Movie trailers have made the phrase “in a world” cliche, but that’s exactly how a description of Mainspring has to begin: in a world where God is literally a clockmaker, and the Earth orbits the sun on a bronze track; where Christians worship the Brass Christ and pray “Our Father, who art in Heaven, Craftsman be thy name”; where Queen Victoria and her airships rule almost all the world north of the Equatorial Wall; in this world, an angel appears to Herthor, a young clockmaker’s apprentice in New England, and delivers an alarming message: the Mainspring that moves the Earth is running down. Only Herthor, being “a man, created in the image of the Tetragrammaton” can find the Key Perilous, rewind the Mainspring, and save the world.
So Herthor sets forth on his quest, and of course, between one peril and another he ends up touring the entire world before he finishes. Mainspring is largely a vehicle for showing off the world that Lake has created, and as such it’s extremely successful. Lake’s descriptions are vivid and crystal-clear, and the clockwork Earth he describes is staggeringly inventive. For a long stretch of the book, Herthor’s quest is largely stalled (what with being imprisoned with madmen beneath the earth, and press-ganged onto an airship, and kidnapped by winged monsters) but I did not care, because I was having so much fun watching the scenery.
Eventually, though, Herthor’s quest kicks into high gear, and after a perilous crossing of the Equatorial Wall where he is nearly crushed by the Earth’s enormous gears, he heads into the southern hemisphere, the domain of wonder and magic. There he runs into the Correct People, a tribe of ape-men who aid him on his quest, and there the book runs into one of its chief artistic and moral problems. (Minor spoilers ahead.) Because there is an Ape Girl. Her name is Arellya, and she has beautiful fur, and if you’re wondering, “Does Mainspring really go there?” then the answer is yes. It does. With everything but diagrams. After some initial shyness, Herthor and Arellya fall into each other’s arms and make really graphic love. Not only is the level of detail completely gratuitous–and leaving aside the moral issue of whether sleeping with an intelligent ape constitutes bestiality*–I think the scene a bad decision on a purely artistic level. If you’re trying to sell your readers on interspecies romance, graphic sex is not the way to get beyond their instinctive “Eww!” reaction.
Then there’s the aftermath. Herthor grew up in pseudo-Victorian New England, so of course he’s terribly repressed, and the next morning he’s stricken with guilt. But then he decides that it must be okay because (a) this is the southern hemisphere, not Boston, and (b) Arellya isn’t human anyway, so it’s just a harmless eccentricity like doing it with a sheep. This was, for me, the most irritating moment in the book, because (a) how is changing your lattitude supposed to change the moral quality of an act? And (b) gee, dehumanization of women, much? Herthor otherwise treats Arellya as a person and does some very moving things for love of her, so I think it’s supposed to be a desperate and momentary attempt at self-justification rather than an abiding attitude–and the narrative previously mocks him for some of his other sexist beliefs, so I don’t think we’re supposed to agree with him–but it’s still really creepy.
This is not to say that there are no good moral qualities to the book. Herthor immediately believes the angel who sends him on his quest, and he trusts blindly that God will provide a way for him to achieve it. Throughout the novel, people try to dissuade him from his trust in God; one character in particular tries to persuade him to rebel against God by letting the world run down, so that humanity will be freed from the oppression of God’s plan. I was honestly expecting a last-minute reveal that God is evil (or indifferent, or stupid, or dead) and Herthor should not have trusted him. But no: ultimately, Herthor’s faithfulness is affirmed as the right choice, and explicitly Christ-like self-sacrifice saves the day. It made for an extremely refreshing change.
But although Lake’s portrayal of religion is unexpected positive, it is ultimately somewhat superficial, and herein lies what I consider the greatest artistic failing of the book: having created a world with radical metaphysical differences from our own, Lake completely fails to explore their consequences. What does it mean that the Word was made brass instead of flesh? What does it mean that the most famous metaphor for deism–as opposed to Christianity–is literally true? We see some nifty surface details, like the re-written Lord’s Prayer, but that’s it. I realize that you cannot fault an author for not writing the book that you would have, but what is the point of creating a world that’s enormously different from our own if you don’t show the consequences of those differences? I was left feeling that the religious elements of the book did not have to take place in a clockwork universe, and that was very unsatisfying.
(Content warning: along with the interspecies sex, there is violence and swearing. But really, if you’re ready to read interspecies sex, why are you balking at the violence and swearing? Seriously, this is an adults-only book.)
*Arguably not, since the main issue with bestiality is the lack of a soul, plus the inability to consent. One could certainly argue that it’s wrong on other grounds, such as the fact that God created sex for the propagation of the human species and not just having fun with any intelligent lifeform. Though if you’re able to interbreed–the novel leaves it unclear whether this is so–then by some definitions, you’re not even different species, so you might be in business. Herthor is still in trouble, though, because he isn’t married to Arellya when he sleeps with her. (Ape girls, be careful! Men were deceivers ever! Save yourselves for marriage!)