Dexter Palmer on writing The Dream of Perpetual Motion
I began writing the work that eventually became The Dream of Perpetual Motion in
1996. Basically, it was a means of procrastination, since it allowed me to write something
instead of the papers for the courses I was taking in graduate school. Fittingly, the book
that inspired it was one that was sitting in the library stacks next to some other forgotten
book that I should have been reading as research for a paper (which was to have been on
H. G. Wells novel Tono-Bungay). That book was called Futuredays, and it contained a
reproduction of illustrations for a series of cigarette cards drawn by the artist Jean-Marc
Côtéin 1900 that purported to show what life would be like in the year 2000.
What was interesting to me from my perspective, just on the edge of the millennium
that these images claimed to predict with tongue in cheek, wasnt so much the renderings
of alternate forms of transportation that took up most of the collection, but the manner in
which some things that apparently seemed fantastic to Côté came off as mundane to me,
such as the idea of receiving the news through an audio recording. (On the other hand,
there were other instances where Côté wildly missed the mark, even if he was making a
jokefor example, an image that depicts a group of people warming themselves at a
fireplace that holds not a pile of burning logs, but what appears to be a large chunk of
Côtés reverent portrayal of now-mundane communication methods seemed to me to
relate to some of the academic work I was interested in, work that concerned the place
where meaning sits between a text and its reader--that is, whether an author imbues a text
with a meaning during the composition process that it is the readers job to unearth, or
whether a text created by an author is essentially inert and only acquires meaning when a
reader looks upon it, or whether the truth is something in the middle. Moreover, I was
interested in whether the answer to that question changed depending on whether the text
was mechanically reproduced (a printed pamphlet instead of a handwritten letter, for
example) or, as is increasingly the case in our world, the text was initially authored by a
computer (as every list of Google search results arguably is).
Writing this novel allowed me the pleasure of storytelling while also letting
me figure out what these ideas had to do with each other. Initially Id intended
its setting to be that of the fanciful world predicted by these cards, but as
the novel progressed I was influenced by other workssilent science-fiction films
such as Metropolis and Woman in the Moon; psychiatric manuals from
the 1850s; black-and-white Disney cartoons; music videos directed by Mark Romanek.
Eventually, the book also began to involve other related concepts that my mind
was on, until it began to coalesce into a coherent whole through the process of
revision and deletion. Two full top-to-bottom rewrites (the first draft was entirely
handwritten) got it into a shape that was good enough for me to be willing to
show it to someone else; then began the process of submission to agents and editors
that eventually led to its publication.
Most of the initial composition of this novel happened before steampunk became
the trend it is now. When I first came across the concept of steampunk, it was
as an oddball outgrowth of what was then the far more popular genre of cyberpunk,
and its definition was very narrowI think Ive read exactly one novel that fits
that original earlier definition, The Difference Engine by William Gibson
and Bruce Sterling. But in the meantime the term has come to encompass not just
science-fiction stories set in a meticulously re-imagined Victorian eraretro-futuristic
works that arent remotely Victorian (such as the film Brazil) are now
considered steampunk, while works of science fiction that were actually written
during the Victorian period (such as the novels of Jules Verne) have also been
retroactively grandfathered in.
And so though this work wouldnt have been considered steampunk back when I
was writing it, it seems to be steampunk now. To me, this speaks less to the dilution of
what steampunk is defined asafter all, the newest words are the ones most apt to
change their meanings over timethan to the continuing blurring of the boundaries
between all genres and categories of literature. My favorite books tend to be those that
pull from a number of different genres, or that arent interested in ultimately meaningless
distinctions between high and low culture. So, in short, Ive written the kind of novel I
like to read, in the hope that others will enjoy it as well.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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