“Mainspring” by Jay Lake (Tor, 2007)


Mainspring is your classic steampunk novel: the world is run by machinery. The Mainspring is at the center of the world, constantly turning and working, making every other cog, wheel and spring turn and work.  The world is split between the two hemispheres by a giant metal wall that reaches into space.  The planet turns, and runs on an orbiting track around the sun and at midnight the wall connects with this track for one moment, obliterating everything on top of the Wall and starting anew.  All this was created and set in motion by God: the Mainspring is the heart of the world and is also the heart of God.

In this world, the War for Independence never happened, and at the turn of the twentieth century, Britain still controls the colonies.  Hethor Jacques is a sixteen year old boy and a clockmaker’s apprentice.  He is visited by the Archangel Gabriel and told that the Mainspring is not running well and requires the Key Perilous to set it in correct motion again.  This is necessary once over many generations and the time has come again and it is up to Hethor to perform this task.  With lots of problems and obstructions along the way, Hethor makes his treacherous journey to Boston where he is press ganged into the British navy on Her Majesty’s Ship of the Air Bassett: an ordinary ship that is attached to a great air balloon sending it high into the sky.  Commissioned to aid Her Majesty’s ships at the Wall, the Bassett travels over the Atlantic to the great iron curtain where they come face to face with horrors and monsters never imagined.  The Wall is a place of legend and story, of fabled cities filled with jewels and ghosts.

It is in a town on the Wall that Hethor meets the Jade Priest who aids him in his quest to cross the Wall and enter the southern hemisphere.  He must travel to the South Pole where he will find the entrance to the Mainspring and attempt to carry out his duty.  It is here, in the last third of the book, that the plot of Mainspring devolves and becomes quite dreadful, much like the devolved and chaotic world of this hemisphere.  Jay Lake takes an uncertain direction in pushing forth the religion that has been secondary to the incredible steampunk world so far, making Hethor into a messiah like character and therefore able to survive every devastating attack and tragedy that befalls him.  It is here also that Hethor becomes a leader of this simian race that are between monkey and human on an evolutionary scale, known as the “correct people.”  With Hethor leading the correct people south, it recalls the plight of Moses and the Israelites.  Naturally there is a female in this group who has the incredibly developed and humanistic name of Arellya that Hethor becomes closer and closer to, eventually leading to a copulation scene that can only be described as bestiality: “He rubbed at her hairy back, enjoying the silky smooth feel, like petting a giant cat.”

With this severe downward turn to the novel, Mainspring was hard to finish.  The failing of the book was in going from a complex and fantastic world of air ships and machinery and exotic places to a religious dogma coupled with a fascination for an ape-like race.  Nevertheless, Mainspring possesses many facets of the steampunk novel making it a classic in some ways, along with amazing cover artwork of the Bassett at the Wall.

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Originally written on August 15th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.