by Jay Lake

Cover image

Series: Mainspring #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: June 2007
Printing: May 2008
ISBN: 0-7653-5636-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 324

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In the world of Mainspring, the planets are on literal tracks around the sun, vast tracks which meet the planet at a huge gear around the equator. One can look up in the sky and see the Earth's track and the smaller track of the moon. The universe is not only a giant machine: it's a mechanical machine made of clockwork and perfect metal parts, one which is manifestly designed and constructed by some immensely powerful force. For nearly everyone in Lake's universe, this force is obviously God. This is the universe one would get if one asked what Intelligent Design would look like in a steampunk era.

This audacious world-building background was the reason why I picked up this book. It's a brilliant idea that's full of useful fallout for a book. The Earth is mounted on its track at the equator, which is circled by a giant wall hundreds of miles high. The northern hemisphere, where we originally find our protagonist and which is at a roughly Victorian level of technology, therefore has no contact with the southern hemisphere since the wall appears impassable. The wall has also entered history and mythology, serving as both a battleground between English and Chinese empires and a source of rumors of fabled cities King Solomon built along it.

Unfortunately, it takes a few too many pages to get to the interesting bits. The book starts with Hethor, an indentured clock-maker's apprentice, who is visited by a creature who is apparently the angel Gabriel. He's informed that the world is in danger, that its mechanisms are failing and require rewinding, and is charged with finding the Key Perilous and rewinding the Mainspring of the world. However, Hethor is ignorant, shy, has no idea how to usefully express himself let alone go on this sort of mission, at the mercy of his master's sons, and prone to making very bad decisions. This makes for rather a lot of painful reading as Hethor gets in way over his head, sets out for a city to contact an important person about this mission whom he will obviously never see, acts like a complete idiot around women, and otherwise embarasses both himself and the reader almost continuously until he ends up as impressed crew on an airship.

Yes, of course there's an airship. Mainspring is very steampunk, complete with a fascination for airships and loving descriptions of their design and operation. The descriptions of clockwork and mechanisms I both enjoyed and thought fit the world background and its refocusing of science on machinery. The airships felt gratuitous. If you think any book would be made better by the introduction of some adventure in the clouds, it probably won't bother you as much, but I could have done without much of the extended descriptions of life as an impressed sailor rewritten to take place in the sky. It's probably heresy to say in the face of the current fad, but I find airships rather boring.

Finally, though, Hethor gets near the Wall and Lake starts revealing more of his world-building. The airship explores abandoned cities built against the wall, the crew encounters an intelligent non-human species, and Hethor starts getting additional mysterious messages that seem related to his mission. Lake puts together some beautiful set-pieces along the Wall, which turns out to have breathable air up its full height and across the top and hence an opportunity for lots of dramatic scenery and exploration material. By this point, I was hoping that I'd finally get the book I wanted from the start: an exploration of a mechanical world, some investigation of how it could have been created and how it would be maintained, and the vistas and dramatic scenes that the altered geography and construction of the world would permit. I was, in other words, hoping Lake would put this material to use in the way that Karl Schroeder would.

Instead, the story derails into an odd bit of jungle travel among Noble Savages (who are not even thinly disguised), a science versus theology debate which appears to be conclusively resolved in favor of (not particularly interesting) theology, and, well, magic.

I really wanted a science fiction story where the laws of physics are twisted into making giant metal tracks for planets reasonable but still function in some discoverable and understandable way. I wanted the characters to investigate their world and learn about it in the SF tradition of the Big Dumb Object story. Mainspring is not that. Mainspring, by the end, appears to be a flat-out fantasy featuring a young character with hidden magical powers and the ability to bend reality to his whim through sufficient force of will, which robs rather a lot of the interest out of exploring what the world is actually like. The climactic ending was sadly predictable and sadly cliched at an emotional level, and the whole second half of the book just left me vaguely annoyed.

The other problem with this book, apart from the world background not going in the direction I wanted, is that there are very few likeable characters. Hethor is a True Believer and frustratingly ignorant outside of that, prone to bad snap decisions and otherwise getting led around by the plot. The primary villain of the piece is both unbelievable and uninteresting. His supposedly scientific philosophy, opposing Hethor's faith in a constructive and benevolent God, could have been a much-needed philosphical counterpoint to the book, but it's only explored in scenes where Hethor is already convinced he's evil and isn't listening. And despite a few twists on Christianity, such as the idea that Christ also had to wind the world's mainspring, the world's religion is mostly superficial and involves Hethor being certain that deus ex machina will always arrive on schedule. Which indeed appears to be the case. This is, ironically, a book in which deus ex machina could work quite well if Lake would just take the reader behind the stage and show the machina, but he never really does.

Mainspring wins serious cool points for the world background, which is a brilliant conceit and which I'd still like to read about. But with weak characters, occasionally sloppy writing, rather too much stock Airship Adventure, and a sadly superficial treatment of the bones underneath the idea, the book doesn't live up to its concept. There are still some good moments, but not enough to get me to read the sequel unless the series starts winning awards.

Followed by Escapement.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-12-22

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21