I recently finished reading Clockwork Angels, written by Kevin J. Anderson, based on lyrics by Neil Peart of Rush. I first saw this book sitting on the shelf about a year and a half ago, and was excited to find both that Rush had a new album out, and that someone had finally written a book based on some of the excellent mythologies and stories Rush has produced.
So I listened to the album for quite a while before reading the book finally, which is maybe how it should work with this. With a solid backing in the music – which is, as I understand it, the first total-album concept album by Rush – I then turned to the book. I had some preconceptions, based on the album, based on Rush and their Libertarian leanings, and maybe based a bit on what I was expecting to write about it in the blog once we reached the point where that was a thing.
I see there’s a concert album coming out next month – going to have to get that! They released one of the songs, so let me share that with you:
There will be spoilers to come about this book, but then, it’s based on an album, so in some ways, spoilers were the name of the game. However, if you never planned on reading this anyway, definitely read on to see what they created by combining these two artforms! Especially if you like what you hear in the concert video!
On My Way At Last, On My Way At Last!
So what was I expecting from this book, after listening to the album, and after knowing Rush? And after what I had read of Kevin J. Anderson’s work – mainly the Dune prequels.
For one thing, it was exciting just because, like I said, Rush’s work would lend itself to deeper storytelling already. The plot (if you can call it that) of one of the Guitar Hero games, for instance, included 2112 as a pivotal central moment, where you get the epic guitar of legend. 2112 listens like a lot of dystopian literature, though – the most obvious parallel being Ayn Rand’s Anthem. It’s a reaction against Platonic thought, of a world controlled by thoughts of what is acceptable, what is stable.
After listening to Clockwork Angels, I was expecting a dystopian tale like 2112, just deeper and fuller of a world. The piece that was added especially was a religious-sounding aspect, and to be fair, my original expectation was that this would be a Science Fiction and Religion post – which, it has implications as such, so at the end I will leave the segue to a further post later.
What I was expecting, though, was for the overarching society – based around the Watchmaker – to be a religion about a Watchmaker god. An analysis or maybe even attack on religion, by reducing it to Deism – the belief that the universe was created, and then the creator basically stepped back to let it go. A watchmaker, with time up his sleeves. Libertarianism tends heavily towards Atheism, so I figured this wasn’t a wrong expectation.
So while I expecting the mythology created, and the dystopian world, to be intriguing, I was a bit hesitant about the writing. Kevin J. Anderson’s work tends towards cinematic, which I thought was going to be an odd combination with a dystopian world, with religious overtones, but I was willing to give it a try.
Show, Don’t Tell
What we got from this book was not what I expected, not completely. We did get the interesting-seeming Steampunk world from the album, complete with Carnies, an Anarchist, airships, pirates, alchemy, and of course, the fabled Seven Cities of Gold (love that song).
Most of the lyrics and song titles make their way into the book, not just in blurbs at the start of each chapter – definitely made me think of the Dune prequels with that! – but also throughout the narrative. We also got a whole slew of Rush references – song titles like Nobody’s Hero, Vapor Trails, Freewill, Dreamline, Roll the Bones, One Little Victory, Between Sun and Moon… They even snuck 2112 into one of the images, although so subtly I don’t think I can do it justice. However, there are a number of great illustrations in the book… or perhaps the proper term would be illuminations? Here’s one:
However, I would say there’s one Rush song they missed the heart of: Show Don’t Tell. This book definitely told us about the journey, recapping it every few chapters. It is very introspective. They don’t really fully show us the emotional journey, they tell us. And it’s set up as the main character telling the tale, and he’s there in the prologue and epilogue… but then it’s third person throughout.
The story reduces down to a coming-of-age tale for a young man. Sure, he’s in a steampunk world, but he’s a simple everyman, except he wonders what he might do. So, more like us than like his peers within the world. This world is ruled not by an absentee Clockmaker god, like I expected – but by a man, by the Watchmaker. Not absentee either, but constantly fiddling with things, working on perfecting them.
His society is based on this four-line verse:
Lean not upon your own understanding
Ignorance is well and truly blessed
Trust in perfect love, and perfect planning
Everything will turn out for the best.
Overall, the simplicity was tough for me. Maybe I read the book too fast – completed it on our vacation, in less than a week – and it’s meant to be read a bit at a time, with the re-telling of the journey helping pull you back in. But let’s think bigger. This is meant as a young adult story – for young people, dealing with coming-of-age themselves, caught between thoughts of pure freedom, and the seeming world of adult pure stability.
Except, can they actually expect this to be the audience for this book? It’s Rush, a band that’s been around for decades – I imagine the audience they can expect is older than me, even. Listening to Rush is one of my earliest memories, and some of my best memories – but it’s because of my dad, so really, the audience they should expect is realistically more like his age.
Which is confidential!
So, before I get too much further, I do recommend this book for young adults! If you need to recommend a book to someone – or if you like young adult fiction like I do – then give this book a go! And really, the album with it is a great addition. I think a teenager could really enjoy this combined experience, and really get into it.
The Best of All Possible Worlds
So I said I would get a bit deeper into the plot, so here we go.
Some of the most interesting chapters in the book are from the perspective of the Watchmaker, or the Anarchist. Rather than just following our protagonist, the simple, innocent boy, we also get to see what these two larger-than-life personalities are doing. They are both trying to influence the protagonist, as well – to convince him to their way of thinking. He becomes their battleground.
This power play ends up reminding me a whole lot of the book of Job, or maybe even more of the play J.B. by Archibald Macleish. We end up with order and chaos, fighting over the soul of one undecided boy. However, by the end, our hero chooses neither – he sees the value in his simple, ordered life – but also of the carefree life of the Carnies. Which, to be fair, you kind of see coming. Or maybe just I did. But with this sort of story, it’s about the journey.
Rather than attacking/exploring religion, however, even though it is referential of religion, and there is certainly a lot of faith going on – there is not necessarily a deity at all. Instead, we have quantum mechanics – a number of possible worlds, occasionally touching each other. Our hero finds connections to the other worlds, subtle, never traveling there – but he sees worlds where people were able to choose something else. And he realizes, there are worlds where all the various schools of thought have won out.
Because what the Watchmaker is trying to do is build the best of all possible worlds. However, because we know there are other worlds – we know that there are worlds that are imperfect – does it matter whether this one is? Is it worth it to tear it all down, or to give in? Our hero decides it is worth doing neither, and chooses for himself. His journey has given him peace.
So a few implications from this. First, the world is clearly an attempt at a Utopia. In our storytelling, these always seem to tend towards Dystopia – there’s always some reason it falls apart. I was expecting it.
And it didn’t happen.
This was intentional, reading the note at the end by Neil Peart. They wanted to build a world that was not a Dystopia, where it doesn’t fall apart. The hero doesn’t tear it all down, doesn’t change the mind of the people who have faith in the world. He doesn’t join up with the Wreckers trying to tear it down. Instead, it’s a world that is an attempt at being the Best of All Possible Worlds – and is kind of close!
So that is my closing thought, this thought experiment – trying to create the Best of All Possible Worlds, even if just in fiction. Because regularly, this is not the case. We don’t seem to be able to come up with anything better than what we’ve got here on Earth. Can our human minds conceive of something better – really better, once you think through implications and realities? A question for another time. But it’s not stopping the Watchmaker from trying, nor our writers, and I will for now leave them to it.