There is a vibrant subgenre of science fiction that goes by the moniker steampunk. A steampunk world is filled with gears and gizmos, crazy clockwork inventions that in a broad sense answer the question “what if the information age started without electricity?” Escapement by Jay Lake takes the steampunk idea one step further: rather than filling the world with crazy mechanisms, the world itself is a piece of clockwork machinery. The Universe is a functioning machine.
What would the effect be in the inhabitants of such a world? Theology would certainly be changed dramatically, as evidence of intelligent design is right there in the brass gears that move the planets in their tracks. On this Earth there is a wall around the equator, miles and miles high, that fits into the track that defines the Earth’s orbit. (Gravity still seems to function, and the Earth is the same size as our home planet, so I’m not sure how regular orbital mechanics interact with the mechanical orbital mechanism. But anyway…)
The inhabitants of the flat parts of the Earth are similar in temperament and technology to those of Victorian era. (Steampunk loves the victorian age.) England never lost her colonies, despite an abortive rebellion in the US led by Lincoln and Lee, and now rules Europe as well. China is rivaling England’s dominance of North Earth. South of the wall… who knows? No one has managed to get there and back again. There are tensions between the two powers, and both nations are trying to reach South Earth. There are also international secret societies with their own agendas.
It’s a volatile situation. You know what could be disastrous at a time like that? A genius, that’s what. Adding Paolina Barthes to that situation is like adding an atomic bomb to gasoline.
Paolina was born in a dying village at the foot of the wall, way out in the Atlantic. The wall is a vertical continent filled with all kinds of strange creatures and intelligences, including robots. (Since Čapek has yet to be born, they are called Brass Men.) Events and Stupid People drive her from her home, and she sets out along the wall to find distant Africa, to travel from there to England, where the great wizards create the machines that can change destiny. Paolina has also built a clock — only it’s more than a clock, it’s a device that is in tune with the mechanisms that drive the world. Once it is tuned to resonate with something in the world, it can be used to alter that thing. Some folks on the wall call it a gleam.
In her travels she meets a Brass Man. He is a machine, identical to all the others but for the memories in the crystals in his head that have not been shared yet. There is a code word, he tells Paolina, a word that he himself does not know, that would break the seal that ties him to Authority. Naturally Paolina resolves to find that code to free him.
There are two other main characters as well, but they are less interesting. Perhaps this is partly because of the way we meet them. More on that shortly. Angus al-Wazir is a big, Scottish (with a bit of Arab) military man, formerly of an airship that went down while exploring the wall. He’s made it back to England but now finds himself part of a project to drill a hole through the wall to get to the other side. Emily Childress is a librarian and a member of one of the aforementioned secret societies. She’s been dragged from her library and is about to become a political sacrifice when Events intervene, and she finds herself prisoner on a Chinese submarine.
This was a fun book, but I want to talk for a little bit about the first couple of chapters. Each chapter starts with Paolina, then comes Angus, then comes Emily. Paolina lives on al Muralha; it shapes her life. As something that’s always been there, it’s not something she considers directly that often. I, on the other hand, had no idea what the hell al Muralha was. The village is small, and dying, and everyone besides her is really quite stupid. Only gradually do I start to discover what everyone in the story already knows — that the wall is truly, stupendously, mind-bogglingly tall. In the meantime, I was confused.
It has become a theme in my rambling reviews of late to discuss the way a novel interacts with others of a series. The other two characters in this story (and the wall) were introduced in a previous book. When we are introduced to Angus and Emily there is a whole ton of backstory to deal with, especially with Emily. We are told about Emily’s role in sending some other guy off on a mission with the White Birds, her secret society. We are told about the theological differences between her society an the others they are at odds with. The thing is, all that backstory could have waited. I was starving for information, but given a bunch of blah-blah-blah instead. What I was waiting for was for someone to look at the damn sky. More than once there are passing references to brass in the sky, and even phrases like, “one had only to look at the sky to see the hand of the creator.” I thought at first that the writer was being coy, teasing me along with references to the strange clockwork universe, but in the end that wasn’t it. I think the wall and the sky were made clear in the previous book and he didn’t feel the need to go into the details again. I can’t say for sure as I haven’t read the previous one. I just needed Paolina to spend an evening estimating the width of the track the Earth follows (later she mentions that she has done this), perhaps calculating the stresses on it or speculating on the motive force behind it, to not only appreciate the clockwork world but Paolina as well. It would have been interesting and could have focussed on details of the world not touched on in the previous book, to make it interesting to newbies and returning fans as well.
So we begin with a lot of information, but it’s the wrong information. All that other backstory that we did get is also handled when it is actually needed, so overall chapter one, when we should be getting to know the people and the world, is more about getting to know a different and not terribly relevant story.
After we get through the blah-blah-blah (which is pretty quick) we get on with the story and it’s a pretty good adventure. Just how much power Paolina’s gleam holds is revealed gradually and interestingly, and her struggle to find a place in a sexist society is excellent. Eventually she has to come to grips with the fact that she is an atomic bomb in an ocean of gasoline, and figure out what to do about it. Angus is all right, a tough and sensible guy with an honorable streak. Emily never really picked up a third dimension. The three converge for the big finish, but in the end Emily doesn’t matter much, except to provide a vehicle to tell us, the readers, what the Chinese are up to. Angus has several sub-adventures along the way that add flavor but not substance to the narrative. Somewhere along the wall he foments a Coup d’Etat, then drives away unaffected. Huh. I guess the author needed something for him to do to preserve the structure of the chapters.
Overall, this was an entertaining read, and I’m glad it was in my goody bag at the World Fantasy Convention last November. Had I read this review beforehand, I would have enjoyed it even more. I would have had the right backstory. Now you can go in prepared.
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