The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer


I’m going to try 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.

What it’s about: With characters named Prospero, his daughter Miranda and his son Caliban, The Dream of Perpetual Motion is clearly intended to evoke William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Dream takes place in a fantasy version of 20th-century America, as The Tempest takes place on a magical island, but in Dream the Age of Miracles is over and magic has been replaced by machines, particularly the mechanical men that Prospero Taligent invented. Yet the novel retains a surreal, dreamlike quality more conducive to a time of miracles, and Prospero Taligent is more like a magician than scientist in his constant manipulation of the lives, minds and even bodies of the other characters.

The novel opens at the end of the story, with the main character, Harry Winslow, trapped aboard a zeppelin with the unseen Miranda and Prospero’s corpse, perpetually circling the Earth. Harry reveals that he murdered Prospero and then proceeds to tell the story leading up to the murder, which takes place in three parts, or acts.

In the first part, Harry is 10 years old and, as the result of a series of bizarre episodes, he is invited to Miranda’s 10th birthday party, where he meets Miranda for the first time. At the party, Prospero promises the 100 randomly chosen guests that he will grant their hearts’ desires at some time during their lives. Afterward, Harry becomes Miranda’s playmate; they meet in a playroom in the Tower where she lives and Prospero runs his business, a playroom designed like an enchanted island. However, when Harry kisses Miranda, Prospero banishes him, and he doesn’t see Miranda again for 10 years.

When he is 20, Harry is kidnapped for no clear reason and must rescue Miranda, who was also kidnapped. Harry soon figures out that the scheme was engineered by Prospero as part of granting Harry his heart’s desire. After making love to Miranda in her playroom, Harry doesn’t see either her or Prospero for another 10 years, during which time he lives a dull, lonely life as a writer of greeting cards. Then more scheming on Prospero’s part brings Harry back to the Tower for a final confrontation.

This is a coming-of-age story not only for Harry, but also for the entire human species, which has entered adulthood in the modern mechanical age, ushered in by Prospero’s inventions. Like mankind itself, Harry has abandoned the dreams and possibilities of childhood — his Age of Miracles — and has become cynical and disillusioned. The future has been lost to him, and restoring that moment when everything is possible is what Prospero correctly identifies as Harry’s — and everyone’s — true heart’s desire.

Why I liked it: Palmer has built a disturbing, surreal world in Xeroville, the major city in his alternate America. His writing is evocative; his images linger. One memorable early scene is of young Harry in his bed in the dark, listening on the radio to the news of a terrible airship crash that echoes the Hindenburg disaster while his father and sister argue in the next room. Another is of young Miranda emotionlessly turning a crank to control a full mechanical orchestra, the entertainment at her own birthday party. As the novel progresses, the images become increasingly stranger and more horrific, culminating in Harry’s final nightmarish journey through the Tower. The Dream of Perpetual Motion is a haunting novel and a unique addition to the growing alternate history, steampunk genre.

You might like it if: You enjoy alternate history and steampunk–think Cherie Priest, China Mieville, Paolo Bacigalupi. Palmer is an African-American author; I can’t think of many writing in this genre.


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