[amazon_image id=”B003A7I2PU” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]The Dream of Perpetual Motion[/amazon_image]Dexter Palmer’s novel [amazon_link id=”B003A7I2PU” target=”_blank” ]The Dream of Perpetual Motion[/amazon_link] is a steampunk reimagining (of sorts) of William Shakespeare’s play [amazon_link id=”0743482832″ target=”_blank” ]The Tempest[/amazon_link]. The protagonist, Harold Winslow, is a greeting card writer from Xeroville. He writes his memoir while trapped aboard a zeppelin—the good ship Chrysalis—with only mechanical servants and the disembodied voice of Miranda Taligent to keep him company. His life becomes inextricably linked with that of Miranda and her father Prospero Taligent’s at the age of ten, when he spends all of his money at the Nickel Empire carnival to obtain a whistle that will secure him an invitation to Miranda’s tenth birthday party. At the birthday party, Prospero promises each of the 100 boys and girls their heart’s desire. Harold becomes Miranda’s playmate until Prospero catches them kissing and banishes Harold from Miranda’s fantastic playroom.
Almost 3/4 through the book, Harold says,
Perhaps you know the kind of man I am, dear imaginary reader. I have never felt as if I have known anyone well. I have never had that sense of instinctive empathy that I am told comes to lovers, or brothers and sisters, or parents and children. I have never been able to finish a sentence that someone else starts. I have never been able to give a gift to someone that they have liked, one that surprises them even as they secretly expected it.
Whenever I looked into faces and tried to discern the thoughts that lay behind them I had to make best guesses, and more often than not it seemed my guesses were wrong. (location 5167 on Kindle)
I think that is the crux of what I didn’t like about the book. The characters were not terribly likeable. They were entertaining, especially Prospero and his servants Gideon and Martin, but no one else brought out my empathy as a reader (excepting Harold as a boy, but he sheds that quickly in the novel). I have no quibbles with Palmer’s writing, which is funny and tragic and at times had me highlighting choice phrases, but the most important thing to me about any book, almost without exception, is the characters. If I do not like any of the characters, it’s hard for me to like the book. The plot of the novel is weird, but I could have let that go if I had been able to empathize with Harold.
Another criticism I have for the book is this sort of underlying misogyny that I see sometimes in science fiction and fantasy. Palmer’s women characters are, without exception, unpleasant and untrustworthy. Shakespeare’s Prospero is concerned with Miranda’s virginity, which is a theme that Palmer takes up in this novel. Prospero seeks to prevent his daughter from becoming sexually active, but when she does, he sees her as ruined. Harold never explicitly says so, but he gives the impression that he agrees with Prospero on that account—sex ruins women, and the proof is in his description of every female character in the novel.
The book improves slightly toward the end as the action picks up the pace, but over all, I can’t say I liked it. The narrative was complex and difficult to follow at times, and the characters did not redeem the story.