It is set on Earth in the far future, and switches between four viewpoint characters; one of them, Bascule, narrates his sections in Funetik Aksent. (This is the one thing most people know about the novel, to the point that some people are under the impression that the whole novel is like that.) The novel's title is Bascule's name for the MacGuffin, a "fearsome engine" that legend says will save the world from an imminent catastrophe, although legend does not give a clear account of what exactly it will do.
This novel provides examples of:
- Anachronic Order: Although the reader is at first left to assume that the four plot strands are occurring simultaneously, it turns out that one takes place before the others, with its end leading into another plot strand's beginning.
- Big Fancy Castle: The castle where most of the action takes place takes this to a whole new level — it's a big fancy castle scaled up so that each room is several kilometers wide, a chandelier can support a king's palace, and a man can live comfortably in the divot in the eyeball of one of the gargoyles on the roof.
- Brain Uploading: When a person dies their mind is automatically uploaded by organic systems in their brain (not implants; they grow there naturally, implying they are germ-line genetic engineering). They then get downloaded into physical bodies again the first seven deaths, then spend their next eight rebirths solely in a virtual reality. Then they die for good. Nondestructive uploads can also be made, and their experiences reintegrated at a later date. This allows for the possibility of people uploading copies of themselves to have a passionate affair in a suitably private virtuality, and then redownload the experiences into their minds and fully appreciate them later without interfering with work or family life.
- Funetik Aksent: Bascule's sections are written entirely in a funetik aksent. It takes a while to register that the character is actually very intelligent despite this: his sections are essentially a diary, in which he explains that the thought-interpreter he's using doesn't agree with his unusual brain pattern. It doesn't help that the computer pulls out oddities like spelling "have" as "½" and the overall inconsistency in the spelling.
- Girl in the Tower: Spoofed. The handsome prince turns up to rescue the Damsel in Distress in her tower. She helps him climb most of the way up and then lets go of the rope so he'll fall to his death, as she knows she's in a Lotus-Eater Machine.
- Letters 2 Numbers: Another of Bascule's spelling idiosyncrasies. Particularly notable is his use of ½, as in "we decided we otter ½ a holiday".
- Inherited Illiteracy Title: Bascule's rendering of "fearsome engine".
- Multiple Narrative Modes: There are four POV characters; three are written in third-person, while the fourth is in first-person, using Funetik Aksent.
- Precursors: At some point, humanity became a Higher-Tech Species and created amazing things like the cryptosphere and the fearsome engine, and then most of it headed out to the stars and never came back. The remnant left on Earth gradually regressed, until by the time of the novel nobody has much idea how these amazing things work or how to make more of them.
- Seldom-Seen Species: Bascule's plot thread features a lammergeier, or bearded vulture.
- Space Elevator: Most of the action takes place in a giant castle-like structure which used to be the Earth terminal of a space elevator. The elevator itself is defunct, since everyone who was interested in space went there centuries ago.
- Virtual Ghost: People who die have their memories saved and are reincarnated in new bodies; however after a certain number of deaths they are reduced to virtual ghosts. After they die enough times in the virtual world, they stop existing altogether.
- Whodunnit to Me?: Count Sessine, one of the viewpoint characters, starts out his plot thread getting murdered, and has to figure out who did it and why, before they do it again enough times to run him out of resurrections.