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Quirky obsession with machines

IN his tragicomic first novel, "The Dream of Perpetual Motion," Dexter Palmer takes elements from Nabokov, Neal Stephenson, Steven Millhauser and "The Tempest," tosses them into a retro-futuristic blender and hits "puree." The result is a singular riff on steampunk - sophisticated, subversive entertainment that never settles for escapism.

Palmer imagines an alternate 20th-century America "filled with machines," including steam-powered contraptions, mechanized orchestras and omnipresent robot servants. Machines do all the work; people do all the buying.

Against this backdrop, the "failed-writer" Harold Winslow narrates the story of his life while imprisoned on an airship supposedly powered by a perpetual motion machine. Two ghosts of a sort are stuck there with him: the cryogenically frozen corpse of a once powerful inventor, Prospero Taligent, and the mysterious, disembodied voice of Prospero's adopted daughter, Miranda, haunting Winslow over the intercom.

Why is Winslow imprisoned, Prospero dead and Miranda ethereal? The answers lie in the deep past, and have much to do with Winslow's attendance at Miranda's 10th-birthday party after a chance encounter at a fair. In an early display of Prospero's talent and power, the invitation is delivered by a "mechanical demon" that eventually sprouts wings, grabs Winslow and flies away. The experience leaves an indelible impression. "When Harold was hundreds of feet in the air ... the wind rushing by him and filling his ears ... well, the only thing he could think was that life must have been something like this during the age of miracles that his father sometimes talked about."

If the party scenes illustrate Prospero's creepy need to control people, they also give Palmer a chance to embrace broad comedy. At one point, Miranda tells Winslow, "I do not like you," then adds, "I am not yet very good at conversations." Winslow replies, "No kiddin'."

The rest of the story is appealingly grotesque if a bit familiar: A budding romance turns tragic because of a father's meddling. Miranda cannot stay forever prepubescent, and Winslow, in the eyes of the obsessed Prospero, will only hasten her fall from grace.

As Prospero grows more dominant he also grows more depraved, and once he invents his perpetual motion machine the story takes on an irresistible tension.

Emboldened by his new achievements, Prospero proclaims himself ruler of the world and warns of random "death rays." Citizens revolt, and the city descends into chaos.


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