Clockwork Angels
Reading Review

by Michael Channing

Michael Channing reading Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson

Blockbuster movies do this sort of thing all the time: Along with the movie you get the video game, the fast food novelty meal, the cartoon series, the play set, the Underoos, the comic book, the coloring book, the Jell-O mold, the breakfast cereal, a special hot sauce, and limited run of designer pencil cases. But with records, you just get the record. Maybe a cardboard punch-out of a Freddy Mercury mustache or Tori Amos paper doll, but that would be all the multi-media you could hope for.

But Rush stretched the limits with their last release. Clockwork Angels exists not only as a concept album, but also as a novel by science fiction and fantasy staple Kevin J. Anderson.

If you're familiar with the Rush catalogue, the book comes with a built-in soundtrack. Lyrical snippets from Rush songs are peppered throughout the novel. I often had to stop half way through a sentence and ask why my inner reading voice suddenly broke into song and jumped up two octaves. Oh yeah, because I've heard Geddy Lee sing that phrase a few hundred times since I was seventeen. There are more allusions than just lyric quotes. A dog makes a brief appearance, and guess what breed of dog it is. Check the cover of Signals for the answer.

The book fleshes out the story told in broad strokes on the companion album. The Watchmaker and the Anarchist get back stories, the milieu is explained, the hero gets a name, and we find out what steamliners are. Years ago, in the horrible times before the Great Stability, the Watchmaker developed a clean, nearly limitless source of energy and a method for creating gold. He used his immense wealth to stealthily buy all of Center City. He used his gift of invention to banish war and poverty. He gave everyone a job and a purpose. He tamed the weather itself and gave everyone the magnificent Clockwork Angels wich bestow wisdom and mercy upon the masses.

Life is easy, as everyone knows their place. Everything happens for a reason, and all is for the best. But Owen Hardy, our protagonist, is restless and discontent. He wants to see the Clockwork Angels and all the wonders of the world his mother used to read to him about. He wants to sneak out for a secret rendezvous with his girl, but that would mean upsetting the balance and throwing off the Watchmaker's perfect schedule. However, we never get the sense that breaking schedule carries much of a consequence. In other dystopias--1984, "Repent, Harlequin," said the Tic-Toc Man, Fahrenheit 451, Logan's Run--non-conformity has a huge price, often death. But here, for daring to go where he wants instead of where he should, Owen is forced to get a job. Nobody straps rats to his face or burns his house down or brainwashes him into compliance. He just has to sort of hang around.

The Watchmaker's world doesn't even feel like a true dystopia. Everything is pleasant with no crime, save for the Anarchist and his band of Wreckers. The book tries to set them up as equal opposites of the Watchmaker, but despite their credo they seem more like hooligans than rebels. The Watchmaker does employ a loyal regiment of soldiers, but we only see them politely escort trespassers to the city gate and attack the Wreckers, who were clearly guilty of theft, piracy, and murder. Sure, everyone is taught their place and encouraged to keep the status quo, but there's no real darkness to the Watchmaker's schemes. A Wrinkle in Time describes a planet where every person does exactly the same thing every day at the same time. It's absolutely frightening. But the world of Clockwork Angels is quaint.

I've been focusing only on the negatives so far. The book does have some positives. I have to say that playing "Spot the Rush Allusions" was very fun. My favorite section was the Seven Cities of Gold. The song led me to expect something entirely different than what the novel gave, and the difference was enjoyable. It was a nice reveal that felt deep and marked a well-won and believable change in the hero's character. The climax felt right as well. Our hero Owen is confronted by the Watchmaker and the Anarchist and asked to choose between freedom and stability. If you're a Rush fan, I'm sure you already know how he decides, but the way it plays out is pretty exciting. It's the rare instance of a mediocre book with a good ending. But when it comes down to it, I'd rather read the opposite.

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