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Friday, June 20, 2008

"Mainspring" by Jay Lake w/Bonus Q&A

Official Jay Lake Website
Official Jay Lake Blog
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Read An Excerpt

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Jay Lake is a science fiction and fantasy author of over two hundred short stories, four collections, and three published novels including “Rocket Science” and “Trial of Flowers”. Jay also won the 2004 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and has edited several works including the upcoming “Spicy Slipstream Stories” (w/Nick Mamatas). Other upcoming releases include “Escapement”, “Madness of Flowers” (Night Shade Books), the “Other Earths” anthology (w/Nick Gevers) and numerous short stories…

PLOT SUMMARY: One night in the town of New Haven, a young Clockmaker apprentice named Hethor Jacques is visited by the Archangel Gabriel and charged with a duty: To find the Mainspring of the Earth and rewind it using the Key Perilous, saving the world. Thus begins a long and dangerous journey from the Northern Earth, across the Equatorial Wall, and deep into the South Pole as an innocent young man seeks to fulfill his mission in the face of overwhelming odds with only the aid of unlikely allies and the power of his faith…

CLASSIFICATION: I’ve never read a book quite like “Mainspring”, so it’s a bit difficult to describe, but there’s some Victorian steampunk in the novel, alternate history, a traditional fantasy quest, coming-of-age elements, a travelogue, and theological philosophy. Tone-wise, “Mainspring” almost reads like a YA novel if not for some really violent scenes, interspecies sex, and the deeper religious musings. I would recommend the book to readers who like their speculative fiction intelligent, thought-provoking, spiritual, and exotic :)

FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 320 pages (Hardcover) divided over twelve chapters. Narration is in the third-person exclusively via the sixteen-year-old Hethor Jacques. “Mainspring” is self-contained, but certain subplots are continued in the sequel, “Escapement”, which introduces a new storyline. June 12, 2007 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “Mainspring”. The Mass Market paperback version was released April 29, 2008. The cover art was provided by
Stephan Martiniere.

ANALYSIS: Up till now, my exposure to Jay Lake has been limited to the author’s short fiction which either really worked for me or was underwhelming. “Mainspring” falls somewhere in the middle with the parts that I liked and disliked usually related to one another…

For instance, I loved the concept of Earth being part of a giant clockwork mechanism constructed by God, complete with colossal gears and springs. What I didn’t like so much was the haphazard manner in which this backdrop was described with certain aspects depicted in great detail while others were left frustratingly vague like the Mainspring itself. I also liked the Victorian/colonial time period, but was disappointed by how little this alternate Earth was explored. After all, you would think that giant brass clockwork and an Equatorial Wall separating the planet into two halves would have a major impact on the world socially, politically and economically, but that’s not the case—at least from what little we get to see.

I also loved the novel’s religious angle, particularly the idea of an entire quest driven by faith and divine intervention. The problem with this idea is that Hethor Jacques is just not convincing in his role as the world’s savior. Like why is his faith so strong, why does he have god-like powers, and why is he the only one who can rewind the Mainspring—other than Gabriel stating he was ‘created in the image of the Tetragrammaton’? For that matter, why is the Mainspring unwinding in the first place? It’s not just the unanswered questions though that are bothersome; it’s the characterization as a whole including Hethor’s lack of development, an inability to emotionally connect with Hethor, and a weak supporting cast—the last is more because secondary characters only appear in the novel for a short time…

Another problem with the novel’s religious angle is that Jay barely scratches the surface of the impact that such a perpetual miracle as God’s clockwork would have on peoples’ different faiths aside from the Rational Humanists and tweaking Christianity a bit—horofixes, a Brass Christ, etc:

“Our Father, who art in Heaven
“Craftsman be thy name
“Thy Kingdom Done
“Thy plan be done
“On Earth as it is in Heaven
“Forgive us this day our errors
“As we forgive those who err against us
“Lead us not into imperfection
“And deliver us from chaos
“For thine is the power, and the precision
“For ever and ever, amen.”

The good thing about Jay’s approach is that the novel never gets preachy or too heavy-handed. Nevertheless, it would have been nice if the author had played around more with this area of the book. Similarly, I wish Jay would have expounded on the misogynistic attitude toward women that is only hinted at in the novel…

Story-wise, “Mainspring” is certainly imaginative and entertaining with its exotic locales, incredible wonders and dire perils—candlemen, airships, ‘winged savages’, a city of sorcerers, earthquakes, a tribe of non-human primates, et cetera—but the plot is fairly straightforward and is plagued by uneven pacing like rushing through important junctures of the book. Personally, I think the novel should have been fleshed out more which would have given the story, characters, and the world room to grow.

CONCLUSION: Even though “Mainspring” is marred by inconsistency—specifically the characterization, pacing, descriptive prose and the execution of certain concepts—I still enjoyed reading Jay Lake’s novel. After all, the book is highly creative, smart, and manages to challenge the mind, stimulate the imagination, and is fun to read all at the same time. The problem with “Mainspring” is that it had all of the potential of a modern-day classic. Because of its inconsistencies however, the novel is a flawed effort that exasperates almost as much as it amazes. Nonetheless, I have high hopes for the sequel…

BONUS FEATURE — Jay Lake Author Q&A:

Q: “Mainspring”, your
Tor Books debut, has been described as “Theological steampunk set in a mechanical universe” (Kirkus Reviews) and has evoked comparisons to everyone from Edgar Rice Burroughs, Gene Wolfe, Philip José Farmer and China Miéville to Ian R. MacLeod, Adam Roberts, and even Robert Louis Stevenson. How would you describe “Mainspring” and where did the influence for the book, particularly the setting and the plot, come from?

Jay: “Theological steampunk set in a mechanical universe” isn't a bad description, actually. I was playing with two basic ideas when I wrote the book.

One, essentially theological, was the inversion of the relationship between man and God in our everyday world. (And I say this as a committed secular humanist.) Essentially, to see God in our world requires faith. Logically at least, atheism should be the default position. I wanted to write a world where it required faith to *deny* God, and there are no atheists, only dissenters. One of the underlying puzzles of a universe like mine is why existence isn't completely deterministic. Why would there be free will at all?

The other idea was essentially genre-driven, which was the literalization of the Renaissance idea of God the watchmaker. If you investigate the teleological argument for the existence of God, you find something that looks a lot like Intelligent Design, which is funny, since I'm a fierce critic of the intellectual fraud that movement represents. To that end, I have my little jokes in the books, such as populating an explicit Young Earth creation with Australopithecines and Neanderthals. But mostly I thought the image of a sky full of gears was just darned cool.

The decision to set it in a Victorian (or pseudo-Victorian) era was mostly stylistic. I could have pushed this story back a century or so, but not much more because of the plot's need for a world-spanning political and transportation infrastructure. I could have pulled it forward into a contemporary analog, but frankly, I thought the ornamentation and underlying themes of steampunk served as a much better flavoring for the story I wanted to tell.

Q: One common criticism toward “Mainspring” was that while it started out strongly, the ending fizzled. Did you have any problems writing the conclusion and what is your response to this criticism?

Jay: That was the greatest struggle for me. The published ending of “Mainspring” is not the original draft ending. I worked with my
Tor editor, Beth Meacham, to revise the first ending I'd created, which she (correctly) found untenable. I don't personally think the ending fizzled, because if I did, I'd have rewritten it again. As for my response to that criticism, I fall back on my very consistently held view that the story belongs to the reader. If it fizzled for some critics and fans, then it fizzled. The lesson to me is that I need to understand why some people saw it that way, and do better in the future.

Q: “Mainspring” was your large publisher debut. Could you tell us a bit about your journey in finding a publisher for “Mainspring”, how you ended up at
Tor, and what you feel are the positive/negatives between a major & indie publisher?

Jay: My agent and I first started working together in the fall of 2003. At the time I was very focused on short fiction and wasn't actively seeking representation for a novel. I had some smaller properties around—“Rocket Science” for example. I wrote “Mainspring” in the original draft, and we began shopping it in New York along with a book called “The Murasaki Doctrine”. In the mean time,
Fairwood Press picked up “Rocket Science”, which came out in the summer of 2005, while that fall Night Shade Books contracted me to write “Trial of Flowers”. Around the end of 2005, Tor made an informal expression of interest in “Mainspring”, which went under contract in the early 2006.

If you look at the timing, it kind of all happened at once. I don't think either of the indie novels had an effect on “Mainspring” selling to
Tor, at least not directly. The novel sold on manuscript, and the strength of my growing reputation as a short story author. Remember, this was the year after I won the Campbell.

I have been extremely happy with
Tor. They have given me brilliant covers, and launched my books strongly enough for them to get traction in the market. Beth is a wonderful editor, and they've taken good care of me.

At the same time, to belabor the obvious the experience of working with a major publisher is very different than the experience of working with an indie publisher. With an indie publisher, the author tends to be very close to the entire life cycle of the book—cover art, marketing plan, production process. In major houses, those functions are siloed. The author has a close relationship with their acquiring editor, a passing relationship with their copy editor, while everything else happens on the other side of the silo wall.

I don't have a value judgment about that, not at all, but the differences certainly can result in sharply varying experiences.

Q: In “Escapement”—Publication Date: June 24, 2008—you return to the world of “Mainspring” with a new story that follows Paolina Barthes. Could you talk a bit about the new characters that show up in “Escapement”, the themes explored, and the world itself, specifically any new locations/concepts that are introduced?

Jay: In “Escapement” I moved a bit away from the heavy theology and philosophy that underpins “Mainspring” and more toward an adventure or thriller format. It's almost a Boy's Own book in its way, albeit two of the three protagonists are female. The underlying metaphysics of the world are still firmly in place, and still drive many story elements, but they take a back seat to a faster-moving, more complex plot.

"Escapement” centers on Paolina Barthes, a girl born in a very poor, isolated village along the Atlantic coast of the Equatorial Wall. Her intelligence and insight are on a par with Isaac Newton's, but her opportunities are as barren as the place she calls home. When chance brings an English boy to her village—a survivor of the HIMS Bassett expedition in “Mainspring”—she seizes the opportunity to follow his backtrail and head for England, the seat of learning and power.

I chose to focus on a girl as answer to myself. “Mainspring” has a handful of female supporting characters, but the book is very “boy”, and I wanted to open up both my writing and, hopefully, my readership. I use her story to talk about more individual issues than I addressed in “Mainspring”—personal choice, responsibility, the human need for opportunity, still set in the framework of the tension between determinism and free will established in the first book.

At the same time, in order to give more angles on the story, I promoted two minor characters from the first book to their own POVs. Angus Threadgill Al-Wazir, the improbably named chief petty officer from Bassett, and Emily McHenry Childress, the Yale theology librarian, each come to the forefront in their own way. Al-Wazir is an old British tar, entirely lacking in formal education but very wise and canny with his years of experience. Childress is very educated, but utterly sheltered in her life as a New England spinster. Each of them is sent twisting across the world, until all three characters intersect, providing three very different world views.

With three characters, I also widened the scope and settings. Al-Wazir spends much of the book either in England or in the equatorial regions of Africa. Childress is kidnapped by the crew of a Chinese submarine and taken from the North Atlantic to Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and ultimately Sumatra. Paolina finds her way from West Africa to France, then back again, before winding up in Sumatra as well.

My own childhood was spent largely in Southeast Asia and West Africa. I have finally used my memories of those times and places most directly in fiction with this range of travel and arc of setting.

Q: I believe you’ve been working on a third volume set in the same milieu as “Mainspring” and “Escapement”. Can you give us a progress report on this book and any details about the title, tentative release date, etc.? Also, do you have any other stories—be it novels or short fiction—planned for this world?

Jay: I've written one piece of short fiction in this world, “Chain of Fools”, which is still looking for a home. I have committed to a novella for
Subterranean Press, which I hope to write this summer. (My recent bout of colon cancer has derailed my writing schedule, and I don't have everything back on track yet.)

I have worked out much of the plot details of a third novel in this setting, called “Tourbillion”. One of “Escapement’s” secondary characters, Boaz the brass golem, will be the primary protagonist of “Tourbillion”, and the book will reunite both the themes and characters of the first two books in a plot set amidst a World War I analog being fought between England and Imperial China.

The book is not yet written, and I do not expect it to be out until about 2011. My 2009 book from
Tor will be “Green”, a decadent fantasy which stands completely outside the “Mainspring” continuity, while my 2010 book is still under discussion.

Q: Moving on, you’re writing another novel series called The City Imperishable which is being released through
Night Shade Books. So far only “Trial of Flowers” is currently available, but possibly the sequel, “Madness of Flowers”, will be published by the end of the year. Could you tell us what this series is about, why readers might enjoy it, and your plans for the series?

Jay: Indeed. I am very fond of “Trial of Flowers”, and wish more readers shared that sentiment. One of the perils of indie press is that the quirks of indie distribution can keep a good book down. Nonetheless, we are doing “Madness of Flowers”, a sequel which will be released in December of 2008, per the
Night Shade catalog.

This series is wall-eyed, pedal-to-the-metal decadent urbanism. The first book takes place almost entirely within the walls of the City Imperishable, capital to a lost empire that has long since been reduced to a trading center with fading dreams of glory. A succession crisis with magical overtones has paralyzed the government, while the dwarfs of the city—a class of people mutilated in childhood, rather than a magical race _pace_ Tolkien—are rising in revolt. It has sex, violence and politics in glorious surfeit.

Madness of Flowers” goes beyond the walls to explore the social aftermath of the events of the first book. The City Imperishable's last remaining tributary city, Port Defiance, is breaking free under pressure from dwarf refugees, while the fabric of dwarf society unravels completely. The long-lost last emperor threatens to reappear after centuries of being presumed safely dead, as the City and her interests are attacked by pirates, giant wasps, and the weight of history.

I have notes for a third book, “Reign of Flowers”, but right now there are no plans to publish it. If MADNESS does well, I will revisit the question with
Night Shade, but until I have publisher interest the project is shelved.

Q: Besides novels, you’ve also published over 200 short stories and have done some editing work including the upcoming “Spicy Slipstream Stories” w/
Nick Mamatas. Can you talk about “Spicy Slipstream Stories”, any short stories that are being published this year, and any other writing projects that you’re currently working on or plan on starting in the near future?

Jay: Yes, I've had quite the ride in short fiction. In 2008 I have about 15 or 20 stories coming out. A few highlights: Earlier this year I had a story at
Clarkesworld of which I am particularly proud, “The Sky that Wraps the World Round, Past the Blue and Into the Black”. This June, Jim Baen's Universe is running “Last Plane to Heaven.” This fall, Paper Golem Press will be publishing Alembical, which will include “America, Such as She Is”. That novella may be the best piece of short fiction I have written yet in my career, insofar as I can tell.

I have two editing projects due out this year, “Spicy Slipstream Stories” and “Other Earths”.
Nick Mamatas and I came up with SSS several years ago, as a sort of meta-take on the whole slipstream craze. I've done a fair amount of serious work in slipstream, especially with Deborah Layne on Polyphony volumes 1-6, so it seemed like a lot of fun to do a genre mashup between slipstream and the classic traditions of pulp. “Other Earths” is an alternate history anthology edited with Nick Gevers, due out from DAW though I'm not sure of the release date. We've got some very nice work in there from some Big Name Authors, as well as Young Turks and newcomers. If I hadn't co-edited it, I'd be quite jealous about not being in the ToC.

Q: Speaking of short stories, why is the vast majority of your bibliography of the short fiction variety and how different is it writing short fiction opposed to long-form novels?

Jay: The vast majority of my bibliography is short fiction simply because of the time investment. I can publish about two novels a year, while in that same span of time I can get anywhere for 10 to 20 short stories into print. Add to that the fact that I was active in short fiction for half a decade before I became active in the long-form.

They are definitely different arts. I sometimes use the metaphor of cabinet making contrasted with framing carpentry—both use the same set of tools, but to very different ends. Short fiction is cabinetry, while novels are like building houses.

What a lot of people don't think about, and what that metaphor ignores, is the degree to which different forms of short fiction vary from one another. I'm of the opinion that the distance between flash and novellas is greater than the distance between novellas and novels, for example, yet we consider the span of flash-to-novella to fall under the short fiction rubric.

Q: Staying on this subject, do you have a favorite short story that you’ve written or a particular anthology or collection that you were proud to be a part of?

Jay: Picking a favorite short story is a bit like picking a favorite child. Nonetheless, as I mentioned above, I'd have to say that “American, Such as She Is” is probably my strongest work to date in short fiction. As for being a part of things, my proudest moment was being included in
Postscripts issue 1, alongside Brian Aldiss, Ray Bradbury, Joyce Carol Oates, Gene Wolfe and a handful of other big names. Getting the signature sheets in the mail for the limited edition back in the spring of 2004 was the moment when I realized I was a real writer.

Q: Recently you were diagnosed with cancer and underwent a successful operation. How much of an impact has this ordeal had on your life, both personally and professionally, and will this experience affect your writing in any way?

Jay: It's had a profound impact on my life at all levels. Cancer is an emotional disease that spreads like wildfire among the patient's family and friends, every bit as much as it is a disease of the body. The hardest part of this experience was seeing the fear in the eyes of my parents and my child.

I can't help but think this will deeply affect my writing, but it's probably years too early to tell exactly how. As a practical matter, I am now circulating a book proposal called “A Tourist in the Land of the Slow”, for a narrative non-fiction book about the history of cancer, current treatments, and my personal experience of the disease.

Q: In closing, is there any thing you’d like to say to your readers?

Jay: Read more. Of whatever you like. If you're a writer, write more. We need each other.


Chris, The Book Swede said...

Another excellent interview/review :) I'll be picking this one up soon, I think :D

The Book Swede

Robert said...

Thanks Chris :) I definitely recommend reading the book because the sequel, "Escapement", is flatout awesome!

ChrisM said...

Great review! Will definitely look for it when it reaches here in Oz.

Maybe it's my fascination with airships but that cover art is fantastic imo. :)

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