The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer

My aesthetic definition of steampunk has been getting some play over at FerretBrain,. Daniel Hemmens, one of the participants, has been thinking pretty hard about my "steampunk as aesthetic" post, given his extensive response/critique of it. I wish I had more time to properly address Daniel's critique, since he's done me an honour by thinking so rigourously about the aesthetic and its implications. For the meantime, I'll have to limit my response to one of Daniel's comments on the forum thread that inspired his article:
I also find it weird that the guy insists that Steampunk isn't a genre because it contains no single, universal feature. Isn't that like concluding that Fantasy isn't a genre, because not all fantasy novels contain dragons, or that Science Fiction isn't a genre, because not all science fiction novels contain spaceships?
I think the key term here is "narrative." I said, "It is not a genre, because within the literature, there is no recurrent narrative element that one can point to which appears in all, or even most of the books." I then clarified by using airships as an example, so I suppose I earned the spaceship remark. But my point is, I'm not focusing on single objects, items, or locations. It's about narrative threads and themes. Fantasy and science fiction are narrative forms that employ certain favored approaches recurrent within their strains. As I often do, I'll turn to more authoritative sources than my opinion for help.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines Science Fiction as "Imaginative fiction based on postulated scientific discoveries or spectacular environmental changes, freq. set in the future or on other planets and involving space or time travel." In its section on fantasy, it states only that it is "A genre of literary compositions," perhaps eschewing a fixed definitions for the same reason John Clute and John Grant state in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy: "The term "fantasy" is used to cover a very wide range of texts, movies, visual presentations, and so on" (viii) They quote Brian Atterbery as saying that fantasy is a "fuzzy set." Nevertheless, they go on to posit a "rough definition" of what we mean by fantasy:
"A fantasy text is a self-coherent narrative which, when set in our reality, tells a story which is impossible in the world as we perceive it; when set in an otherworld or secondary world, that otherworld will be impossible, but stories set there will be possible in the otherworld's terms. An associated point, hinted at here, is that at the core of fantasy is STORY. Even the most surrealist of fantasies tells a tale...Two of our editorial team have argued extensively elsewhere that fantasy art is, at its heart, a narrative form." (viii)
Both science fiction and fantasy have an inherent narrative quality the steampunk aesthetic doesn't inherently share. What narrative quality can one derive from steampunk jewelry, modded computers, or fashion?  The now-iconic steampunk keyboard made by Jake von Slatt has no inherent narrative. Just because I could construct one doesn't mean the art demand I do so, whereas Myke Amend's "The Rescue" demands a narrative from the viewer, since it depicts a scene in media res: we almost automatically conjecture what happened before and after the pictured moment. Both the steampunk keyboard and "The Rescue" are considered steampunk. One can be analyzed sans narrative, while the other, while is could be analyzed at a compositional level, is more about what is happening in the image than how that image was constructed.

Further, while it could be argued that a "science fiction" or "fantasy" aesthetic could be applied to other genres as I suggest steampunk can, it wouldn't change the fact that both science fiction and fantasy already exist within generic traditions which utilize recurring themes and tropes. Steampunk texts do not have recurring themes and tropes in the way that SF and fantasy do. Instead, steampunk is an aesthetic applied to fantasy and SF texts which continue exploring the themes and tropes of SF and fantasy from a new perspective, via steampunk style. When Ekaterina Sedia asks questions about gender and identity through her automaton protagonist in The Alchemy of Stone, it isn't because steampunk as a genre often explores gender and identity, it's because science fiction has been looking at gender and identity through artificial lifeforms for the past century, from Asimov's I, Robot, to Heinlein's Friday, to the Cylons of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, to Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl. When Kenneth Oppel writes a coming-of-age story in his Airborn trilogy, it isn't because coming-of-age is inherent to steampunk: it's because he's working off a much larger tradition of adventure stories. The Court of the Air has orphaned protagonists; Boneshaker has a mother pursuing her son to rescue him. There are revolutionaries against the established order in Whitechapel Gods; there are loyal agents of the Queen in The Affinity Bridge. There is alternate history in The Difference Engine; there is an alternate world in Perdido Street Station. These are found in SF and Fantasy in general: steampunk does not utilize these narrative elements -- it merely changes how they look and feel.

I'm not saying "because airships don't show up in all steampunk, it's not a genre." I'm saying that at the level of narrative, plot, and theme, there is little to no repetition, save those borrowed from existing genres. There is a lot of adventure in steampunk texts, but is that because steampunk is a genre that always utilizes adventure? There are a lot of steampunk romances, so is steampunk always romantic?

And if steampunk is a genre, then what the hell do we do with The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer? You won't likely find Palmer's first novel in the SF or Fantasy section, nor should you.  The Dream of Perpetual Motion is a good example of how the steampunk aesthetic can be applied to something other than SF and Fantasy. Palmer's book is a novel of ideas with a brass veneer. But unlike Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day, where the steampunk aesthetic is utilized as homage, The Dream of Perpetual Motion uses steampunk to convey a sense of emptiness about technology and progress. Steampunk elements do not act as a reaction to modernity here so much as embody the emptiness of modernity's faith in technology.

As a novel of ideas, The Dream of Perpetual Motion is quite an achievement (it struck me very funny that I had just finished writing Leaving London, Approaching Albion on the future of steampunk where I stated that we might just see a steampunk novel of ideas, and next month, this was on the shelf). The passages I highlighted while reading could each stand as a mini-commentary on technology, modernity, commercialism, and ultimately, the steampunk aesthetic itself. Consider this quotation from the opening pages, one of "endless lunatic" musings of the protagonist's love interest, Miranda:
Soon our culture's oldest dreams will be made real. Even the thought of sending a kind of flying craft to the moon is no longer nothing more than a child's fantasy. At this moment in the cities below us, the first mechanical men are being constructed that will have the capability to pilot the ship on its maiden voyage. But no one has asked if this dream we've had for so long will lose its value once it is realized. What will happen when those mechanical men step out of their ship and onto the surface of this moon, which has served humanity for thousands of years as our principal icon of love and madness? When they touch their hands to the ground and perform their relentless analyses and find no measurable miracles, but a dead gray world of rocks and dust? When they discover that it was the strength of millions of boyhood daydreams that kept the moon aloft, and that without them that murdered world will fall, spiraling slowly down and crashing into the open sea? (2-3)
This passage echoes the fact that almost all the technological speculations of Jules Verne had come to their fruition by the end of the twentieth-century, as Walter James Miller and Frederick Paul Walter state in their introduction to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: The Completely Restored and Annotated Edition (vii). It creates a conversation with James Blaylock's The Digging Leviathan, with Giles Peach's imaginations made real, and Greg Bear's Petra where the world is only held together by thought in the wake of God's demise. It addresses the longing inherent in retrofuturism, the underlying seriousness to the flippant question of "where's my rocket pack?" It introduces the polarities of SF and fantasy that steampunk holds in tension in technofantasy - the liminal space between technology and belief, which the novel explores at length. At its core, The Dream of Perpetual Motion is an exploration of the ideas in technofantasies: it's very title references technofantasy by claiming that an object once thought scientifically possible has been deemed nothing more than a dream. Further, Palmer utilizes character names from Shakespeare's The Tempest, most saliently that of Miranda's father, Prospero Taligent, a brilliant (but mad) inventor who keeps his daughter locked in a tower (Yes, there are numerous fairy-tale references in Dream of Perpetual Motion, as well as intertextual nods to Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Wizard of Oz). The steampunk character type of mad scientist is conflated here with a wizard: a maker of magic, not science. In the chapter I've submitted to Contemporary Repurposings and Theoretical Revisitings of Fairy-Tales and Fantasies, I quote the following passage, in which the space between technology and belief is made metaphor between the Virgin and the Dynamo:
The Dynamo represents the desire to know; the Virgin represents the freedom not to know.
     What’s the Virgin made of? Things that we think are silly, mostly. The peculiar logic of dreams, or the inexplicable stirring we feel when we look on someone that’s beautiful not in a way that we all agree is beautiful, but the unique way in which a single person is. The Virgin is faith and mysticism; miracle and instinct; art and randomness.
     On the other hand, you have the Dynamo: the unstoppable engine. It finds the logic behind a seeming miracle and explains that miracle away; it finds the order in randomness to which we’re blind; it takes a caliper to a young woman’s head and quantifies her beauty in terms of pleasing mathematical ratios; it accounts for the secret stirring you felt by discoursing at length on the systems of animals.
     These forces aren’t diametrically opposed, and it’s not correct to say that one’s good and the other’s evil, despite the prejudices we might have toward one or the other. When we’re at our best, both the Virgin and the Dynamo govern what we think and what we do.
     Instead of seeing these two kingdoms of force as diametric opposites, always in conflict, as this industrial age has taught us […] we have to find a way to allow them to coexist. We have to find a way to marry the Virgin to the Dynamo. (187)
Again, this passage could become a conversation with a number of texts: the opposition of the Mechanics and Alchemists in The Alchemy of Stone; the self-reflexive nature of Matthew Flaming's The Kingdom of Ohio's statement that it is a story "about science and faith, and the distance between the two" (6); the statement near the end of Pynchon's Against the Day that "Fumes are not the future...burning dead dinosaurs and whatever they ate ain't the answer" (1031), but rather an embracing of mystery and love as the heroes "fly toward grace" (1085). It comes into academic conversation with Victoria Nelson's Secret Life of Puppets, when she speaks about postmodernity's rejection of scientism, the "one-sided worldview" dominating Western culture in the past three hundred years. Nelson advocates for the blanace of idealism and empiricism, not a rejection of one at the expense of the other.

Palmer's novel can be brought into conversation with another one of Nelson's criticisms of modernity, that "our culture's post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment prohibition on the supernatural and exclusion of a transcendent, non-materialist level of reality from the allowable universe has created the ontological equivalent of a perversion caused by repression" (19). The father of the novel's protagonist delivers several speeches about the disappearance of miracles, that "there's nothing left that's miraculous anymore, and that's your loss for being born too late" (35). He goes on to contrast the difference between miracle and invention by stating that inventions can be ultimately understood, and miracles can not. Miracles imply a lack of complete understanding about why something works the way it does. If a the workings of a mystery to one man can be understood by another, it is not a miracle - it is an invention. With the death of miracles--God--the world becomes more frightening because it can ostensibly be understood, and yet ultimately--isn't:
"But here is a paradox: that mysteries such as these provided not disquiet for us, but comfort. Because they granted us permission, and in fact made it necessary, to believe in a God to Whom all mysteries had solutions. With belief in God comes the certainty that the world that He masters has an order. That every single thing in it at least makes sense to Someone [...] When the machines came, and when they drove away the angels from the world, they ruined everything [...] And without a God to comprehend this world in its entirety, what surety do I have that at its heart it is not chaotic and [...] therefore meaningless?" (36-37) 

There are points at which it comments on our contemporary desire for media bites, the lack of interest in "scrolling down" a blog post as epic as most of my posts at Steampunk Scholar are: "Storytelling--that's not the future. The future, I'm afraid, is flashes and impulses. It's made up of moments and fragments, and stories won't survive" (97). At other points, it is terribly aware of its retrofuturistic setting, and how that is popularly perceived: "What I say is [...] if you're gonna go to all that trouble to build a flying car, why not go the distance and put some guns on it too. Flying cars with no gangster typewriters on 'em get the raspberry [...] Pfffbbt" (52). When Palmer is using his novel to communicate ideas about modernity and postmodernity, he's very successful. I owe this man a huge thank-you for providing me with a novel that I can use to seriously engage with steampunk as a reaction to modernity.

When Palmer is just writing the story of a boy and a girl and the girl's disturbingly protective father, he is less successful. I didn't enjoy The Dream of Perpetual Motion as a story, which is why I haven't bothered with a synopsis. I appreciated as modernist critique. I appreciate it as grist for the mill in the academic conversation on steampunk. It will work wonders for my dissertation. However, as a story, I couldn't wait to be finished so I could get back to something that was...well, my colleagues will loathe me for saying this,

Cherie Priest has it right when she says that if you aren't having fun when doing steampunk, you're doing it wrong. Serious steampunk doesn't seem to work very well. I may be jumping the gun by saying this, but I suspect that the aesthetic works best when it is turned to romanticism. And while The Dream of Perpetual Motion reflects on romanticism, it's not an escapist piece of writing. Perhaps others will disagree with me, but I think if steampunk is going to engage with serious matters, it needs to do so with a sense of irony, understanding its own limitations to effectively comment on real world big ideas. Palmer understands the limitations of the aesthetic he's chosen - there are inner critiques of it. But the book lacks enough whimsy to buoy its ideas above the weight of their lunacy. When I got to the last page, I found myself dubious as to how we'd arrived at that ending. There were hints towards it, but the book's repeated dives into grotesque fates for both of the major female characters didn't roll towards the last line of the book. It was like inverted Mieville. The book demanded a less upbeat ending. Or perhaps this was Palmer's stab at marrying the Dynamo with the Virgin, of bringing the miracle into the story. It's an emotional deus ex machina that belongs there. But then the miracle should have been a more complete miracle. I digress though - I'm talking about the book I wished it had been, which is something I warn my students against.

Ultimately, while I know some of you come here as fellow students, interested in academic discussion, you also want to know whether the book is worth reading. To those who love postmodern fiction, who enjoy a novel of ideas, who don't mind having narrative digressions when the plot should be in full page-turning mode, the answer is: yes. It's worth reading. Is it any fun? I didn't find it to be. I found it on the tedious side. And like so many "serious" novels, it felt like it couldn't fully embrace the story it was telling. It was too busy disseminating ideas to be concerned with blowing shit up real good. To each their own, but I'm fond of what my political novel professor said about didacticism and art: the more didactic a work, the worse the art. This reads a bit like an Ayn Rand novel, except with a hell of a lot more flair, and much better dialogue (for the record, I loathe Ayn Rand - she's the epitome to me of how terrible fiction is when it turns didactic).

One final note. Jonathan Mayberry, author of The Dragon Factory is quoted as saying that "Steampunk comes of age with this book." I disagree. Steampunk came of age when Thomas Pynchon wrote Against the Day. Pynchon mixed Big Ideas with great plot and great characters. And he was a hell of a lot more fun to read.

Go here to check out some fantastic art inspired by the book, especially Myke Amend's pieces.


  1. Mr. Hemmens seems to miss some of your points brought up in the "Howl's Moving Castle" post. Correct me if I go too far, but steampunk is like pornography. Take any movie (or comic or novel), add a porn scene and the movie becomes porn - regardless the genre, plot, theme and ideology of the original work. It's almost the same with steampunk: add a steampunk gizmo (not necessarily an airship or goggles) to anything and - tada! - you have steampunk.

    The difference is that we don't define porn as an aesthetic. Pornography is usually defined as "witings or pictures intended to stimulate sexual desire", so this is rather a functional than descriptive definition. It doesn't say "what" and "how", just "why". Is such a functional definition for steampunk conceivable?

  2. I think the analogy needs further treatment. It's like the difference between erotica and porn. The difference is subtle, but marked by certain approaches to the work - aesthetic choices, that delineate a difference. Both erotica and porn will graphically depict a sex scene (the very same element), but they will do it differently. As you say, porn has a function - I'm not sure steampunk does.

  3. I just wonder if this trick works with "real" genres. Is there something (a raygun, a magic rod) you can add to "xyz" to get a "sci-fi xyz" or "fantasy xyz" in result?

    Does adding a zombie make anything a horror? If the answer was "yes", it'd mean that your concept of aesthetic is not so different from what we use to call a genre.

  4. Depends on the type of zombie. Boneshaker is filled with zombies, but clearly isn't horror. There's an undead being in a steampunk piece I read, but it's not intended to frighten me. The zombie in Terry Pratchett's City Watch books is anything but horror - meant to convey comedy. I liked Daniel Hemmens' simplistic construction of genre: "Were I in the mood to construct overly simplistic models for complex phenomena, I might say that genre is comprised of three elements: the aesthetic, the conceptual and the structural, aesthetic elements being cosmetic features like airships and dragons, conceptual features being the kinds of ideas the genre tends to engage with, and structural features being stuff about how the books are actually written." Perhaps my argument isn't that steampunk can't be a genre, but that as a genre, the only aspect that creates recognition is the aesthetic. Because of this consistent aesthetic, there are oft-repeated, but not ubiquitous conceptual features. Structurally, steampunk is usually written in a linear narrative, but there's nothing saying it must be.

    I guess my reason for rejecting the conceptual aspect is that steampunk engages only with concepts aligned with the genre the steampunk aesthetic is applied to. So when steampunk is applied to SF, it will engage the Big Ideas of SF. If it's applied to Fantasy, it will engage in the Big Ideas of Fantasy. This is seen in Palmer's book, since it doesn't really deal with the issues SF or fantasy are concerned with. Rather, it is a postmodern novel doing what postmodern novels do - critiquing modernism, and using the steampunk aesthetic to do it.

  5. I should add that "real" genres don't get turned into popular fashion trends. Goth, cyberpunk, and steampunk all did. I read a really great article once about how cyberpunk was just rehashed adventure stories from the colonial era. I'll have to dig that up. Might be good grist for the mill as well.

  6. I wouldn't overestimate the popularity of steampunk as a fashion trend. In comparison to goth, steampunk is just a small and exotic niche.

  7. In one of the Wikipedia entries Steampunk fantasy is listed as a subgenre of Historical fantasy, which in turn is defined as "a sub-genre of fantasy, related to historical fiction". It's quite reasonable, don't you think?

    Historical Fiction and Fantasy are valid genres. Historical Fantasy is a subgenre of both, so consistently Steampunk must be a sub-subgenre. It's a mixture of Historical Fiction and Speculative Fiction - a Historical Speculative Fiction. If we exclude Alternate History to be more precise, what's left is a Historical Sci-Fi/Fantasy. And that's exactly what steampunk was before 2007 - a genre.

    However the term "aesthetic" can be applied to post-2007 Steampunk when the genre turned into a fashion show.

  8. I think it's more accurate to say "when fashion and art appropriated the aesthetic of what had been the genre of steampunk."

    I agree with your pre-2007 statement about steampunk having been a genre, although I can't say whether I'd agree with the date you give. Due to a number of recent conversations, I'm leaning towards amending my hard-line of steampunk as aesthetic by conceding that, insofar as the literature is concerned, it may indeed be a sub-subgenre. I haven't thought that through entirely, but I'll be continuing to develop the idea as I go, of course, with much thanks to people like you, Piechur, and Cory Gross for helping me think it all through here in plain sight!

    However, as we've discussed via email, the aesthetic approach is the only way to construct a theoretical approach that encompasses all steampunk expressions. If it is only a genre, then how can one talk about fashion?

    I'm going to be posting a good deal about the difference between alternate history and steampunk during Canuck Steampunk Month in July, as the Apparition Trail is more alt history than steampunk, while Whitechapel Gods is far more steampunk than alt history.

  9. The design and fashion in the 1960s was pretty futuristic, or even sci-fi inspired. And it was mainstream, not a subculture. But I don't think it's enough to claim that sci-fi turned from a genre into an aesthetic about that time.

  10. Yeah, so was '80s fashion, but we didn't call it "SF" wear.

  11. But we used to call it "punk", although it had nothing to do with real punk :)

    Names... names... names...


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