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Literature / The Dream of Perpetual Motion

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“Storytelling—that’s not the future. The future, I’m afraid, is flashes and impulses. It’s made up of moments and fragments, and stories won’t survive.”
Prospero Taligent

A Steampunk novel by Dexter Palmer, which extolls the virtues of Not Knowing against the pragmatism of Knowing Everything.

It takes place in the first half of the 20th Century, where mechanical men and inventive machines dot the landscape. The main characters are Harold Winslow, a (failed) aspiring writer who does greeting cards to pay the bills, Prospero Taligent, the genius inventor of all the machinery that now dominates the world, and his daughter, Miranda, who is a cultural icon. Other characters include Harold's ignorant sister, Astrid, who's an aspiring artist, Caliban Taligent, who's Prospero's secret son, as well as, well Those Two Guys.


This novel provides examples of:

  • Armchair Psychology: In this world, there are shrinkcabs, which are taxicabs ostensibly driven by licensed psychologists (actually professional listeners who've done a one week course).
  • Be Careful What You Wish For
  • Big-Lipped Alligator Moment - Oh, you want just one?
  • Classical Antihero - Harold Winslow is a stubborn form of this, to such a point that he's become a jaded shell.
  • Coitus Ensues - Deconstructed with Harold and Miranda. It's not very sexy.
  • Common Hollywood Sex Traits: Averted; Harold and Miranda argue over which position to use, the first condom breaks, Harold comes too quickly and Miranda has to fake her orgasm while thinking of a previous lover.
  • Cool Airship: The Chrysalis.
  • Could Say It, But...: The cop to one of the vigilantes, suggesting he take the unguarded fire escape to the roof and kill Prospero who's apparently gone mad and threatening the world with death rays.
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  • Crapsaccharine World: Elements of this with the protagonist's work at the greeting card company, and the employees at the Taligent Tower marching to work singing proletarian songs.
  • Creator Cameo - Dexter Palmer appears at an art show in the middle of the story. Doubles as Self-Deprecation.
  • Damsel in Distress: Invoked Trope
  • Defiled Forever: Miranda's father can't even stand to touch Miranda once she's lost her virginity.
  • Extreme Doormat: Harold
  • Flying Car
  • For Science! - Why Prospero Taligent has filled the world with machines.
  • How We Got Here: Opens with Howard imprisoned on the airship with only Miranda's insane ramblings for company.
  • Humanoid Abomination - Like his Tempest namesake, Caliban Taligent. He's made up of the various body parts of people who were masters in their fields.
  • Ingesting Knowledge - An inventive example. Caliban and his typewriter. Prospero Taligent claims it doesn't actually work; it was just done to Caliban to make him feel special.
  • Jerkass Genie: Prospero promises the children who attend his daughter's tenth birthday that he will give them what they most desire. Years later Howard meets the boy who sat next to him at the party, now a morphine addict who gets a crystal bottle of morphine delivered to him every day. Prospero also mentions hiring hitmen to fulfill several desires.
  • Keeper of Forbidden Knowledge - Caliban fancies himself as this. It's likely all his revelations are gibberish.
  • Knowledge Broker - Prospero Taligent, to a ridiculous degree.
  • Living Macguffin - Miranda Taligent, much to her chagrin. She ends up becoming the Perpetual Motion Machine.
  • Love Makes You Crazy
  • Mad Artist: Astrid who has herself bronzed, the sculpter hired by Prospero to make endless images of his daughter who cuts up Miranda to make the perfect version, and a literary professor even suggests that Prospero has arranged his entire life in imitation of The Tempest.
  • Madonna–Whore Complex
  • Mad Scientist - Prospero; it's agreed by all concerned that he is mad by the end, yet he also uses the trope deliberately when he threatens to Take Over the World with his Death Ray-armed zeppelin — it's actually just to get Harold moving. P.S. a "Mad Scientist" is also a Drink Order.
  • Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter / Girl in the Tower: Miranda
  • The Magic Goes Away: The Age of Miracles (which had angels and demons walking around) is replaced by one of Science.
  • Mind Screw - A common theme of the story is the Joy of the Unknowable vs the Tedium of the Knowable, so it's kind of expected.
  • Lotus-Eater Machine: Miranda's playroom; Prospero can't understand why she'd ever want to leave this Gilded Cage he's made for her.
  • Nightmare Fuel / Squick: Several characters' deaths are described in such a way that you are left with absolutely no doubt as to exactly how they died, but with enough missing detail for your imagination to flesh out the most gruesome particulars it can.
  • On Second Thought: Prospero and Astrid arrange works of art that require their deaths. They both have last second doubts, but it's too late.
  • Perpetual Motion Machine: Prospero claims to have built one to power his airship, but Harold knows it's slowly losing power and the airship will one day crash.
  • Shout-Out - Caliban Taligent is made up of the body parts of various people, just like in Frankenstein.
  • Science Marches On - Invoked by Harold's father and others with much pathos.
  • She Is All Grown Up: Prospero is unable to cope with this, and becomes obsessed with returning Miranda to a "pure" and unchanging state.
  • Sophisticated as Hell - Palmer's writing in and of itself. He has a Ph.D. in English Literature from Princeton University, so it's rather hilarious to see how succinctly gutter-mouthed his characters and prose can be.
  • Their First Time - Subverted; it's Harold's first time, but Miranda's thoughts show she's already lost her virginity with a coalshoveler down in the boiler room (who was a lot better at sex than the inexperienced Harold).
  • The Tower: Taligent Tower
  • True Art Is Incomprehensible (In-Universe): According to Charmaine Saint Claire, why Astrid shouted "Hot buttered spleen" and not "Turn off the machine!" while being lowered into a bath of molten bronze for her final work of art.
  • Unfazed Everyman - A rare example where all of humanity has become this in the face of scientific progress.
  • Unreliable Narrator - Harold's father gives a different version of his mother's death every time.
  • The Un-Reveal - What was done to Miranda to turn her into the Perpetual Motion Machine.
  • Wetware CPU - It's revealed at the end that Miranda is the Perpetual Motion Machine.
  • You Need to Get Laid - Or as Astrid puts it, "AC:DC".


Example of: