Remember how you learned about deism in your AP European History class? A bunch of French philosophers thought they would be clever and decided that God had created the universe, wound it up like an enormous watch, and left it to run its course. What would happen if the universe really was a huge watch? What would happen if a talented short story writer tried to build a novel around this central conceit?
The result is … interesting. This is a world a lot like your usual steampunk Earth, you know, Great Britain never lost the American Colonies and airships are floating around everywhere. And everybody can see the brass gears in the sky that define Earth’s orbit. The universe, or the solar system at least, runs on clockwork.
The clockwork that powers the Earth is running down, and only our hero, Hethor, can rewind it. Why the angel Gabriel chooses Hethor for this mission is never made clear, but it might have to do with the fact that he has a magical ability to tell time. Unfortunately, for the first half of the book, Hethor’s kind of a twit. For the second half of the book he reminds me of Dune Messiah. It’s an improvement, but … still.
And now for some quibbles. Earth is anchored to its orbital gearing by a miles-high toothed wall around the equator. The airship’s crew says that the air should be bad if it weren’t for the blanket of air that magically coats the top of the wall, so let’s say the wall extends to the top of the troposphere. That’s about 6 miles. (And that’s a conservative estimate; it could be much taller.) During northern hemisphere winter, this thing is going to cast a shadow of 6 * tan 23.5º or 2.6 miles long*. Wouldn’t this have some pretty weird effects on global climate? You’ve got a narrow strip of tropical land that gets six months of night just like at the poles. And that’s not to mention the fact that the Equatorial Wall prevents the northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere oceans from mixing.
But Lake spares no time for such plotholes. He’d rather explore what happens to people in a world where evidence of God’s creation is, well, pretty obvious. There are freaking gears in the sky! And yet, astonishingly, there is a group who calls themselves the Rational Humanists. I don’t quite understand their philosophy, but they seem to believe that mysterious beings called clockmakers built the universe, not God. That doesn’t seem to make sense. Isn’t it the Rational Humanist thing to do to seek a natural explanation for the gears in the sky? What does it accomplish to transfer the responsibility from God to a bunch of magical Keebler elves?
I’m probably trying to approach this story like too much of a Rational Humanist myself; I should just sit back and enjoy the ride. Despite the protagonist, there’s a lot to like. There’s lots of airships and plenty of action scenes. One of the ships seems to run on hydrogen fuel cells, which is cool. There’s a strong implication that one of the characters is a cyborg. Then again, this happened at the end of the book, at which point I would not have been too surprised if Elvis had walked on stage. Oh, whatever. I’m over-analyzing. Go check it out.
* I’m assuming Earth’s a flat surface. At a scale of 2.6 miles, it’s not going to matter much.