Posted by : atcampbell | On : June 2, 2008

Mainspring by Jay Lake

Ten people attended the discussion of Jay Lake’s Mainspring. Everybody except 2 people started the book. 6 people finished it, 2 more were planning to finish. 8 people had read something by Jay Lake before.

Mainspring is set on a world that looks a lot like our Earth, except it’s literally a clockwork mechanism. The gears along the Earth’s equatorial wall mesh with those of the Earth’s orbital track as the planet travels around the Sun. Inside the Earth a giant spring, Mainspring, keeps the planet rotating around its axis. But now the Mainspring is becoming unwound, and world is in danger. A young man named Hethor, a clockmaker’s apprentice, is sent on a quest to find the Key Perilous for winding up the Mainspring.

Several people thought the notion of the world as a clockwork mechanism raises interesting points about religion, but they disagreed whether this novel did a good job exploring those religious implications. Hethor’s enemies, who try to derail his quest, do so because of religious differences, but it’s not clear that the inhabitants of this world have a lot of latitude in religious interpretation of their everyday experiences. As some readers pointed out, faith is a belief in things unseen, but in this world God’s presence becomes apparent as soon as you look up. The orbital track could have only been made by a super-powerful designer. So faith, as we understand it, can’t really exist here.

Another reader argued that characters’ doubts concerning religion are nonetheless justified, because a mechanical universe does not necessarily imply a conventional kind of God. “Did the maker of all these gears put the gears in motion and then walked away? The fact that the creator put the gears in motion doesn’t mean there’s someone watching day-to-day and intervening,” said the reader.

Two people noted that the book has a more religious tone than one would expect from the cover blurb. The blurb promises Monty Python, but the novel is anything but. It’s not irreverent, funny, or amusing, said one reader, who saw Hethor as a Christ figure. The fact that the key for fixing the world fit in Hethor’s heart only reinforced her impression of Mainspring as a very reverent, very religious book. Another person agreed with that impression, pointing out that all the villains were Rational Humanists and all the good people were religious. Yet he thought the view of a world as mechanism wouldn’t make a case for religion. So he found the book to be internally inconsistent.

Internal consistency of the world described in Mainspring was a fodder for much discussion. For one thing, people weren’t sure whether the story should be taken straightforwardly or as an allegory. If this is straightforward science fiction, then, as one reader pointed out, it wouldn’t be possible to wind the gigantic Mainspring with a key small enough to fit in one’s heart. Another reader saw the clockwork universe as an allegory, and the key as purely symbolic, so the task of winding up the Mainspring wasn’t physical, he concluded. Others argued that it’s hard to see the gears and springs as mere metaphors when descriptions of the mechanisms that move the Earth are so detailed and tangible. Yet another reader said the notion that the Earth is filled with gears is so nonsensical (in that case what keeps you glued to it? he asked) that he concluded from the very beginning this book should not be analyzed intellectually. So he took out his brain and enjoyed the adventure.

Hethor’s adventures — his travels on airships and encounters with exotic tribes — were found enjoyable by most readers. In that sense they found Mainspring comparable to books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, or The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle. However, several people were bothered by magic that suddenly appeared in the final pages, after having been absent anywhere else in the book. Nothing in Mainspring‘s setting indicated there was magic in this world. One reader even said he wondered if the book changed overnight. Before the magic appeared, he didn’t see how the character was going to achieve his goal in 30 pages, unless the story continued into the next book. He would have preferred that, instead of author pulling magic out of the hat.

There was also some confusion as to whether the people Hethor encountered in the Southern hemisphere were mechanisms or flesh-and-blood people. Hethor heard gears clicking in those people: does that mean they were, in fact, robots? Does that imply the people of the Northern hemisphere, including Hethor himself, were robots too, and they just haven’t discovered that yet? Or was the clicking of the gears some kind of allegory, not to be taken literally? This was yet another confusing aspect of the book.

Yet a lot of people enjoyed the book despite the seeming inconsistencies: they chose whichever interpretation made the most sense to them.

Overall we agreed we were probably seeing more philosophical controversy in the novel than Jay Lake put into it. For example, one reader saw in Mainspring a parable for the pressing issues of today. “Here’s a person who discovered that the world has a big problem; and there are people who don’t believe in that problem and believe that God is going to come along and make it all OK. I wonder where Jay Lake got such an idea?” (he said sarcastically).

“So you think Al Gore inspired this book?” another reader asked.

“If so, a 12-year-old Al Gore inspired it,” the first reader replied, “because it’s way too naive.”

Naivety and passivity were the main reasons why several people didn’t like the protagonist, Hethor. Somebody said “He makes a couple of decisions in the 1st chapter, and then pretty much doesn’t have any choices. He gets into situations that compel him to move in a certain direction. And then he doesn’t make another decision until [halfway into the book].” Another reader commented: “I’ve never read a quest book where the hero had it so incredibly easy.”

Others liked that while Hethor started out as a sheltered character, he learned a lot more about the world during his journey. One reader in particular liked Hethor’s humor. Even when things are going horribly, he has a way of finding something darkly humorous about the events.

Everybody seemed to like several of the secondary characters, especially the librarian, who was the universal favorite. Arellya and the drover girl Darby were also thought to be interesting. Some people were disappointed that those characters disappeared quickly and for good.

Many people also liked the images in the novel, such as the image of Earth’s brass orbital tracks, the vertical city on the equatorial wall, the airships. For some they were the best part of the novel, making up for its weaknesses.

— Elze Hamilton