Home > Books > The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer

The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer

In some cases, it’s good to start with a quote. Not because that’s the way you intend to go on. But to lay down a marker. To show intent.

“. . .we were afraid of. . .their seeming ability to make anything happen that you could imagine, even before you’d finished imagining it. It was instantly clear. . .that we were in the presence of an unstoppable moral force, and that this force would not rest until it did us in, all of us, even if it didn’t mean to.”

There are several questions you must always ask when confronted by thematic uncertainty. Suppose we could make people out of metal, would they feel anything? Obviously and literally, there would be no physical sense of touch as we humans understand it. But would there be emotional feeling? Or once they were birthed from the same mould, would these mechanicals all work in the same way (until breaking down)? Think of the possibilities. They could become a moral army, programmed to act in the way thought best by their creator(s). They would march in lock step through what they had of a life, each contributing to the wellbeing of their maker(s).

Metaphorically, of course, we are all capable of shutting ourselves off from the real world. Even though we have the ability to touch, we might remake our hearts out of metal and so insulate ourselves from ever having to feel again. Indeed, to the casual glance, we might be indistinguishable from “real” human beings, but actually be emotionally mechanical. If that was the case, would we ever have the need to speak to each other?

Machines make noise, have their own rhythm in doing what they do, but do not “speak”. Why should any one actually need to communicate to any other. Our lives are wrapped up in what we do. Only in exceptional cases is it necessary to reach out verbally to others. If something needs to be said, it can be written down. Or perhaps we could all come to realise that silence can be just as eloquent as speech. Indeed, sometimes, it’s the things we don’t say that are the most revealing about who or what we are.

In all of this, what is real? Some things may have the appearance of life but actually be mechanical lifeforms. Equally, some people may lie, deceiving themselves and others about who they are and what their history is. They program themselves not to feel pain and loss. Does this mean there cannot be love? Just because of the accident of birth, we might feel obliged to love our parents and siblings. This would suggest a different love when we have a choice. Perhaps in adopting a child, or deciding whether there’s something more than lust in our relationship(s), the emotions we exchange become love. One thing is certain. When we cheat on our partners, no spoken words are needed. We use disposable signs and gestures, designed only to satisfy our immediate needs and without real meaning. Perhaps that’s why, sometimes, spoken words can feel so out-of-place, say, when one person is trying to cut through convention and make a real connection with the other.

Being essentially selfish creatures, we are all in search of our heart’s desire. It’s what motivates us, giving shape to our lives. Unless and until we admit failure, we keep on moving closer to what we hope will give us what we want (or need). Except, of course, people forget or they change through time and realise that the goals they set in childhood are not suitable for an adult. To that extent, all humans are in perpetual motion, their needs and wants evolving and changing through time. And, somewhat ironically, even the mechanicals can have purpose and feel satisfaction in achieving goals. Just because the fabric may not be exactly the same as skin and bone, is not a reason to deny them human qualities. Except, of course, they can be unstoppable and do us in, even though that was not their (or their maker’s) intention. So, an emotionally blind adoptive father may not see the needs of his daughter, trampling her individuality in the belief it’s for her own good.

I could go on, but you get the message. In The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Dexter Palmer has written a book for musing on such weighty issues. Were this an ordinary novel, it would be a light read, offering various romantic themes pushed together so we could compare and contrast the emotions on display. Unfortunately, he has made a study of experimental writing. He knows about modernism and postmodernism, and can play in the semiotics sandbox. The result is mannered and pretentious. What might have been fresh when the William S. Burroughs drug-soaked generation was playing with cut-up and metafiction, is singularly less successful here. What could be quite interesting existentialism or even transcendentalism, gets mown down in Palmer’s desire to show off his ability to play with the symbols we use to communicate with each other. Rather as in the novels of Paul Auster, we have an obsessive protagonist. He is obsessed with words as a writer but loses spoken language during the period he fails to recognise himself as a person with feelings and the capacity to love. To get past this point, he has to cut himself off from the world. Think of him as in a sensory deprivation chamber with constant background white noise to complete his isolation from real language. He could be floating above the world in some incredible dirigible with nothing but a few visual symbols to remind him of reality. In this suspension from his own existence, he can look back at his life and finally come to terms with himself. Perhaps even find redemption. As to his love, he is Shakespeare to Miranda’s Queen Elizabeth. She is everywhere, but is nowhere to be found until he finds the right words to reach out to her. Setting up the context in which this happens would be a good trick for a dead magician to perform.

I note a tendency in others to stereotype the novel as being steampunk. I disagree. The term is rather reserved to the Victorian era whereas this is firmly rooted in the twentieth century. There is technology, but it is not anachronistic. We did have dirigibles at this time and, although we have not developed the android technology suggested here, we did have Gakutensoku and Elektro. Indeed, the fact this novel is framed as The Tempest suggests we are not intended to take the mechanical men literally. All this is the magic of Prospero as he strives to give the world its heart’s desire, even if it kills us.

I found this book immensely tedious at times and, although there are odd moments when I appreciated the author’s cleverness, I leave you with a final quote. As in all novels of this type, the author must write himself into the story. This is how he describes himself, “. . .that Dexter couldn’t shut his piehole either. . .” For the only time in the novel, the author was attempting to give himself good advice. Unfortunately, he continued to write.

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