Jay Lake, Mainspring


This is one of the maddest books I have read in years!  It’s fantastic!  It’s got angels, demons, Neanderthals, Victoriana, ‘zeppelin’ balloons, rum-and-tar Navy, clocks, swords, cannons, adventure, magic, clocks, jungles, fantastic cities, more clocks, adventure in the polar regions, mountaineering, even more clockwork…

Some of you will have heard of ‘cyberpunk’, a genre of fiction spawned from the stories of William Gibson who first coined the term and fewer still may have heard of ‘steampunk’ which was a sub-genre began by Gibson’s collaboration with Bruce Sterling on the classic story, ‘The Difference Engine‘ which imagines Charles Babbage’s computational device appearing earlier in mankind’s history such that the first computers begin appearing in the Age of Steam.  ‘Mainspring‘ must be the first book in a sub- sub-genre called ‘clockpunk’.  Are you keeping up at the back?

The central conceit of the novel is founded on Richard Dawkins’ rejection of the idea of God using the argument for our evolution in ‘The Blind Watchmaker‘.  Dawkins has argued that the re-working of the classic teleological argument for the proof of God, or the Argument from Design which attempts to show that the world works so perfectly in harmony is because it must have been designed and yada-yada-yada… now you don’t have to be a biologist like Richard Dawkins to know that the world doesn’t work perfectly because biological organisms are very very inefficient.  The argument runs along the lines of: You are alone in a desert, you find a watch, who made it?  If you are the only person alive or your culture doesn’t know how to make clocks then it must have been made by God (whereas the mathematical probabilities say that evolution is actually what happened, sooner or later a clock and it’s discovery, was inevitable).

‘Yes but…’ and so on.  Religion and science will never agree about this because one is myth and the other observation.  Jay Lake has not only thrown the proverbial baby out with the bath water but the rubber duckie and the soap too.  You see, in ‘Mainspring‘ the proof of God’s design is self-evident because the track of Earth’s passage through Heaven is visible in the sky in the form of great brass loops that rise above the clouds.  At midnight, you set your clocks by the chiming of the world as it resets for the next day and if you go to the equator – really cool this bit – there’s a hundred-mile high wall along the top of which runs the gears of the world!  How cool is that?  This book has amazing amounts of WOW and I haven’t read a book this thrilling in years, probably not since I read Philip Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights‘ (or ‘The Golden Compass’ in the US).

Mainspring‘ is the book that Philip Pullman would have written if he really really wanted to be charged with heresy.  There are creatures that look like demons and kill lots of nice people assist the hero, Hethor, in the course of his adventure, while the priests describe themselves as ‘Rational Humanists‘ and stand in Hethor’s way as he attempts to fulfill the angel Gabriel’s mission and rewind the Mainspring of the world.  And what propels Hethor?  The evidence of God’s work in the sky?  No.  What propels Hethor is the very thing that religions appear to lack: faith.  Not the ‘loud evangelism’ that repeats ad nauseum ‘I’m right’ but the quiet faith that says ‘We shall see’.  Jay Lake understands that religion and science are two very different ways of looking at the world and though Hethor is an apprentice clockmaker (or, for the sake of argument, a scientist), his skill only gives him an appreciation for how the world works and not why.  It makes him more believable as a character because as his ideas and understanding of the world are challenged by the exotic strangeness of the things he experiences so he appears more vulnerable.  Ultimately, because of the way Hethor is characterised, Jay Lake can get on with the business of telling an amazing adventure story, leaving ideas of faith and science as side-issues.  The ‘key’ to ‘Mainspring‘ is fun and you can tell that Jay Lake really enjoyed writing this novel.

Jay Lake does not have a complete disregard for Victorian history: he shows General Gordon’s army marching south to expand Empire, slaughtering thousands of natives who are in the way.  He shows the class divisions that helped propel the colonies of the Americas into a war of independence and better yet, shows that those same class divisions still exist (both in the US and here in old Blighty).  He does all this while creating fantastic characters which is no easy thing: most authors get their history and detail right (the narrative) or the characters (and dialogue) but not both.

If you loved Philip Pullman’ His Dark Materials trilogy, you’ll love this.  Heck, if you loved the Harry Potter’s story (and are an adult, there’s ‘rude’ bits in this novel), you’ll love this.  If you loved any of William Gibson’s stories (or Michael Marshall Smith or Bruce Sterling), well, here’s your new favourite book.


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  1. Pingback: Steel and brass « The Pillow

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