Jay Lake: Mainspring

Jay Lake is one of the current generation of SF writers who I heard about through word-of-mouth on the Internet,. Mainspring is his first novel, and also my first exposure to his writing.

It’s a “fantastic alternate world” story, in that it takes place on an Earth where the British Empire is ascendant and America is merely one of its provinces, but where magic is real, and the world is bisected by a giant wall around the equator. Our hero, Hethor Jacques, is a young apprentice clockmaker in New Haven, Connecticut who receives a visitation from the angel Gabriel. Gabriel tells him that the mainspring of the world is winding down, and that he has to find the fabled Key Perilous and wind it up again, a feat the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the days of Christ.

At first unsure that it’s not just a dream, Hethor is convinced by the small silver feather that Gabriel leaves behind, and a visit to his master’s son, and then to a librarian at Yale, convinces him that his vision was real. Unfortunately, it also causes him to run afoul of his father’s dishonest and greedy sons, who force their father to turn him out onto the street. This sets Hethor on a path to Boston to petition the Queen’s representative for help. This, too, goes badly, but is a blessing in disguise as he ends up conscripted to one of Her Majesty’s airships (zeppelins), where he meets Simeon Malgus, who also has some knowledge of the strange doings of the world. The ship travels to the equator to extend the empire’s reach into the wild areas near the wall around the world.

The adventure goes badly for the ship, and Hethor is separated from them and carried to the top of the wall, where the gears on which the Earth travels around the sun are located. He and Malgus travel over the gears into the southern hemisphere where they become separated. But Hethor is taken in by some small aborigines who call themselves the Correct People. He forms a close bond with one of the People, Arellya, and the People accompany Hethor – whom they see as a messenger from God – on his mission as he forges ever southward in search of the Key Perilous and the Mainspring. He is opposed in this by William of Ghent, a sorcerer who served the regent in Boston, who believes that if the mainspring is allowed to wind down then it will signal a new age for mankind in freedom from the whims of heaven.

I generally prefer SF over fantasy, and this story leans more to the fantasy side than I’d expected. But my basic problem is that the story is a straightforward quest/travelogue: Hethor has a mission and he sets out to fulfill it even though he really doesn’t have much idea how to go about it, and this provides the impetus to send him across this quirky world that Lake has created and show us many things about it. Mixed in with this is Hethor’s coming-of-age tale. But despite putting these elements together in a single tale, I don’t think it manages to transcend any of them.

A travelogue is successful only to the extent that the world fascinates. The archetypal fantasy travelogue, of course, is The Lord of the Rings. There’s certainly some interesting stuff in this world, but throughout the story I kept wondering: Why is Earth on a gear? How did civilization evolve so closely with our own despite being separated from the southern hemisphere? What other effects did the bisecting of the Earth have? These questions are outside the scope of the story, but they’re the ones I was most interested in, which meant the travelogue had some big missing pieces for me.

Hethor’s narrative is okay, but doesn’t really distinguish itself in the annals of quest or coming-of-age stories. At first Hethor pursues his quest through some reasonable avenues, seeking out knowledgeable people to help and direct him, but as it progresses once he enters the southern hemisphere his attraction to the south pole doesn’t seem rational, even in the context of the story’s supernatural elements (why the south pole rather than the north?). His progress into manhood is decidedly quirky, especially once he meets Arellya and the Correct People. Lake certainly deserves props for the odd turns the story takes at this point, but overall it wasn’t a remarkable story.

Finally, I felt let down by the conclusion, as Hethor ends up leading a strange life after the conclusion of his quest, leaving everything he’d known behind. In a way it does make sense given where he ended up travelling to, but it wasn’t a very satisfying conclusion to the story.

Stories like this always make me feel like I’m missing some piece of the big picture, suspecting that there’s an allegory that I can’t see. There’s a lot of Christian imagery in Mainspring, and I have negligible understanding of Christianity other than the broad ways in which it’s influenced the culture I live in, so if Lake is trying to make points about Christianity through the story, they went entirely over my head. But if the book is what it appears to be to me, well, Lake shows considerable craftsmanship in his world-building, but the story just wasn’t very interesting to me.