Friday, November 2, 2012

Clockwork Angels Keeps Gears Turning

In August 2010, author Kevin J. Anderson and musician Neil Peart met to seriously discuss the novelization of a future Rush album as they hiked up Mt. Evans in Colorado. As friends for more than two decades, they had often talked about the possibility of tying prose, music, and lyrics together as Anderson's work had been inspired by Rush on more than one occasion.

Peart had already written most of the Clockwork Angels lyrics in 2009 and Rush had already recorded the first two songs, Caravan and BU2B. But it wasn't until their hike that Peart described the basic plot line and characters that Anderson was immediately inspired to flesh out with a skeleton draft.

Clockwork Angels is a steampunk story that begins in an imaginatively diverse utopia.

Most people will think of the Albion region as a dystopia, but Peart sees it differently. Despite the oppressive precision of the Watchmaker, who sees the world and all its people as interconnected gears, Peart retains his passion for a region filled with magically mechanical and sometimes mystical things. As for the people who live there, none of them know any different.

All of them accept their preplanned and finely-tuned lives. That is, of course, except for one boy. Owen Hardy was destined to become the region's chief apple orchardist, marry his childhood sweetheart, and raise a family to succeed him. But instead, Hardy frequently finds himself dreaming of faraway places, inspired in part by a book his late mother had written.

This seemingly small spark of free will gives Hardy his color in an otherwise vanilla existence. It's also what attracts the attention of the Watchmaker's nemesis, the Anarchist. Once a talented pupil and the secret protege of the Watchmaker, the Anarchist has dedicated his life to either wake up or disrupt the overtly organized lives that have been so carefully aligned to become a well-oiled machine.

If this story line seems somewhat familiar, it's because Peart has frequently visited the conflict between two extremes over the course of his career. And while the most apparent comparison can be made to the album Hemispheres, Peart also includes notes from previous epics such as A Farewell To The King's quest for immortality and the sense of discovery wonderment in 2112.

And it is here in such a setting, right in the middle of two opposing forces, that the story of Hardy unfolds. In one innocent but spontaneous decision to jump a train and visit the region's famed capital city, he sets out to discover the world on his own — a choice that he believes to have made on his own.

Clockwork Angels both soars and struggles to tell a story. 

Although Anderson is talented as an author, Clockwork Angels takes significant time to find its lift. In building the world that Hardy will eventually explore, the opening chapters are surprising passive and often stuck in the past tense. He takes too literally the notion that the future is best written as a history.

Perhaps the only way that the slowness and sometimes repetitiveness works is in that it mirrors the lives of the people who live there. Everything is constructed with so much purpose that it never feels purposeful. It's only until Hardy makes it beyond the Watchmaker's sphere of influence and out of Crown City that the story starts. Even the quirky carnies in Crown City aren't quirky enough. Much like Hardy, they are slightly more colorful than the populace they entertain, but still too obedient.

That is not to say that Anderson and Peart haven't invented some wonderful steampunk additions, some of which are as beautiful as they are frightening. More accurately, Anderson tends to hit his stride when when he is moving (both figuratively and literally). All four major destinations — Poseidon, Atlantis, Seven Cities of Gold (despite the lack of an explanation), and the unnamed Wreckers island of sorts — become more interesting settings as Hardy begins to lose his idealistic upbringing and naivety.

A thumbnail sketch of two storytellers. 

Science fiction writer Kevin J. Anderson is no stranger to the genre. He has written spin-off novels for Star Wars, StarCraft, Titan A.E., Dune, and books related to The X-Files as well as several originals, including Resurrection Inc., which was inspired by Grace Under Pressure. Originally from Wisconsin, all he ever wanted to do was write science fiction. He sold his first story for $12.50 in his senior year of high school (although other stories were accepted and paid for in copies).

Neil Peart is a prolific author in his own right, having published several books. But where his talents truly shine as a storyteller have been as a lyricist for Rush. Few if any have been more successful in weaving science fiction, fantasy, and philosophy into music. He is easily one of the most accomplished lyricists in rock with an affinity for fitting large and cumbersome stories into a few lines of lyrics.

Clockwork Angels: The Novel Turns 2.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Decidedly cool, given its ties to the album of the same name, Clockwork Angels: The Novel adds another layer to what will long be remembered as one of Rush's finest triumphs. Unfortunately, the novel reads more like backgrounder than it could have. While it does stand on its own as a novel, the unevenness provides too many holes, unneeded devices, fairytale tones, and trite resolutions.

Anyone who enjoyed the album or has an affinity for the steampunk genre as a fable will find reasons to enjoy it, and Anderson and Peart do impart a few pearls of wisdom that are universally true. The real treasure earned in any life is measured in love and respect. Therein lies where the work edges out the above average marker as a concept to be included for review.

Clockwork Angels: The Novel can be found on Amazon or the book can be ordered from Barnes & Noble. It can also be downloaded for iBooks or as an audiobook, narrated by Peart himself. You can expect several references to Rush lyrics throughout and Peart's afterthoughts share many other influences that helped shape the book. The album review is here.
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