Many Possible Worlds: Clockwork Lives by Anderson and Neil Peart

Steampunk Canterbury Tales with a twist

In 2012, Kevin J. Anderson had an opportunity that would make him the envy of any Rush fan: He got to write a novel to expand upon the steampunk universe described in the concept album Clockwork Angels. Three years later, Anderson and Neil Peart have collaborated again on Clockwork Lives, demonstrating that more tales remain to be told in that world.

Clockwork Angels (the album and the book) is a loose retelling of Voltaire’s Candide set in a universe where a genius known as the Watchmaker is able, through the power of alchemy and his own force of will, to build an empire where “all is for the best” — because he insists that it is. The follow-up, Clockwork Lives, is presented as a steampunk Canterbury Tales, and though the comparison is not so apt, it nevertheless offers its own pleasures.

Marinda Peake, like most good citizens of Albion, leads a simple life and enjoys the orderliness of the Watchmaker’s celebrated Stability. She reluctantly begins her adventure when her eccentric father bequeaths her an alchemically treated book with the instruction to go forth and fill it with stories. Marinda is puzzled and frustrated by such a frivolous quest, but she obeys her father’s last wishes. She soon discovers that there aren’t enough noteworthy narratives in her sleepy hometown and that she’ll have to journey further afield if she is going to find the kinds of epics that her father intends her to collect.

The format makes sense. Many a song — in particular a Rush song — tells a story in brief, so it feels natural for the book to take the form of a compilation of short tales. Clockwork Lives makes the connection explicit by peppering the text with snippets of Rush lyrics. With twenty albums to mine, there’s no shortage of familiar phrases to draw upon. Some of these are deftly hidden easter eggs, while others draw a bit too much attention to themselves, when a sentence seems to veer out of its way or be inserted for no other reason than to wink at fans of the band. (Example: Is coldfire a cool steampunky fuel source or Rush reference? Yes. Is it mentioned far too many times either way? Also yes.)

The references at their best serve a purpose other than pure fan service. On some level Clockwork Lives is a mix tape in prose form, bringing together and remixing various themes and preoccupations that Peart the lyricist has previously explored. For my money, though, the references that sparked the most delight came with the recognition of people and places that we met in Clockwork Angels. The Watchmaker, who is portrayed as both revered and slightly sinister in the earlier book, is given more layers in Clockwork Lives, and although we never hear the Watchmaker’s Tale directly, we get the sense of a villain who’s the hero of his own story.

Of the people Marinda meets on her travels, the first one whose tale truly drew me in was Mrs. Courier, the Bookseller. In part this is because it goes beyond the Watchmaker’s slogan to play with the second half of the Panglossian mantra, and I’m a sucker for a parallel worlds story. Its setting also allows for some of the most unforced allusions to Rush narratives, including an admirably restrained “2112” reference. It’s also the tale where Marinda herself begins to turn a corner, and starts to seek quality, and not merely quantity, in the stories she gathers.

And ultimately it’s Marinda who carries Clockwork Lives, literally and figuratively. She begins as the kind of bland character whose life could be “summed up in a sentence or two.” We watch her grow and change, as she learns that people are not always what they seem, then gradually hones her ability to judge the character of strangers. She comes to appreciate the power of imagination and the rewards that can come from making unconventional choices. Yes, it’s a familiar tale that we’ve heard before, but Marinda’s collection of stories contains a wealth of case studies for what makes a good life, among the many possible lives that one can lead.

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