Earlier this year, I reviewed Dexter Palmer's The Dream of Perpetual Motion for the New York Times Book Review. It's an impressive debut that, as I wrote,"takes elements from Nabokov, Neal Stephenson, Steven Millhauser, and The Tempest, tosses them into a retro-futuristic blender and hits 'purÃ©e.' The result is....sophisticated, subversive entertainment that never settles for escapism."
What's it about? Palmer posits an alternate 20th-century America in which greeting card writer Harold Winslow tells the Âstory of his life while imprisoned on an airship powered by a perpetual motion machine.. He's been put there by the mad inventor Prospero Taligent due to his involvement with Prospero's daughter Miranda. Over the course of the novel, Winslow darts back and forth between past and present, creating a powerful story of love, obsession, and cruel invention.
Since then, I've interviewed Palmer as part of research for a steampunk coffee table book I'm writing for Abrams (NY). Although The Dream of Perpetual Motion isn't really core steampunk--it's rightly being marketed to general readers--the retro-futuristic world Palmer has created is impressively unique and imaginative. I wanted to know how he'd created such a distinctive milieu, and how it affected the characters. Here's what he told me.
Amazon.com: What sparked writing the novel, and what influenced the retro-futurist feel of it?
Dexter Palmer: I started working on the novel in 1996. I got the idea for the setting when doing research for a paper I was writing in grad school on H. G. Wells"”when I was searching through the library stacks for secondary material, I came across a book called Futuredays: A Nineteenth-Century Vision of the Year 2000. It's basically what it's advertised to be: reproductions of a collection of French cigarette cards, illustrated by artist Jean Marc CÃ´tÃ© in 1899 and depicting his whimsical idea of what life would be like a hundred years later. Some of his predictions are dead-on: for instance, an image of a man who receives up-to-date news reports via audio recording. But some are hilariously inaccurate, like an illustration of a family warming itself at a fireplace that has not wood in it, but a hunk of radium sitting on a pedestal. I thought it would be fun to set a novel in that world"”essentially, an alternate version of history in which the science is sometimes egregiously incorrect.
Amazon.com: Did you establish any rules for the technology used in the book?
Dexter Palmer: Since transistors and plastic were, one might argue, the two biggest technological innovations of the 20th century, and those inventions were not yet imagined in 1900, one rule I had was that nothing in the setting could utilize either of those things. When designing the appearance of places and objects, I tried to look at circa-1900 source documents whenever possible, or failing that, histories of technology or culture. For instance, the amusement park in the second section of the novel is a retrofuturist reimagining of turn-of-the-century Coney Island (the primary source here was Edo McCullough's Good Old Coney Island). The printing press in the third section works almost as an early-20th-century printing press would, except with the assistance of mechanical men. The answering machine that appears briefly in the fourth section is mostly built out of recording technology mostly available at the turn of the century (Andre Millard's book America on Record was a good source for this) combined with a little handwaving.
Some of the look and feel of the world is also inspired by films of Fritz Lang (Metropolis; Spies; Woman in the Moon); some of it by pre-WWII Disney cartoons (see, for example, Mickey's Mechanical Man and Modern Inventions. Notice particularly here how Donald attempts to survive the Museum of Modern Marvels by resource to magic--sleight of hand, but animation-assisted magic all the same.) Jules Verne's posthumous Paris in the Twentieth Century came out in English while I was working on the novel--that was an influence, too.
Amazon.com: Sounds like the same amount of work that would go into a historical novel. Did you have an urge to use all of the research?
Dexter Palmer: Most of the work I did on developing setting actually didn't make it into the final product. That was a consequence of the decision to tell the story from the point of view of a person living in the world of the novel, instead of using an omniscient narrator. The people living in the world naturally take its inventions for granted, and therefore don't think to describe them in detail when speaking of them. (Think of it this way: thirty years ago, if you'd told me that in thirty years I'd have an inexpensive device that functioned nearly identically to a communicator in TOS-era Star Trek, I would've said you were crazy--now, though, whenever I use my cellphone, I don't experience a "sense of wonder" whenever I pull it out of my pocket, and I don't describe its function to people nearby whenever I place a call. Similarly, the mechanical men and other such devices in the novel are not a big deal to its characters, so they don't talk about them much unless a particular model is uniquely interesting.)
Amazon.com: Harold Winslow is a fascinating character. How did having him narrate the story affect how the world is portrayed?
Dexter Palmer: Harold Winslow, the protagonist, is not particularly technologically savvy, though he sometimes shows a curiosity about how certain devices work. He is more concerned (and so, by extension, am I) with people who live in a world of machines, rather than with the machines themselves. The decision to tell the story from Harold's point of view gave me the opportunity to develop dynamic characters and eliminate large chunks of expository information that were better off being implied rather than explicitly stated. Though I spent a good deal of time developing the setting, the majority of the time I spent on this book was actually on characterization--making the major characters less flat, less static, through successive drafts.
Thanks to Bull Spec magazine, in which a small portion of this interview first appeared.