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The Dream of Perpetual Motion [Hardcover]

Dexter Palmer

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Book Description

March 2 2010 Playaway Adult Fiction

A debut so magical… so extraordinary… it has to be read to be believed….

Imprisoned for life aboard a zeppelin that floats high above a fantastic metropolis, the greeting-card writer Harold Winslow pens his memoirs. His only companions are the disembodied voice of Miranda Taligent, the only woman he has ever loved, and the cryogenically frozen body of her father Prospero, the genius and industrial magnate who drove her insane.

The tale of Harold’s life is also one of an alternate reality, a lucid waking dream in which the well-heeled have mechanical men for servants, where the realms of fairy tales can be built from scratch, where replicas of deserted islands exist within skyscrapers.. As Harold’s childhood infatuation with Miranda changes over twenty years to love and then to obsession, the visionary inventions of her father also change Harold’s entire world, transforming it from a place of music and miracles to one of machines and noise. And as Harold heads toward a last desperate confrontation with Prospero to save Miranda’s life, he finds himself an unwitting participant in the creation of the greatest invention of them all: the perpetual motion machine.

Beautifully written, stunningly imagined, and wickedly funny, The Dream of Perpetual Motion is a heartfelt meditation on the place of love in a world dominated by technology.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; 1 edition (March 2 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312558155
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312558154
  • Product Dimensions: 3 x 15.6 x 23.1 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 544 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #581,009 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


Praise for The Dream of Perpetual Motion:

“Dexter Palmer has given us a novel that's magnificent and strange and maybe a little harrowing too; I don't know quite how he did it, but it seems to have something to do with his figuring out how to let words get out about and mean what they feel like meaning that day and yet at the same time be in a tempest too. Bravo for this beautiful book!”
--Rivka Galchen, critically acclaimed author of Atmospheric Disturbances

"The breadth and depth of Dexter Palmer's storytelling is exhilarating. He's written a smart, funny, sad, and beautiful novel, full of magic, mystery, mechanical men, and a delightful amount of mayhem."
--Scott Smith, New York Times Bestselling Author of The Ruins

“Like the majority of contemporary novelists, I have often fantasized about Jules Verne, Nathanael West, and Thomas Pynchon meeting up in some netherworld saloon and, upon discovering they have absolutely nothing in common save a mutual affection for The Tempest, agreeing to reify their enthusiasm via a three-way collaboration filled with zeppelins, androids, monsters, virtual islands, linguistic felicity, and state-of-the-art weirdness. And now I must thank Dexter Palmer for making my dream come true.”
--James Morrow, author of The Last Witchfinder and The Philosopher's Apprentice

“The Dream of Perpetual Motion is plangent, tender and sui generis: a steampunk The Tempest with the grim and rippling beauty of a fairy tale.  Dexter Palmer is an ambitious writer, with vast reach toward the exploration of big ideas, among them what it means to create, the limits of the human body, and the uses and inadequacies of language. The marvelous kicker being, of course, that he has the moxie to do so in prose that sings.”
--Lauren Groff, New York Times Bestselling Author of The Monsters of Templeton

"Dexter Palmer has written a strange, passionate, enthralling first novel, a novel which is itself a kind of perpetual motion machine---constantly turning, giving off more energy than it receives, its movement at once beautiful and counterintuitive." 
--Kevin Brockmeier, New York Times Bestselling author of The Brief History of the Dead

“In The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Dexter Palmer brings dignity coupled with an epic sense of fun to steampunk that I haven't seen since Jules Verne. Steampunk comes of age with this book.”
--Jonathan Maberry, author of Patient Zero

About the Author

DEXTER PALMER lives in Princeton, New Jersey. He holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Princeton University, where he completed his dissertation on the work of James Joyce, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon (and where he also staged the first academic conference ever held at an Ivy League university on the subject of video games).

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.7 out of 5 stars  63 reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars After the Age of Miracles April 26 2010
By Debbie Lee Wesselmann - Published on
Set in the early twentieth century, after "the age of miracles," Dexter Palmer's steampunk novel and the city of Xeroville teem with technology rooted in the knowledge of the day: mechanical men instead of robots; answering machines that record on drums of wax; flying cars that rattle; teaching helmets lowered by cables and operated by hand cranks; and a zeppelin powered by the first (seemingly) perpetual motion machine. Amid this, the narrator of Dexter Palmer's debut novel tells how he grew from a shy, awkward boy to a prisoner aboard the Chrysalis, high above the world he used to know.

Palmer holds this complex novel together with bits of philosophy, sly wit, and a narrative voice that pulls the reader along from start to finish. It's an eloquent and often playful tale about the tenuous boundaries between mechanization and humanity, between love and narcissism, between perfection and fatal flaws. The cast of characters have names right out of Shakespeare: Prospero, the most brilliant inventor of his time and Harold's nemesis; Miranda, Prospero's adopted and sheltered daughter who acts more mechanical than human; and mad genius Caliban, the monster of Prospero's inventiveness. But other allusions abound, with hints of Roald Dahl, Jules Verne, Neal Stephanson, and L. Frank Baum to make this not only a fascinating read but also one that can be read again and again.

This novel is one of the best books I've read in 2010, and it deserves a readership that ranges from steampunk fans to literary fiction readers. The novel offers such a rich array of characters, ideas, and imagery that reading it feels like eating an enormous, magical feast. Expect to be challenged -- and to have people ask why you're smiling as you delve into Palmer's highly inventive world.

-- Debbie Lee Wesselmann
21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Worth the read, but with caution June 19 2010
By Erika (Jawas Read, Too) - Published on
I am reviewing a copy provided by the publisher.

Harold Winslow is prisoner aboard Prospero Taligent's Perpetual Motion Machine. In this luxuriantly mechanical 20th Century, Prospero is an inventor; his tin men and machines have taken over the world just as computers have done today. Harold's life is inundated with the noise of the city, the grinding and buzzing of a steady stream of mechanicals churning the city's economy, displacing the need for human labor like a universe evolved tangentially from the Industrial Revolution. Plagued with his lack of voice (in a world filled with them) he writes greeting cards to be the voice of others. But his is a story bombarded by distractions in which he discovers the many failures of communication and why sometimes what he thinks he wants, isn't what he wants at all.

I probably picked the wrong time to read The Dream of Perpetual Motion. It's definitely not the kind of book you can pick up and constantly put down expecting the read to go smoothly. Dexter Palmer's prose is dense and in many instances, poetic. There were a few times I worried that I hadn't been paying close enough attention and had missed some important narrative musing. Or that something crucial had just happened, but I'd lost the narrative thread by setting the book down. While I do blame my poor timing, I also think what Palmer was attempting with his narrative had something to do with it as well.

The Dream of Perpetual Motion is either one of the most intelligent and innovative books of this year, or it suffers from the weight of its own cleverness. Palmer clearly wanted the reader to walk away with an overwhelming sense of how many distractions Harold faced in his daily life, let alone in his adventure, to the point that it interfered with his ability to communicate effectively. More often than not the book is nothing but a collection of miscommunications, distractions piling on top of distractions--the Shrinkcabbie fiddling with the radio as Harold tries to relate his problems (the nature of the Shrinkcab--a brief interlude between locations--is conducive to Palmer's argument as well); Astrid having a one-sided conversation with Harold's Demon; Miranda's official Portraitmaker and Prospero teasing out long, frustrated and vague, half explanations for the next commission. The narrative itself is a complication of dream sequences and jumps in time and setting. There is no singular narrative thread that isn't interrupted in one way or another by each of the others. They all vie for attention, struggling as each attempts to be heard through the sometimes confusing narrative of perspective as we jump through time between different characters and mediums (letters, traditional prose, or diary entries).

There is a lot going on in this book, to say the least. If Palmer doesn't make his point about how technology is interfering with daily living (causing huge distractions that discourage simple communication between two individuals), then there is a commentary on souls and miracles, or the certainty that we immerse ourselves in illusions and fantasy that will inevitably fade when reality hits. An example of this is the greeting card offices where Harold works. The hallways and cubicles are decorated for Christmas in June as the employees develop the phrases for that year's holiday cards. Another would be the more consequential dilemma of the perfect moment: the one right before we get what we think we want because it is filled with possibilities. It is filled with our dreams.

To be fair, Harold does give us a warning within the first few pages of the book as he tells us this will be a "story of fragments" (p. 4). Thus, it will be given as an approximate imitation of the way technology relays information to us: in bits and pieces. If we think of this in terms of the internet, there is almost no escaping ads or the nature of the beast itself: the ability to switch between webpages or applications with a few clicks. True, eventually one article or whatever has taken a person's interest will be read and finished, but think of how often you have interrupted an e-mail or instant message by multi-tasking with another instant message, a comic strip, a YouTube video? Palmer's book is therefore relevant to what I believe was one of his ultimate intentions, even if difficult to navigate.

There is so much beautiful prose here, so much talent in the writing that I do feel best recommending this purely for an admiration of the craft. I also recommend it for the ideas Palmer presents on an academic level, but with the warning that those ideas tend to get overwhelmed by the presentation. It does not have an entirely linear narrative; readers expecting or wanting that would do best trying something else. Though, there are multiple layers that can be enjoyed in this book for readers willing to navigate his prose. His re-imagining of Shakespeare's The Tempest through Prospero, Miranda, and Caliban is there to be explored by fans of the play (Prospero is the penultimate wizard of creation; Miranda is objectified; Caliban is monstrously misled) as the characters exude a unique signature mixing Palmer's imagination and interpretation with the originals.

That being said, I don't think this is a book to be read solely for the characters. The Dream of Perpetual Motion is driven by ideas, not characters. It's a statement more than anything else, a deliberate contemplation of concepts disguised in the shroud of a steampunk adventure. Words are powerful, but only when they are heard. Only when we have the courage and temerity to disregard all distractions (and ironically, the technologies that are supposed to make communication easier), open our mouths, and speak to each other. And besides, who wouldn't want to read a book where Prospero is portrayed as a demented and tech-savvy Willy Wonka?
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars voice more than makes up for a few flaws--recommended Feb. 25 2010
By B. Capossere - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
The Dream of Perpetual Motion, by Dexter Palmer, has a great opening. Past a poetic and ominous first few lines, we get the narrator telling us "If my reckoning of time is still accurate . . .the one year anniversary of my incarceration aboard . . . a high altitude zeppelin designed by that most prodigious and talented of twentieth-century inventors, Prospero Taligent. It has also been a year since I last opened my mouth to speak. To anyone. Especially my captor . . . because it is the one thing that she desires, and my silence is the only form of protest that remains to me."
Great image--that zeppelin flying up there. Great hook--why's he imprisoned up there, why's he not speaking, who is "she"? Great voice--formal, solemn. In short, great opening. Does the rest of the book live up to the start? Well, not frequently enough, to be honest, but still, it was often enough that I'd recommend Dream.

Our captive narrator is Harold Winslow, writer of greeting cards, lover of Miranda Taligent, cat's-paw of Prospero Taligent. The book veers between first and third-person narration, though all by Harold, who informs us of when the "he" becomes "I" along the way of his explaining how he first met Miranda and Prospero and how that led to his current predicament. The novel covers Harold's childhood (about 20 yrs. pre-present time), the jumps ahead a decade to his college years, where his sister becomes more of a focal point, then another jump in time closer to the present. The movement is all straightforward and easy to follow. Mixed into Harold's narration are a few other elements: newspaper excerpts, diary entries, a host of dreams, and the like. These, I thought, varied greatly in their effectiveness, and I wouldn't have been sorry to see a large number of them, especially the dreams, dropped in favor of a more streamlined book.
he characters varied as well, with most of them a bit distant; I can't say I cared much for any of them, actually, though I found several interesting enough to carry me through. Luckily, one of those was Henry. Prospero was probably the most compelling, though several of his hired hands (two at the start and three at the very end) give him a run for his money in that department. Harold, as mentioned, was interesting enough, Miranda less so unfortunately. Harold's sister was interesting in her role and premise; she could have been on stage a bit more; though without her critic friend, who seemed the most forced and clichéd character of the book.

The setting wasn't particularly sharp or fully there, but it had moments of brilliance, such as the "shrink-cab", whose drivers are trained psychiatrists so one can get therapy while on the way to or form work; and the mechanical men invented by Prospero (they, like Harold's sister, could have seen more book-time).

If the plot was solid enough and the character decent, though, where the book shined, and the main reason for recommending it, is its prose and narrative voice, which was consistently strong throughout the novel. Here, for instance, is the description of Harold's greeting card workplace at night:
And nightfall has come to the greeting card works.

The building is nearly silent. Most of the machines are resting, with only an occasional isolated whir or hum in the darkened corridors, Christmas tinsel rustles in the dark from stray drafts of ice-cold air-conditioned wind. The building's struts and columns contract with quiet creaks and pops in the coldness of night.
And now the mechanical men concealed in hatches and secret doorways come out by the hundreds, creeping on cat feet like burglars or mischievous sprites, carrying huge burlap sacks on their backs. Quietly, they remove the red and green and silver and gold decorations from the walls and ceilings, stuffing them into their bags, replacing them with red cardboard hearts with arrows drawn on them, and long twisting billowing strands of pink crepe.
And in a stuffy room in the basement . . . a dwarf . . . removes his elf costume, squeezes into a bright red pair of tights, and straps a pair of cardboard cherub's wings around his naked hairless chest with a belt. A quiver full of arrows completes the outfit. Christmas is over. Tomorrow is Valentine's Day.

That is an author in control of his voice and while that's a standout section, there are several equally as good and others that come close. There's also a wonderful theme of silence that runs through the story, as well as some thought-provoking conversations and monologues.

The passages makes up for a so-so plot that could have used some cutting, especially of some of the interludes and more-forced-feeling passages, as well as for the less-than-empathetic characters. Because of the sometimes problems with narrative and character, Dream of Perpetual Motion was not a fluidly enjoyable read, and once or twice I had to kick myself a bit to pick it back up, but it's worth a read on its own and certainly piques my interest as far as what the author will do for his second book with a bit more seasoning.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Painful, irritating, contrived and dull June 21 2011
By James R. Stoup - Published on
This book reads like a mental exercise designed to imagine what it would be like to write a book about nothing. In fact, it feels like that episode of Seinfeld when Jerry and George discuss creating a TV show about "nothing", only imagine it was a writer and his editor.


GEORGE: See, this should be a show. This is the show.

JERRY: What?

GEORGE: This. Just talking.

JERRY: (dismissing) Yeah, right.

GEORGE: I'm really serious. I think that's a good idea.

JERRY: Just talking? Well what's the show about?

GEORGE: It's about nothing.

JERRY: No story?

GEORGE: No forget the story.

JERRY: You've got to have a story.

GEORGE: Who says you gotta have a story?


A book about nothing indeed. Reading this book was painful.

But let's assume that you're a masochist. In that case, if you can get past the boring characters, the contrived plot, the abysmal pacing, the drab world and the frustrating writing style, then I suppose you can finish this book.

But dear God why would you want to? There is so much better fiction out there, don't waste your time on this crap.

Here are some problems with this book, if you feel you need more details before choosing to read something else.

== Characters ==
The main character is not a hero. The main character isn't even an anti-hero. The main is one of those cardboard cutouts of a person that just gets transported different places so he can stand there and act indifferent. Let's be clear, he isn't stoic. He isn't "hard to read". The main character produces no useful emotional responses to anything. He does however whine for pages on end about how he wishes he could feel more emotion. Trust me, you don't care.

The other two main characters are a crazy, sheltered rich girl and her crazed inventor of a father. So, you have a princess and a mad scientist and the author manages to make both of them irritatingly hollow. The girl needs to be rescued because how else are we going to get the plot somewhat moving? The mad scientist is crazy because this wouldn't even be a story if he wasn't crazy. The characters in this book are so poorly written you will never confuse them with real people. Real people have motivations, emotions and desires. These characters have each been handed a fortune cookie and told "everything you need to know about your role is written on this slip of paper". This is one of the few books I've read in which I was actually rooting for some type of natural disaster to occur and kill everyone. When you reach the end of a book and you realize that you don't really care what happens to anyone, it's time to scratch this author off your list.

== Plot ==
The only thing that annoyed me more than the characters was what passes for a plot. <SPOILER ALERT> there is no plot </SPOILER ALERT>. Basically everything in the book is contrived by the mad scientist, up to and including the "big reveal" at the end. So, you would think having your entire life controlled, monitored and directed would upset the protagonist somewhat, right? Well, you would be wrong. He pretty much just trudges through the entire book with an attitude of "well, if I must, I guess I can" until he reaches the final confrontation with the antagonist. And how does it end? Slowly, painfully and with absolutely no purpose. That is the theme here, contrived pointless exercises. There are no "good guys", there are no "bad guys", there is no "conflict" there is no "resolution". It seems like something an art student would come up with to explain "man's indifference to man" or some other horse **** philosophy.

This isn't the worst book I've ever read, but it is amazingly bad. I finished it just to see if there was a ray of hope at the end, but sadly there wasn't. So do yourself a favor and go read something else.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Surreal, often like a dream itself, a book for the new decade Feb. 1 2010
By K. Sozaeva - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Dexter Palmer has written down a dream, full of strange cuts from one scene to another, past to present to future all intertwined, bits and pieces winding around each other until it all slowly comes to focus ... almost ... and then suddenly you're awake and the book is finished.

I couldn't stop reading this book. I would want to. I would try to stop, to take a nap, try to digest what I just read, but I would just find myself staring at the ceiling, thinking about it until I would find myself sitting up again and reaching for the book, to continue reading.

How to describe it, though ... the main character is one Harold Winslow - an average boy (who will grow to be an average man) who gains the attention of a pair of men who work for Prospero Taligent at an amusement park and ends up getting himself invited to Miranda Taligent's 10th birthday party. Prospero is a genius, and an inventor, who has invented all types of things - such as mechanical men, who are taking over so many jobs and tasks in the world - and flying cars and other marvels in the world, bringing in the age of Machines and pushing away the age of Miracles. He took in Miranda as a baby and has adopted her and raised her as his own, but he has decided that she needs to be exposed to children of her own age.

At any rate, the birthday party is just the first of several circumstances in which Harold's and Miranda's lives will meet. And it all ends up in Prospero's zeppelin, where Harold composes his memoirs, accompanied by the sound of Miranda's voice and the cryogenically frozen corpse of Prospero.

This is a very odd book - I'll tell you no lies there. But I think you will probably like it, if this is the sort of thing you like - steampunk, that is; dystopian futures that are actually in the past (amusingly this is all set back in the early 1900s sometime - it's not exactly told us - just that it's the "early 20th century"), that sort of thing. The mixture of sly humour (and yes, Dexter Palmer, I saw your cameo there!) and outright horror and the strangeness ... it's oddly beautiful when seen overall. Give this one a try - I think you'll be amazed.

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