle.

So I felt like I owe Jay Lake this. I owe it to him because I promised him I would do it, I owe it to him because I've known since 2010 that Mainspring was a better book than I'd said, and just never got around to publicly stating. The following is an edited version, with all references to The Secret Sharer excised, of that paper my prof hated. It is not a review, since I don't do those much any more; it is an exploration of the major themes of hospitality and messianic duty in Mainspring.


Clockwork Messiah: Mainspring Reconsidered 

Mainspring takes place in an alternate history of early twentieth century earth. The majority of alternate history contains a clearly established moment of break which transforms a readily recognizable historical event, thereby setting off a chain of cause and effect which results in a different version of present reality. Unlike other alternate histories, which might suppose a break in a known historical event such as Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Lake’s alternate earth has its moment of the break at its creation. When God “hung Earth in the sky on the tracks of her orbit around the lamp of the sun” (43), it was on a very real, not abstract track: Mainspring’s Earth is bisected by a massive gear, which serves as a colossal brass wall, separating the world into the oppressive, industrialized Northern hemisphere, and the Edenic, pre-industrial Southern hemisphere. The historical ramifications of such a break are obviously further reaching:
On the other side of the Equatorial Wall lies the southern Earth. It is vastly different from our contentious, industrialized Northern Earth. Where we have smoky mills and laboring children and great cities of brick and wood, the Southern Earth has cathedral forests whose dwellers live free of misery, without even the need of labor for their daily fare. Where we have competing empires shaking the very air with the thunder of their cannon, the Southern Earth shakes to the thunder of hooves as great beasts migrate across endless plains. Where England and China each struggle to bend Creating to their will, the Southern Earth abides comfortably in the lap of God’s world. As man was meant to do. (162) 
The inclusion of a massive, physical proof of the existence of a clockmaker God permits Lake to have angels trouble the flights of his steampunk airships, and allow Mainspring's protagonist Hethor Jacques a type of clockwork magic to assist him on his quest: Hethor is himself a precision instrument, gifted at hearing the sounds of the gears and machinery which keep the earth on its great brass track orbiting the sun. While he is in the Northern Earth, his “sense of time was always with him, always accurate” (46). While crossing the Equatorial Wall, he is deafened by close proximity to movement of the orbital track. He does not regain his hearing until reaching the Southern side of the Wall, at which point he begins to hear the sound of gears in everything, discovering that “[a]ll Creation was artifice, was it not?” (208). Hethor’s powers are not an anachronism: they belong in the world of Lake’s radical break.

Hethor as hero of the story does not begin his journey aware of such powers; instead, he is a lowly clockmaker’s apprentice who receives a visit from a suitably steampunk angel Gabriel, “bright as any brasswork automaton” (11). Hethor is entrusted with a quest to find the legendary “Key Perilous”, one of seven sacred artifacts given to humanity by the Brass Christ following his “horofixion” on a “wheel-and-gear” instead of cross (12). Hethor’s journey takes him from his comfortable, predictable life in New Haven, Connecticut, to the court of the viceroy of Boston, then onto an airship in the Royal Navy before crossing the Equatorial Wall and passing into the savage lands beyond. There he finds a primitive race of hairy primates who call themselves the “Correct People”, who are intelligent enough to communicate verbally and “human” enough that Hethor finds a sense of community and belonging among them, ultimately becoming husband to one. The Correct People aid Hethor in his mission, assisting him in the last leg of his journey to the South Pole by another airship. Upon arriving there, Hethor finds the Key Perilous in an unexpected way, and winds the Mainspring at the cost of this own life.

Unlike many works of steampunk where the hero or heroine is tasked with saving the Empire, or saving the people by bringing the Empire down, Hethor Jacques will save the entire world. The ideas of messianic expectation in science fiction and fantasy result in metaphysical, not merely moral messiahs. In The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson has suggested that the presence of the religious in science fiction is no mistake, but that “[c]onsuming art forms of the fantastic is only one way that we as nonbelievers allow ourselves, unconsciously, to believe” (vii). Unlike the increasingly inhuman Paul Atreides of Dune, however, Hethor Jacques still presents an intensely immanent and human messiah. Further, the solution to the world-threatening problem of its clockwork running down is strongly connected to the ideas of hospitality to the stranger, and the sacrificial action of the Christian messiah, rather than the redemptive violence of science fiction messiah Neo in The Matrix trilogy.

I would like to situate Mainspring in the context of the uncanny, not to investigate the concept of the uncanny double in some psychoanalytic reading of Hethor Jacques, but in regards to Gary Watson's investigations of hospitality, and the Other as potential Messiah in Opening Doors, where he writes about Joseph Conrad's The Secret Sharer as “the kind of Hospitality narrative that takes the form of Welcoming the Other or Strangers (who may just turn out to be the Messiah)” (158). Rather than employing the uncanny as it relates to Freudian readings, I wish to explore how Lake deals with the idea of belonging in Mainspring, of how creating a space of belonging constitutes the idea of home, and how a sense of not belonging results in a sense of the uncanny.

While Freud's essay title is translated as “The Uncanny” in English, the German word unheimlich etymologically refers to the idea of home-liness. The root word heim means “home” or being “rooted in home”, while “Heimlich” means something hidden, secret, or clandestine, while unheimlich generally understood as that which is eerie, uncanny. According to Friedrich Schelling, everything that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light is unheimlich. In "The Houses of Fiction: Toward a Definition of the Uncanny," Maria Tatar shows how the German word heimlich, which can be taken to mean “belonging to the home”, and unheimlich, which is commonly translated in Freud as “uncanny” relate the literature of the fantastic to the concept of home as a place of “domestic comfort” (170). In the Biology of Horror: Gothic Literature and Film, Jack Morgan notes that “in this etymology, the house is the defining symbol of what is right and normal, the violation of which situates primitive anxieties” (183).

 In Mainspring, Hethor Jacques is an orphan, living on a meager inheritance from his late father, and the goodwill of Master Bodean, the clockmaker he is apprentice to. Consequently, we meet him in an unheimlich space, the home which is not his home. He is reviled by Bodean’s sons: Pryce Bodean, the sanctimonious seminary student, and Faubus Bodean, a loutish, violent ruffian. Hethor spends the course of his journeys finding and losing a series of temporary “homes,” places of belonging: Master Bodean’s house, The Bassett, the British Navy Airship he is press ganged onto, and a monastery high on the Equatorial Wall. Offered a permanent place at a monastery, Hethor finds the offer tempting enough to nearly cause him to abandon his quest for the Key Perilous. Shortly after leaving the monastery, Hethor is asked if he wants to turn back in the face of a difficult and dangerous descent down the southern side of the colossal Equatorial Wall. Hethor replies, “I didn’t come here just to go home again,” and then ruminates that “[t]here was no home to go to.” He was a failed apprentice in Connecticut, under order of imprisonment in Massachusetts, and absent without leave from the Royal Navy. Souther Earth could only be an improvement. “Onward, sir. Onward.” (172) Hethor is a man without a home, or at the very least, unfamiliar enough in the spaces he inhabits to feel a sense of unease, “utterly lost to anything familiar” (Lake 217).

I have appropriated Watson's discussion of spaces of “Chaos” which are “Out of Context” or represented by the “Open Road” to apply to the unheimlich spaces which Hethor Jacques journeys through on his way to the Equatorial Wall and beyond (133). Hethor has been removed from hisnormal context, cut loose from the trajectory of his apprenticeship, out in the wide world. He has set his foot upon the path of the Open Road, understanding that he does not know where it leads, and that things are out of his control. According to Jacques Derrida, it is only in the space of the Open Road where one can accomplish true acts of hospitality: “If I had a criteria, a set of norms, that I would simply apply or enforce, there would be no decision . . .  Otherwise it would be a mechanical development, a mechanical explication, not a decision” (qtd. in Watson 172). In short, we cannot accomplish a true act of hospitality if we are acting within social norms when we do so. It is only when we are in chaotic spaces of lawlessness where we can truly make moral choices.

Steampunk heroes are often outlaws of one stripe or another. They exist at the periphery of law-abiding society, or are thrust from the comfort of a structured, moral and ethical society into the realm of lawlessness and chaos. In general, they are opposed to concepts of Empire and oppressive authoritarianism. In Mainspring, Hethor moves sequential further and further into lawless space, metonymically represented by the presence of clockwork machinery. The clockwork precision of the Northern hemisphere’s industrialized world is illustrated in a steampunk version of the Lord’s prayer spoken at a funeral aboard the Basset:
“Our Father, who art in Heaven
Craftsman be thy name
Thy Kingdom come
Thy plan be done
On Earth as it is in Heaven
Forgive us this day our errors
As we forgive those who err against us
Lead us not into imperfection
And deliver us from chaos
For thine is the power, and the precision
For ever and ever, amen." (102-03)
Hethor begins his journey within the quotidian and structured world of Master Bodean’s workshop as a clockmaker’s apprentice. This is an environment which prizes consideration and precision. When Hethor is thrown out of Bodean’s workshop, catalyzing the start of his journey, Hethor goes to Boston, where he is thrown into prison, and then press ganged into service aboard the Basset. There is still a structured society to the airship, but it is radically different from that which he had known before. He rises in the ranks of the ship’s crew through his knowledge of precision instruments, which makes him a natural choice to learn navigation. However, as the airship approaches the Equatorial Wall, it passes over evidence that Hethor is leaving civilization behind. Lake makes use of colonial European ethnocentrisms of the late nineteenth century travel-adventure stories by describing The Basset’s progress over Bermuda and then onward to Africa in a series of increasingly chaotic and morally compromising experiences.

Following a disciplinary and somewhat initiatory flogging, Hethor is thrown off the airship with a rude parachute to plunge into a lagoon in a rather violent baptism to his life as an airship sailor. Immediately following this violent induction to the social community of The Basset, Hethor is carried off “toward a haze of rum and hemp, and even a prostitute someone else paid for, though all she did for Hethor was dab ointment on his back and sew up the wider wounds” (85). It is important that neither in this episode (which would have been somewhat ludicrous given Hethor’s ruined back), and later when he has healed and is on shore leave in Georgetown, Guyana, that Hethor refuses to have sex with a prostitute. Earlier, on his way to Boston, he is propositioned by a young woman who gives him a ride, “to spoon a bit.” Refusing her advances, Hethor runs away and releases his erect penis from where it was “straining at his pants”, although he is “careful not to touch himself” since “[t]hat way lay sin and madness, everyone knew” (50). So long as Hethor is in the North, he abides by the moral law of the North. Once he reaches the lands south of the Wall, however, he not only engages in a sex act, but engages in interspecies intercourse with a female of a race of technologically primitive but spiritually advanced hominids who take Hethor under their care, seeing him as a sort of Messiah figure. The loss of his virginity is framed in an entirely positive light, juxtaposing Hethor’s jettisoning of the moral code of the formalized religion of the north for a more dynamic morality in the south. Derrida posits such a dynamic when he states, “Justice is the relation to the other. That is all. Once you relate to the other as the other, then something incalculable comes on the scene, something which cannot be reduced to the law or to the history of legal structures” (qtd in Watson 138).

Hethor’s sexual epiphany is paralleled by another realization: Hethor is a precision instrument, gifted at hearing the sounds of the gears and machinery which keep the earth on its great brass track orbiting the sun. While he is in the Northern Earth, his “sense of time was always with him, always accurate” (46). While crossing the Equatorial Wall, he is deafened by close proximity to movement of the orbital track. He does not regain his hearing until reaching the Southern side of the Wall, at which point he begins to hear the sound of gears in everything, discovering that “[a]ll Creation was artifice, was it not?” (208).

Watson spends a good deal of time in Opening Doors exploring the idea of radical hospitality and the idea of "entertaining angels unaware." Not in a spiritual being in the sense Milton meant when he described angels as “more refin'd, more spirituous, and pure” (line 475), but rather as an unexpected guest, of the sort mentioned in the book of Hebrews, where it reads: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2 RSV). The writer of Hebrews is advising his readers to remember to extend a radical hospitality to strangers. The possibility of the stranger being an angel is most likely an allusion to Genesis 18-19, “in which Abraham offered hospitability to the mysterious visitors, who turned out to be angels …[t]he principle is that it is better to assume that guests are angels and to act accordingly rather than risk treating people unworthily” (Guthrie 268).
As Caputo and Yvonne Sherwood note, it is of course always possible that the stranger knocking at our door might be a “monster”, which might well make us tremble. But then, as Derrida reminds us according to St. Paul we should always be in a state of trembling (Watson 139). 
The fear and trembling in Mainspring is readily apparent, beginning with the appearance of the angel Gabriel, whose manifestation causes Hethor to hold his breath, “afraid to even share the air with such perfection” (12). But Gabriel is not the stranger in need of hospitality. Clearly a real angel, in a steampunk sense of what Milton meant, Gabriel presents a mission which almost immediately makes Hethor the stranger. When Hethor investigates the history of the Key Perilous the next day by questioning Pryce Bodean, he inadvertently sets the stage for dismissal from his master's workshop. By the end of the day, he is cast out into the world, and is on the Open Road, in need of the hospitality of others. Yet even before he begins his journey, Hethor is aided by kind individuals who provide him with information, transportation, lodging, food, and healing:
Master Bodean, Librarian Childress, the farmers who had helped him, that girl with the hearse, even the crazed and foolish candlemen, Her Imperial Majesty’s sailors, the Jade Abbot—all their lives hung on him … Perhaps he was her angel, her Gabriel come from the sky to awaken her people to their peril. (299) 
These are all individuals who extend hospitality to Hethor along his difficult road. It is not simply a list of people counting on Hethor to achieve his mission, but those who have effectively taught him how to achieve that mission. Master Bodean provided shelter, Librarian Childress was the first to believe his fantastic story, the farmers and the girl with the hearse gave him transport, all selfless acts which have prepared Hethor for one final selfless act:
Hethor had always possessed the Key Perilous, he realized. His journey wasn’t to find the key. Everything else—Gabriel’s mission, the messages on the golden tablets, all his tribulations—were his schooling … Well, perhaps he had learned something. (316) 
Hethor is the messiah of Mainspring. “The world hurts” he says of the numerous earthquakes, tidal waves and other disasters he witnesses along the way. Ultimately, Hethor extends the greatest act of hospitality of all. At the heart of the world, Hethor finally deciphers the meaning of a golden tablet he found along the way. The tablet reads, “The heart of God is the heart of the world / As man lives, so lives God / As God lives, so lives the world” (225). Hethor comes to the realization that this means that as he lives, so lives God, and consequently, the world. “Love is the heart of God,” Hethor says, providing a first line to the scripture of the golden tablet (317). Man must choose to live well in order for the Mainspring of the world to be fixed.

Drawing upon his ability to hear and work within the gears of Creation, he sacrifices himself to resurrect his beloved, Arellya, one of the southern denizens on the other side of the wall. This selfless act, accomplished in the presence of the Mainspring, heals the world’s hurt, but results in Hethor’s death. This action places Hethor firmly in a messianic position, as he is reenacting the sacrifice of Lake's steampunk Jesus, the Brass Christ, on the horofix 2000 years prior. While this may seem a convenient deus ex machina conclusion, it must be remembered that the world of Mainspring is a machine, and that Hethor’s quest is effectively, like the Blues Brothers, "a mission from God." More importantly, it is the moment each episode of kindness extended to Hethor has been building towards.


Georgio Agamben states that, “[i]n Judaism as in Christianity and Shiite Islam, the messianic event above all signifies a crisis and radical transformation of the entire order of the law” (qtd. in Watson 158). In other words, when the messiah comes, the law is no longer the highest authority. A religious impulse transcends the law. Hence, Hethor can abandon home and nation and all former allegiances to achieve his quest. He is engaged in a radical, dynamic morality which seems to fulfill Jesus’ dynamically radical reinterpretation of Torah law in two gestures: love toward God and love toward neighbor (Luke 10:17-28). One must constantly assess the question of who is God, and who is my neighbor, to which the parable of the Good Samaritan replies: the person in front of you who is in need. The parable of the Good Samaritan also teaches that we are likely to meet our neighbor on the Open Road, or Out of Context, in a place of Chaos; in the unheimliche Länder, the place where we are no longer in our homely homes, but are standing before a stranger in need of help, knowing that our action may very well place us in danger. Hethor Jacques represents this moment beyond the Pale of normative decision making, where one must base their decision not on safety of self, but love for the Other. In the action of welcoming the stranger on the Open Road, the chaotic space is made into a place of belonging. Hethor makes the entire world a place of safety in a hyperbolic act of hospitality, because he has been the recipient of similar hospitality. This is the heart of the world, love for each other, not rationality, and not even religion. Love, radical love, beyond law, beyond safety, out in the chaos of the open road.

Love. Thanks, Jay. You will be missed.

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