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Literature / Gearworld

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The Gearworld is less a story than it is a setting. It is a place that exists somewhere within the fascinating and eccentric mind of artist and writer Ursula Vernon, and finds itself expressed mainly in the form of art pieces, almost all of them digital. Many of these come with descriptions that give some explanation, or at least further details, but for the most part they are unconnected except for certain common motifs and textures.

But what is the Gearworld? That's what everyone asks. Unfortunately, no one really knows, certainly not the creator, and it has proven unreliable to produce. Surely, the best way to prevent a Gearworld work is to ask for one to be made.

Physically speaking, though, the Gearworld, also known as the clockwork labyrinth, is a system of corridors and rooms hewn out of concrete and stone. It exists underground and breaches the surface in numerous places, but the space inside does not correlate with these openings. In theory, one could travel a short way inside and find an exit to another country.

Inside, the Gearworld is characterised by artistic chaos. Sculptures and faded murals abound, priceless and lost masterpieces lie unregarded in empty rooms, while collections of junk are placed reverentially on plinths; every surface is adorned with graffiti, most of it indecipherable or meaningless. Gears are everywhere, in all sizes, of stone or rusted iron, hung on the walls and graffiti'd or decorated with animal skulls like idols, or protruding from solid surfaces improbably and uselessly, giving no indication that they ever served a purpose. Pipes and gratings weep rust stain over the walls. Animals find their way in and build nests. Strange folk walk the halls, angels and saints and nudes and anthropomorphic creatures and golems and things for which there is no description, and what business they're about is anyone's guess. Near the surface, nature breaks in, and war breaks out between the gears and rust and concrete opening outward, and the trees and vines and animals climbing in. Fish live exceedingly odd life-cycles.

The closest thing to a proper Gearworld story is the Book of the Gear, a LiveJournal account detailing the journeys of Eland the Younger, an anthropomorphic antelope, and his companion, a bear called Heinrich (his exact species was concealed a good way into the story), through the Gearworld, in an attempt to understand something about it. The journal reads like a series of highly detailed field notes, and has little in the way of plot, but is a compelling read nonetheless, partly because of the sheer oddity of it, but there is also some tension built around the characters as they delve deeper into this bizzare world and encounter increasingly mysterious insights into its nature and inhabitants. It is, unfortunately, unfinished, though it's doubtful any real conclusion could have been reached given the nature of the work.

The Book of the Gear can be read here. Vernon's original art hosting site,, is now dead, meaning that the illustrations that originally accompanied certain entries are now gone. However, the greater part of the Gearworld art collection can be found (with prints for sale) at the artist's official website or her DeviantArt account, with each gallery containing a few pieces not included in the other. A few small illustrations, created specifically for the journal, now seem to be lost.

This setting provides examples of:

  • After the End: Maybe.
  • Alien Geometries: The Gearworld intersects with the rest of the world in many widespread places, and in an irregular way. It doesn't seem to occupy the same space as everything else. Thus, Eland and Heinrich find, for instance, a room susceptible to tidal flooding, accessed from a landlocked country.
  • Beautiful Void: In the journal encounters with intelligent beings are just common enough to suggest that there are inhabitants somewhere. The art often has a person in it to indicate scale.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The painting "Suspension" has a Latin inscription on one of the gears. Roughly translated, it means, "it was like this when I got here".
  • Chaos Architecture: Rooms and corridors have been known to move around or appear from nowhere (sometimes with live inhabitants).
  • Clock Punk
  • Egg MacGuffin
  • Footnote Fever
  • Empty Room Psych: Among many others, before reaching the Gearworld itself Eland and Heinrich find a huge and elaborate door that leads to an empty room. Apparently as a practical joke.
  • Genius Loci: Some would have it that the Gearworld as a whole is alive.
  • Ghost City: Again, maybe.
  • Golem: There's one which is shaped like a bear and seems to need to be plugged in. And a number that look like robots with pieces of bird skeletons in them.
  • Living Structure Monster: The rather unsettling carnivorous spiral staircase.
  • Malevolent Architecture: Suggested- the rooms sometimes move around. What would happen if you were in them at the time is not certain.
  • Mechanical Lifeforms: Clockwork bees. The metallic reeds may count also.
  • Mega Dungeon: The Gearworld is an incomprehensible labyrinth of concrete and rusted gears, most of its structures having no apparent purpose, and the place as a whole creates the impression of being some sort of organic growth more than the result of some civilization's intentional efforts. It has entrances on opposite sides of the world, but it's unknown whether it's just that big or if its Alien Geometries allow it to be in several places at once.
  • Mix-and-Match Critters: Trees made of pipes, and swamp reeds made of wire. And mechanical bees.
  • Mystical 108: This many steps into an arcane hopscotch court causes a sort of hallucinatory experience.
  • Ontological Mystery: No one knows how, or why, the Gearworld was made.
  • The Quiet One: Heinrich seldom says more than "Hmmph".
  • Reverse Arm-Fold: Heinrich puts his hands behind his back as a gesture of peaceful intent, since offering a hand that has giant claws might be misinterpreted.
  • Supreme Chef: Heinrich can make anything edible, and usually tasty to boot.
  • The 'Verse: As the Book of the Gear is compiled by Librarian Vo, it's safe to infer that the Gearworld occupies the same world as Digger. Eland is also mentioned not infrequently in The Hidden Almanac.
  • The Wonderland: If a somewhat dark one. There seem to be rules, but damned if anyone knows what they are.