Saturday, August 11, 2007

Geared-up Universe

kw: book reviews, fantasy, alternate history

From the author's picture, I'd expect to find him driving a flower-painted VW microbus. The Portland home address fit right in. But we find him frequenting the halls of the wordsmiths, and rapidly rising therein.

Mainspring is Jay Lake's third novel, the first to come to my notice. I see from his web site that he also wrote Trial of Flowers a few years ago. I've seen it at the library, but didn't look at it; the publisher, Nightshade, specializes in fiction darker than I care to read. He is also expecting to publish Stemwinder in 2008, which I expect to be a sequel to Mainspring.

Take Isaac Newton's speculation of God as a divine clockmaker, who created the Universe as a complex mechanism that now runs on its own, and William Paley's divine watchmaker (the first creationist argument from design, and forerunner to "intelligent" design apologetics). Mix in medieval fantasies of monstrous varietal 'people', and you have a milieu fit for Lake's tale of a clockmaker's apprentice charged by an angel to rewind the mainspring of the world.

It is early in the reign of Victoria, and one need only look to the heavens to see the handiwork of God. Not just in the planets and the stars, but in the brass ring gear within which the world revolves. One may at times also see the moon's own brass gearing. But things are subtly going out of whack, and young Hethor Jacques is charged to find the Key Perilous and set them right.

What follows is a classic, chiastic Quest narrative. I did not take notes to determine if the chiasma is perfect, but it is close. Half the book is taken up with the youngster making his way, helped by a seeming hidden fraternity linked by the password "albino toucan", to the Equator (or perhaps the Ecliptic; it is not stated), where a hundred-mile ridge supports the mighty ring gear that meshes with the cosmic ring. A mighty click at midnight establishes the beginning of each day. It can be heard worldwide, and when one is atop the ridge, it is literally deafening.

The second half of the book draws our apprentice ever closer to the South Pole, where he will find the gears that drive the world. He is helped here by a hairy species of men, self-called the 'correct people'. At the beginning and end of each half, Hethor must overcome the resistance of powerful adversaries.

The charm of a chiastic structure is that it mirrors the experience of walking a labyrinth. You first enter, making turn after turn to reach the center. From the center you return, making each turn in reverse order. A vast number of stories use plot formulae that follow either a 3-turn or 7-turn labyrinth. Most take you to the center, resolve the problem that was initially set, then jump you back to final peace (or a tickler for a sequel) in a closing chapter or an epilogue. Fewer use a complete in-and-out sequence.

Though the story has two linear elements (northern North America to the equatorial Gear to the South Pole; and the young man's coming of age with women, in much too much detail for my taste), the chiasma ties everything together, and in the epilogue, Hethor Jacques is in a southern mirror of his former northern home, but amongst friends, finally.

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