Saturday, April 3, 2010

Jay Lake's Mainspring

I just finished Jay Lake's Mainspring. Here's my initial impression: I am thoroughly annoyed. This may change when I re-read it further down the line, but right now, colour me really annoyed.

Spoilers to follow. This is just a record for me, so I don't mind if you think it's tl;dr. It's not really a review, but my thoughts upon reading. This post is For The Herd, if I may say so.

Jay Lake's Mainspring starts the action really quickly  - by page one we're already into the action of Hethor receiving his marching orders from the angel Gabriel to find the Key Perilous and fix the Mainspring of the world, or else the world will stop moving in its tracks. The concept of the world as a giant clockwork mechanism isn't completely new. I actually rather do like how this mechanism encompasses the Judeo-Christian religion. And of course theological debate. 

But the book kind of goes downhill from there. Turns out this world, two thousand years after the death of the Brass Christ, so it should be equivalent to our modern times, right? is still ridiculous sexist, and women in the Western Northern Hemisphere are... well, breeding machines.

There are only three women in the story who speak to Hethor. Three. Three. Librarian Childress, who explains the world's sexism to him (and thus to the reader), Darby, who transports him but otherwise her only role in the story is to make Hethor feel really uncomfortable in his pants in his adolescent growing pains, and Arellya and I have so much to say here it's not even funny. 

The thing about this is that it doesn't even appear necessary to have cut women out of the story completely. Oh, sure, there are those side character whores who service sailors and fix people up when necessary, and Hethor has some fucked up prejudices about women that gets hammered out with Arellya, to which I say, is that necessary to have an entire society that excludes women, just to paint what a bad thing sexism is? I ask this because the story felt absolutely, wrongheadedly lop-sided because of this exclusion. It wasn't a great steampunk novel anymore; it was just another boys' adventure story. Generally I don't pick these up to begin with but it's a steampunk novel, amirite? But fuck that was a really alienating read.

So, physical geography now - the world is divvied up into the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere. There is an Equatorial Wall.

THERE IS A WALL. A giant, honking wall that separates the North from the South (not east from west). It is an incredibly big wall. Something about keeping the guns of the North away from the South. No word on who built it. It's old. It's also very vast. And tall, so incredibly tall you can see the breadth of several countries from the top.

I was trying to explain this to a couple of PoC friends of mine. And they said, "really? Wow, that sounds like a really good idea!" Many of these were friends who come from the Southern Hemisphere, and well aware of the problems of colonialism, so, yeah, sounds like a great idea to keep out the Great White North.

Except of course the depiction of the Southern Hemisphere in this novel isn't all that great either. And we didn't even have to wait until Hethor crosses the wall to get to the racefail.

Firstly, the winged savages. Who seem to come out of nowhere, attack and kill a lot of people. They are nothing like Gabriel the angel. Oh no. They are vicious creatures, although they inexplicably save Hethor and Malgus. I'm sorry, but the Jade Abbott's explanation that they're simply doing what they instinctively do - viciously attack people out of nowhere, for intruding on their territory - does not sound quite kosher to my ears. Oh, and they have skin "the colour of freshly-baked bread." Colour me with the first insult.

And then the Jade Abbott. Why is there a monk on the top of the Equatorial Wall? No one knows. And they're not even in China.

Oh, and the stories about the South that Hethor hears before crossing, from the other sailors. I let all that Orientalism pass, because that wall's been there forever, and it is a pretty big wall, so of course their imagination is going to go all sorts of weird places.

And I was so ready to be challenged - the Scotsman who beats on Hethor at the beginning turns out to have an Arabic name. So, okay, great, cross-cultural exchange is going on here. It's reasonable for a Scotsman to have an Arabic name; I know a lily-white girl who has a Chinese surname, because ten generations ago, her ancestor was Chinese, and all his descendants have married white since, so this makes sense.

To the point where I felt, maybe if I read Hethor as a brown-skinned kid, it would be bearable, and it was, until the winged savages appeared on the scene. I might have continued with the illusion a while longer, but that fucking "freshly-baked bread" comparison was a very, very strong indication that Hethor saw nothing of himself in these savages, and the language was so white.

And Hethor gets over the wall.

And because he has a special thingy, "little hairy people" start bowing to him. I slammed the book shut in disgust and went to rant for a bit.

I got back, oops, I was wrong, they weren't bowing to Hethor, they were bowing to the gold plate he's got that has the word of God on it. Should be fine now, right?

I mean, they should be! Hethor lives among them. It clicks into his head how to speak their language! And no one is surprised. The little hairy people are all carefree and they live life happy in the jungle! They go where life takes them. Hethor is happy. He starts falling for the medicine woman who nurses him back to health. She's a hairy little woman, and rarely calls him anything but "Messenger" (because he is, after all, a messenger from God). They are "the correct people," not men. Sounds cool, right?

Totally not part of the Mystic Native trope.

When he gets around to finishing his quest, little hairy young males follow! (Wait, one asks, where are the young females? I guess things aren't so different between the North and South - isn't it enough that we're in a jungle and not a city?) They sail with him down the river happily, because this is what they want to do, even if Hethor's all "wtf" and of course loyal Arellya follows. And then they get out to sea! And some of them are lost at sea, silly buggers, they don't know anything about the sea, they've been in the jungle all their lives! And for generations, too, apparently. And we get philosophy on how these people view death, which I think is supposed to sound practical and lovely, but to me, really serves to minimize their deaths.

And then they find a town. Of very large people. Of no race that he recognizes - how many races could he have encountered in New England? One Jamaican, one Scotsman of Arabic descent, various Caribbean whores... Nope, none quite like these people in this strange wondrous continent of Africa! With seven feet tall sorcerers who ignore a white dude and his entourage of little hairy people as they wander the streets, until they find Malgus, who has been strung up so high above the ground that the little hairy people not only have difficulty getting him down for Hethor, but they also injure themselves while doing so. More little hairy people die.

So they escape to an airship, which is there out of.... complete coincidence? And Hethor can work it out, and it seems to be a blessing from Gabriel. The little hairy people are having a boatload of fun on the airship; they learn how to fish! One of them is good at tinkering with mechanical stuff! And Hethor and Arellya finally consummate their relationship and his notions on sex and marriage are challenged by this so-very-different-from-the-women-he-understand non-virginal woman. It didn't even read like very compelling sex, but this could be because I am so thoroughly annoyed at this racefail-y boys' adventure story that makes very little cultural sense to me already (also, I've yet to see a sex scene that compares to the Awesome that is the Mallary/Hetty sex scene in The Difference Engine) so this sex - and I am ordinarily very interested in reading sex scenes! they tend to be my favourite bits in any given book! - is just flat and meh.

Just, ugh, the rest of the books tarted making less and less sense, more little hairy people die, and when Arellya dies I wasn't really surprised anymore. Except she's made out of clockwork so Hethor can fix her? And when the Key Perilous turns out to be wondrous abstract LOVE, well, shit, I rolled my eyes so hard they hurt. I guess that's the payoff of Arellya's presence.

The denouement wasn't very satisfying either. How did they get back to Africa from the South Pole?  Why did William of Ghent survive (and how the fuck did he end up at the South Pole anyway)? And I thought apprentices were people a master takes on to train to take over the shop someday? Not, you know, wives and partners? The book ends as quickly as it begins.



  1. So I was reading this and you said the women in this world were breeding machines and I thought:


    But sadly is not. O WELL.

  2. I didn't even know that this story even existed before. I don't think I'm thankful for that now after reading this epic amount of fail. How the hell did this even get published?

  3. It was in 2007, so before RaceFail, I suppose. There's a sequel, which has more action in the South and female leads, so we'll see.

  4. The book actually takes place in 1900, which seems an excuse to cover up the sexism (and not a very good one). To me, it felt like Jay Lake had the first half of his novel figured out, and then just vomited out the rest until he eventually said "screw it" and wrote "THE END". I'm very weary about that sequel, since this book began degenerating from the first page. When southern Africa was populated by actual intelligent Apes, I started wondering whether Lake even considered any of the implications of what he wrote.

  5. I came searching for this blog entry (or ANY blog entry or review) hoping to learn if I was just being delusional and over-sensitive to the point of getting a nose-bleed while deciding to stop reading Mainspring. I'm a black, non-heterosexual guy, and by the time I reached the 200 page mark of the paperback edition of Mainspring, I felt as if I'd just been punched in the face a few times. That, and I got tired of asking myself: "Did I really just read that? Am I missing something here? Is there a satirical commentary that I'm too dumb to pick up? Should I keep reading, or is the author going to reach out and try to deliver another mean right-hook?" Reading a book should not be a painful experience, as I read Mainspring, I got the distinct impression that what the book was really saying was that Jay Lake probably prefers a world in which I don’t exist: which really sucks since I just paid for his book. I mean, the book felt as if it was CONSCIOUSLY AVOIDING the presence of black characters, and when the protagonist “descended” onto the African continent, he was met by a bunch of ticking, ambulatory sex toys with a quaint “cute” cosmology. OK…I only made it to page 222, but the first time Arellya was introduced, her plush love-toy status was *clearly* telegraphed. There is so much more to say, but you’ve already said a lot, quite succinctly and clearly, and thank you for that, and thank you for allowing me this little space for a rant.

    1. The only thing after the "plush toys" (what a great descriptor!) are these tall obsidian giants which I'm not sure what the purpose is at all beyond filler. You didn't miss much, and further rants about Mainspring are welcome anytime!