fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Dexter Palmer The Dream of Perpetual MotionThe Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer

FORMAT/INFO: The Dream of Perpetual Motion is 352 pages long divided over five parts, with each part divided into numbered segments. Also includes a Prologue, an Epilogue, and four Interludes. Narration alternates between the first-person and the third-person via the narrator of the book, Harold “Harry” Winslow. The Dream of Perpetual Motion is self-contained.

March 2, 2010 marks the North American Hardcover publication of The Dream of Perpetual Motion via St. Martin’s Press.

ANALYSIS: At the start to Dexter Palmer’s debut novel, The Dream of Perpetual Motion, readers are introduced to Harold “Harry” Winslow, the hero and narrator of the story, and his remarkable situation: trapped aboard the ‘good ship Chrysalis’ (accompanied only by the corpse of Prospero Taligent and the voice of his adopted daughter Miranda), which was created to travel the skies for all eternity.

Over the bulk of the novel, Harold explains how and why he, Miranda and Prospero ended up in their current predicament aboard the Chrysalis. It all begins twenty years earlier with a party celebrating Miranda’s tenth birthday, where one hundred lucky boys and girls were invited to attend in a scenario reminiscent of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It is at this party that Harold’s life becomes inextricably intertwined with Miranda’s and Prospero’s, including Prospero’s promise to fulfill every child present with his or her’s ‘heart’s desire’. From here, the narrative skips ten years ahead. Harold is a creative writing student at Xeroville University, his older sister Astrid is an artist on the brink of fame, and Miranda is about to leave the Taligent Tower for the very first time. Another ten years and it’s Christmas Eve, the night when Harold, Miranda and Prospero board the Chrysalis, leading back to the start — and end — of Harold’s memoir.

Plot-wise, The Dream of Perpetual Motion is fairly straightforward once you’ve finished reading the book, but the actual journey from point A to point B is anything but. A framing device where Harold is constantly speaking directly to the reader; the ten-year gaps; excerpts from Caliban Taligent’s notebooks, Prospero’s diary and the Xeroville Free Press; monologues, rants and philosophical debates on a wide range of topics (miracles vs. Inventions, moral forces, speech, the written word, noise, silence, art, growing old, the loss of innocence, heroism, etc.); recurring dreams about the virgin queen; and much more threaten to overwhelm the reader with too much information, a lot of which seems to have no connection with one another. Fortunately, there is a logic to Dexter Palmer’s madness, and it’s quite rewarding to see how everything fits together by the end of the novel, although I did feel there were parts that could have been edited out without any great loss. That said, The Dream of Perpetual Motion is definitely not for casual readers, and will be appreciated more by those who enjoy fiction of a more challenging, literary bent.

Personally, I tend to find these kinds of novels boring and long-winded, but in the case of The Dream of Perpetual Motion, I was kept enthralled by two main reasons. One of these was Dexter Palmer’s writing. Whether it’s the fleshed out, eccentric characters (Harold, Prospero, Miranda, Astrid, Allan Winslow, Caliban, Ophelia Flavin, Charmaine Saint Claire, the portraitmaker); wonderfully descriptive prose; thoughtful examinations on meaningful subjects such as love, change and growing old; quirky humor; the versatility to narrate in different voices and point-of-views (besides Harold, the master of the boiler room, the portraitmaker and the beast all have their own stories to tell); or the ability to skillfully orchestrate a convoluted narrative without losing control; Dexter Palmer’s writing is of a caliber that few writers ever achieve, let alone a debut novelist:

“Every story needs a voice to tell it though, or it goes unheard. So I have to try. I still have enough faith left in language to believe that if I place enough words next to each other on the page, they will start to speak with sounds of their own.”

“Storytelling — that’s not the future. The future, I’m afraid, is flashes and impulses. It’s made up of moments and fragments, and stories won’t survive.”

“If you want Miranda for yourself. Shaking finger. Then you’ll — oh, wait, I’ve stuffed it up.” He pointed his finger in my face and started to shake it vigorously. “If you want Miranda for yourself then you’ll have to kill me first!” —Prospero reading from a set of index cards while being confronted by Harold

Secondly, The Dream of Perpetual Motion is incredibly imaginative. Shrinkcabs (taxi cabs driven by professionally licensed shrinks), Nickel Empire, a camera obscura, teaching machines, flying cars, mechanical men configured as angels and demons, Miranda’s playroom which can emulate any place in the world like a desert island, Picturetown whose inhabitants refuse to speak aloud “under all but the direst of cirumstances”, the Critic-O-Matic which grades papers without ‘subjective judgment’, a vitrioleur (a person trained in slinging acid), a Frankenstein-like creature that speaks through a typewriter plugged into its head —The Dream of Perpetual Motion is just full of crazy ideas and much of my enjoyment of the book stemmed from discovering what the author would come up with next.

Negatively, besides a narrative that can be difficult to follow and pacing that occasionally stalled due to tangential ramblings, I found it hard to really sympathize with any of the book’s characters despite their interesting personalities/traits, and I felt the novel was sometimes too ambitious for its own good. Also, on a personal note, I was disappointed by the use of steampunk in The Dream of Perpetual Motion. When I think of steampunk I think of action, adventure and excitement. I think of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Time Machine, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Metropolis. I don’t think of a literary drama that takes place in a steampunk-influenced 20th century setting (the city Xeroville), which is how I would describe The Dream of Perpetual Motion. In other words, while there are hints of Jules Verne and Katsuhiro Otomo (Steamboy, Metropolis, Akira) to be found in Dexter Palmer’s debut, the novel is more like something cooked up by Michael Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep), Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and Tim Burton (Big Fish, Edward Scissorhands), garnished with elements of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Frankenstein, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and fairy tales.

CONCLUSION: Despite issues I had with the narrative’s complexity and ambitiousness, characters I wasn’t able to connect with, and my disillusionment regarding the nature of the book, I came away vastly impressed with Dexter Palmer’s The Dream of Perpetual Motion, in particular the accomplished writing and the author’s wild and vivid imagination. And even though I believe the book’s success will be hindered by its inaccessibility and strangeness, The Dream of Perpetual Motion is a special novel that marks the debut of a talented new author with a very bright future.

~Robert Thompson

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Dexter Palmer The Dream of Perpetual MotionThe Dream of Perpetual Motion, by Dexter Palmer, has a great opening. Past a poetic and ominous first few lines, we get the narrator telling us:

If my reckoning of time is still accurate… the one year anniversary of my incarceration aboard… a high altitude zeppelin designed by that most prodigious and talented of twentieth-century inventors, Prospero Taligent. It has also been a year since I last opened my mouth to speak. To anyone. Especially my captor… because it is the one thing that she desires, and my silence is the only form of protest that remains to me.

Great image — that zeppelin flying up there. Great hook — why’s he imprisoned up there. Why’s he not speaking. Who is “she”? Great voice — formal, solemn. In short, great opening. Does the rest of the book live up to the start? Well, not frequently enough, to be honest, but still, it was often enough that I’d recommend The Dream of Perpetual Motion.

Our captive narrator is Harold Winslow, writer of greeting cards, lover of Miranda Taligent, cat’s-paw of Prospero Taligent. The book veers between first and third-person narration, though all by Harold, who informs us of when the “he” becomes “I” along the way of his explaining how he first met Miranda and Prospero and how that led to his current predicament. The novel covers Harold’s childhood (about 20 years earlier), then jumps ahead a decade to his college years, where his sister becomes more of a focal point, then another jump in time closer to the present. The movement is all straightforward and easy to follow. Mixed into Harold’s narration are a few other elements: newspaper excerpts, diary entries, a host of dreams, and the like. These, I thought, varied greatly in their effectiveness, and I wouldn’t have been sorry to see a large number of them, especially the dreams, dropped in favor of a more streamlined book.

The characters varied as well, with most of them a bit distant; I can’t say I cared much for any of them, actually, though I found several interesting enough to carry me through. Luckily, one of those was Harold. Prospero was probably the most compelling, though several of his hired hands (two at the start and three at the very end) give him a run for his money in that department. Miranda, unfortunately, was less interesting. Harold’s sister was interesting in her role and premise; she could have been on stage a bit more; though without her critic friend, who seemed the most forced and clichéd character of the book.

The setting wasn’t particularly sharp or fully there, but it had moments of brilliance, such as the “shrink-cab,” whose drivers are trained psychiatrists so one can get therapy while on the way to or from work; and the mechanical men invented by Prospero (they, like Harold’s sister, could have seen more book-time).

The plot was solid enough and the characters were decent, but where the book shined, and the main reason for recommending it, is its prose and narrative voice, which was consistently strong throughout the novel. Here, for instance, is the description of Harold’s greeting card workplace at night:

And nightfall has come to the greeting card works.

The building is nearly silent. Most of the machines are resting, with only an occasional isolated whir or hum in the darkened corridors, Christmas tinsel rustles in the dark from stray drafts of ice-cold air-conditioned wind. The building’s struts and columns contract with quiet creaks and pops in the coldness of night.

And now the mechanical men concealed in hatches and secret doorways come out by the hundreds, creeping on cat feet like burglars or mischievous sprites, carrying huge burlap sacks on their backs. Quietly, they remove the red and green and silver and gold decorations from the walls and ceilings, stuffing them into their bags, replacing them with red cardboard hearts with arrows drawn on them, and long twisting billowing strands of pink crepe.

And in a stuffy room in the basement… a dwarf… removes his elf costume, squeezes into a bright red pair of tights, and straps a pair of cardboard cherub’s wings around his naked hairless chest with a belt. A quiver full of arrows completes the outfit. Christmas is over. Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day.

That is an author in control of his voice and while that’s a standout section, there are several equally as good and others that come close. There’s also a wonderful theme of silence that runs through the story, as well as some thought-provoking conversations and monologues.

These passages make up for a so-so plot that could have used some cutting, especially of some of the interludes and more-forced-feeling passages, as well as for the less-than-empathetic characters. Because of the occasional problems with narrative and character, The Dream of Perpetual Motion was not a fluidly enjoyable read, and once or twice I had to kick myself a bit to pick it back up, but it’s worth a read on its own and certainly piques my interest as far as what the author, with a bit more seasoning, will do for his second book.

~Bill Capossere

The Dream of Perpetual Motion — (2010) Publisher: Imprisoned aboard a zeppelin that floats above a city reminiscent of those of the classic films Metropolis and Brazil, the greeting card writer Harold Winslow is composing his memoirs. His companions are the only woman he has ever loved, who has gone insane, and the cryogenically frozen body of her father, the devilish genius who drove her mad. The tale of Harold’s decades-long thwarted love is also one in which he watches technology transform his childhood home from a mere burgeoning metropolis to a waking dream, in which the wellheeled have mechanical men for servants, deserted islands can exist within skyscrapers, and the worlds of fairy tales can be built from scratch. And as he heads toward a final, desperate confrontation with the mad inventor, he discovers that he is an unwitting participant in the creation of the greatest invention of them all — the perpetual motion machine.


  • Robert Thompson

    ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.