Garden of gears

In Jay Lake’s novel “Mainspring” (Tor: 320 pp., $24.95), the Lord’s Prayer gets a strange edit:

Our Father who art in Heaven

Craftsman be thy name

Thy Kingdom come

Thy plan be done

On Earth as it is in Heaven

Forgive us this day our errors

As we forgive those who err against us

Lead us not into imperfection

And deliver us from chaos

For thine is the power, and the precision

For ever and ever, amen.

“The power and the precision”? “Err” instead of “trespass,” “plan” instead of “will”? Taking a page from the deists, Lake’s God here is a clockmaker -- a “Craftsman” -- and the Christians of “Mainspring” believe their savior died for them on the “Roman horofix” (“Pilate’s gear-and-wheel,” as one scholar calls it). The world of this book really does run on clockwork, spinning around an axis that emerges from its poles. A giant wall along the equator connects to a massive ring around the sun, and the book’s loveliest moments are when Lake offers a quick, strange glimpse of “the rising thread of Earth’s brass track gleamed high in the darkening sky.” If you listen closely, behind all the everyday sounds, you can hear the gears in action. Harold Lloyd’s iconic clock-hand dangle in “Safety Last!” literalized the dizzyingly tenuous nature of man’s existence; now, the dread of a world running out of time, slowing down, has its nightmare emblem in “Mainspring.”

“Mainspring” begins with a visitation: An angel, “bright as any brasswork automaton,” appears to Hethor Jacques, a clockmaker’s apprentice in New Haven, Conn., to tell him that “The Mainspring of the world winds down.” The vital “Key Perilous” has been lost, and only Hethor, the chosen one, can reverse the entropy. When the angel leaves, one of its feathers carves a scar on Hethor’s hand, which will serve as a reminder of his quixotic, world-winding mission, a perpetual spur to faith à la Harry Potter’s lightning bolt. Like Harry, Hethor is an orphan, mistreated by his master’s sons. The New Haven he inhabits has something of a Colonial tint: A reference to “King George III Street” indicates that the United States never declared independence from England. Anachronistic touches large and small, however, keep the reader tantalizingly off balance -- “electrick” streetlamps and trolleys, enormous airships, a reference to the work of Poe.

The early stages of Hethor’s quest are vividly drawn and enjoyable. Lake swiftly moves his character from the halls of Yale -- where a kindly, and rare, female librarian sets him on the proper course -- to Boston, and then toward the immense Equatorial Wall. A password, a network of sympathetic travelers, a young woman pretending to be a boy coach driver: All move the plot forward with delicious ease. Faced with setbacks and more ill treatment, Hethor finds courage despite his limited experience with the world. He persists in his quest, gleaning more clues about its purpose and, indeed, about the Earth itself. In “Mainspring,” the rational humanists (including the treacherous William of Ghent) believe that God set the world up as a precisely functioning machine but abandoned his creation long ago. Is Hethor’s quest -- to go inside the world and wind it back up -- divinely inspired or an act of mankind finally taking full control of its environment?

The strong main conceit and brisk, wonder-filled opening go a long way toward masking problems that gradually develop -- although given the book’s overarching concern with entropy, a sympathetic reader might view its less compelling final third as a reflection of that theme. Still, for a work containing so much richly imagined world-making, it’s unfortunate that the pacing gets so sluggish in the end.

After a series of rarefied encounters and challenges, including an arduous walk along Earth’s gear teeth, Hethor falls in with a tribe of short, hair-covered humanoids who speak in a series of whirs and clicks and come to worship him as “The Messenger.” Worse, he falls in love with one of them, leading to an interspecies romance that’s howlingly funny, although it’s not clear that humor is Lake’s intent. “She pulled herself close and kissed him on the lips,” he writes. “The fur of her face tickled his mustache and rough beard. He had not shaved since his time with William of Ghent, and did not realize how far his facial hair had grown till it rubbed together with hers.”

Lake is consciously evoking the tradition of fantastic fiction’s “lost race” books (“winged savages” also populate part of the “Mainspring” world), and it might have been fun if he’d set up a more explicit evolutionary commentary here, playing with the idea of natural selection being the work of a “blind watchmaker,” per Richard Dawkins’ work. But here, his furry, highly attuned beings -- try not to think of Ewoks -- are given the clumsy tag of the “correct people,” and every time the phrase crops up it sound likes something’s been lost in translation.

One bit of “Mainspring” catechism, spoken between Hethor and his hirsute crew, runs:

The heart of God is the heart of the world

As man lives, so lives God

As God lives, so lives the world.

Intoned repeatedly, the mantra ends up sounding silly, and Lake’s loss of control considerably dilutes his novel’s power -- it’s power and precision, you might say. As I kept reading about “the heart of the world,” I wished I were watching Guy Maddin’s short film “The Heart of the World,” that jolt of constructivist steam-punk adrenaline in which a scientist attempts to revitalize the planet. (“Tragic Calculations! Triple Checked! No Mistakes! The World Is Dying of Heart Failure!” scream the hysterical title cards.) Gears grind, phony Christs bear girder-like crucifixes, mad yearning and phallic symbols run amok: a welter of input and information. At six propulsive minutes, it takes the theme of a world running out of time and turns it into a fever dream of time itself.

Alas, in “Mainspring” the metaphor of slowness works a bit too well.

Ed Park’s Astral Weeks column appears monthly.