Mainspring is the first full-length novel with a wide-release by short story mainstay, Jay Lake. I’ve seen it called steampunk, even clockpunk, and however you ultimately choose, it is an alternative Earth like none before it. This is the story of a savior, a humble clockmaker apprentice who is set on a journey to wind a very big clock.
Don’t think too hard about the Earth in Mainspring – it doesn’t work, it can’t, but it matters not. The Earth and all the heavenly bodies follow enormous orbital tracks as their clockwork drives rotation and orbit through the stars. Imagine that antique globe you once saw – that is the Earth of Lake’s imagination. The gears of heaven meet the gears of Earth at the miles-high equatorial wall as the planet slowly spins on a very literal axis, driven by the Mainspring, which has started to wind down.
The continents are shaped as we know them (excepting the giant barrier along the equator), though the geopolitical lines of this Victorian-era world are different. America is still a colony of the all powerful British Empire, with China as its only remaining adversary. The northern hemisphere is a place of rational thought and empires at war – the southern hemisphere is a wild, untamed of land exotic beasts and other human-like species with magic replacing logic.
Hethor is a young apprenticed clockmaker in still-colonial New Haven who is visited in the night by the archangel Gabriel and tasked to save the world by rewinding the Earth’s Mainspring. It’s a world of Rational Humanism, where in spite of the obvious world origin at the hands of an all-powerful creator, God’s direct intervention in the world is generally disbelieved. Young, naïve Hethor is ridiculed and ostracized as he fumbles through the start of his quest. Ultimately, aboard a dirigible of the Royal Navy and with the help of multiple guides of variable quality and loyalty, Hethor travels beyond the equatorial wall in his quest to save the world.
This is the story of self-discovery and growth through faith in God as Hethor fills the role of the reluctant Christ-figure. His trials are many – ranging from imprisonment to temptation by a devil in the form of a Rational Humanist sorcerer and true mortal danger at the hands of savages and clockwork constructs. Hethor gains loyal followers who willingly sacrifice themselves repeatedly for the Messenger (of God). Through it all, Hethor’s trust in God brings him to the fulfillment of his goal (which I never doubted regardless of numerous obstacles along the way). As he settles into his role as a Christ, slowly gaining confidence, the narrative increasingly fills with purposeful Deus Ex Machina, which while annoying at times, belongs.
If you haven’t stopped reading the review by now out of fear of didactic religiousosity, good. While the above description of Christ figure breaking the chains of a Rational Humanist world sounds like it must come from the heavy hand of a religious fanatic, it doesn’t. Truth be told, Lake never comes across as if he actually believes what he seems to be preaching. It’s all laid out for the reader to think on, for reflection. Implications are potentially heavy, and even though the message of Mainspring superficially seems to be clear, further thought makes me doubt this very much – and I think that just might be the real point of it all.
Mainspring is destined to be a steampunk classic of much discussion. Perhaps it will achieve a label of religious fiction, becoming spurned by the masses, but my hope is that readers look into the book deep enough to see the thought, the question, the rationality as well as the faith. This book is not a sermon, but a thought exercise and it kept me up late last night. Until about five minutes ago, I didn’t know if I would rate this book a 6 or a 9 (which is a huge difference for me) – Mainspring gets an 8, not necessarily for the surficial story it tells, but for the lack of sleep I got last night.