Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: Clockwork Angels, the Novel

In June, I posted a review of Rush's newest album, Clockwork Angels.  I also reported that drummer and lyricist Neil Peart was in the process of collaborating with an author to devise a sort of "novelization of the album."  The book was published a short time ago, and I just finished it.

It's an odd little bird, I'll tell you.

We can get the most of the bad out of the way quickly.  My initial impression of it can be boiled down to one word: "simple."  Peart and author Kevin Anderson took the basic adventure plot from Voltaire's Candide, removed nearly all of Voltaire's wit and subtlety, and substituted in some stale steampunk set dressing.  Having to take the plot through the rather linear set of situations suggested by the songs was a bit plodding and ho-hum.

Other than a few exceptions, the characters were cartoonish.  The evil "Anarchist" is motivated by a backstory only Lex Luthor would see as viable.  His counterpart, the evil "Watchmaker," micromanages his kingdom like a mad puppeteer, determining everyone's careers and approving their marriages and living situations.  That's okay on its own, but to drive the point even more to the edge of overkill, he also forces scientists to hew to a literal Ptolemaic cosmology.  The deviations of the planets from perfect circular orbits is recognized as a "problem" by some, but it's a problem that all have faith in the Watchmaker to fix by (someday) moving their orbits into their proper, anal-retentive shapes!

And the "Easter Eggs."  Oh, the Easter Eggs.  I get that Anderson is friends with Neil Peart, and is probably a huge fan of the music.  But the insertion of out-of-context song lyrics from Rush's 40-year history -- pretty much one every 3 or 4 pages -- was jarring and annoying.  I'm not misusing the word literally when I say I literally turned my exasperated gaze skyward whenever I came across one of these groaners.

Okay, the worst is over.  What's left?

The negative points listed above were just about all that were filling my head as I was reading the first few chapters.  But then, somewhere around a third of the way in, I had a mental shift that made me far more forgiving of its flaws:  I pictured reading it to my son.  He's 11, and will soon be a wistful teenager looking to break away and have adventures of his own.

Actually, this book couldn't be a better guide for that.

Its simplicity can be forgiven as the allowances that (I assume) must be made in all Young Adult type fiction.  In that vein, it does remind me a lot of the overall reading level of the Harry Potter books.  (And by "reading level" I don't just mean vocabulary and sentence complexity, but also the themes, ideas, and challenges the main character is exposed to.)  The cartoonish characters are no worse than those created by George Lucas, and they may be just as memorable for someone who doesn't know the dozens of literary originals that were plundered to create them.  The Rush lyrics wouldn't be a problem -- unless a prog-geek Dad like me would be constantly pointing them out and talking about each song they come from!  :-)

There's one other troubling aspect that I discussed in my review of the album.  ("Spoiler alert," I suppose.)  In both the lyrics and the book, we see that the main character eventually finds a happy home and leaves behind the grand battle.  We learn in the book that he was a symbolic "pawn" that both the Anarchist and the Watchmaker desired to convert to their way of thinking.  He said "No thanks" to both and went his panglossian way.

I know that a protagonist doesn't always need to defeat the bad guys and save the world, but I still felt the lack of righteous "comeuppance" for the villains as a pang of emptiness at the heart of this thing.  They need to be checked, or their darkness will grow.  The Watchmaker will always want more.  If I can quote myself from my review of the album:
Okay, maybe I'm not at that point of inner peace where Neil Peart abides.  I still want to see the redeemed Prince By-Tor defeat the Necromancer.  I want to see the apotheosis of my namesake Cygnus, the god of balance, who teaches silly Apollo and Dionysus the errors of their extremism.  I want to believe (yes, there's Fox Mulder again) that the death of the guitar-discoverer in 2112 wasn't in vain, and that the elder race of man really did return in the end to knock some Syrinxish heads.
I guess I'm guilty of including Rush Easter eggs, too, but the book didn't give me the kind of closure that Neil has espoused in the past.  Maybe it's the mature choice, the choice that will help guide young readers to live healthier lives full of forgiveness.  But it's enough to stop me from loving this story wholeheartedly.


  1. Okay. Read this and then had to get up and make some coffee. Now, I'm back.

    First, when you say they took a basic adventure plot and stripped it of all its wit and subtlety, I thought, 'Ye-owch!' Having been in a touch-and-go dialogue about this as you were reading it made me very curious about how the journey would culminate and resolve for you, though, so here we are.

    I have to admit, I love Lex Luthor. He's one of my favorite cartoon villains of all time but maybe what I really love is *Gene Hackman* as Lex Luthor. It's probably all in the delivery. (We all have our little faults. Mine's in California.) So, I had an initial pulling back when he was somewhat disdainfully 'lumped in' with the characters in this adventure which didn't seem to inspire near so much glee.

    All right, so your next beef is the one thing that's easy to do and hard to avoid when an author is attempting the enormously difficult-to-finesse art of allegory: overkill. What I would love to know from you as an aside is, where have you seen this done with grace AND accessibility? There's the rub.

    Cygnus, Sir Balance, what I wonder engaging this post is how to manifest at once subtlety and straightforwardness. Ah! Yes, see the prize boar would seem to manage to touch on those distilled forces with which we grapple in 'life' and which story aims to personify -- if a bit, ahem, cartoonishly -- but also to render accessible to more than just the elite.


    I'm skipping over the Easter eggs -- so sorry they made you roll your eyes enough to grow dizzy -- and hitting next the idea that the journey becomes less disagreeable if you set it in another context, namely that of something written for a child. Cyg, you're extremely well-read. Have you read an adventure story that a child could read which successfully anthropomorphizes the biggies? Something which touches on all the epic battles at the heart of the cosmos but retains a sort of humility at the heart of its execution? Answer with care, esteemed mind, for on the contemplative journey in which I now find myself, I will be taking your response and making a beeline to the library or bookshop. :) :)

    Finally, I relished this line:

    The cartoonish characters are no worse than those created by George Lucas, and they may be just as memorable for someone who doesn't know the dozens of literary originals that were plundered to create them.


    Someone, somewhere was really liking me on the day I 'ran' into you, good sir.

    1. Going to have to think about all this. Below are just initial thoughts -- don't take these to the bookstore! :-)

      FYI, I nearly wrote "Snidely Whiplash" instead of Lex Luthor. I've got a soft spot for Hackman's portrayal, too, but I wasn't thinking of it here.

      Right now, I can't think of anything that satisfies all of the above criteria -- it's a high bar! I'd have to rule out both Narnia and the Golden Compass as missing out on the humility (in two opposing directions). The Princess Bride is fun, but too self-referential as a genre mocker.

      Tolkien? The Hobbit, maybe, but not quite epic enough. The full-on LOTR is maybe TOO epic for its own good.

      I can at least say that, despite their flaws and the huge surrounding comercialism, Rowling's Potter books shouldn't be dismissed. Have you read them?

      I've heard great things about Ende's Neverending Story, but all I really know is the movie, which was way too syrupy. The book, I hear, is way more subtle, and even is said to contain a sly reference or two to Crowley's stars...

    2. Okay, this is good. I watched the adaptation of 'The Neverending Story' and I loved it. Even recently, with my daughter. So if you're saying some think the book outshines the film by miles, my curiosity is piqued. (I also liked the OST, btw.)

      Potter. I read the first and second books as well as about 130 pages of the third -- at which point it just got too dark for my taste and I quit. Tolkien, blurg. I know this is going to sound like sacrilege but it's never quite gripped my interest. The Hobbit I had a hard time getting momentum the one time I picked it up and the full-on LOTR, I've only seen the films. I loved 'The Two Towers.' I loathe Gollum (sp?) and 'The Return of the King' I watched when I was eight months pregnant and could only think, 'When in HELL is this thing going to be over? It's had like seven endings!'

      So, maybe TNS.

    3. OST?

      Potter gets even darker after book three, but the light shines through -- bursts through, even, despite all attempts to quench it. (I heard Bruce Cockburn's immortal lines on the radio this morning.) In books 1 thru 7, Harry is 11 thru 17. I have a feeling that this is also the target age progression for readers.

      Tolkien's books are the archetype of a comment I made earlier about another book: "Why spend weeks to months in a universe without that universe being fully fleshed out?" In this case, add: "...and then some!" :-)

    4. A few more random entries in the category "Excellent Stories that Initiate You Into Life:"

      Man of La Mancha. The 1960s play, not Cervantes' original novel. (Also not the crappy 1972 movie version with Peter O'Toole.) Best ingestion method: read the play, and listen to the songs on the original soundtrack as they come up in your reading. Lesson: Good is Real, but not always Rational. Certain parts can make me cry just thinking about them.

      Hesse's Steppenwolf. Surrealistic and a bit NC-17, so not for the kiddies, but transcendent. The protagonist isn't a youth just going out into the world for the first time, but, like Jerry McGuire, this is the story of how he started living.

      Avatar: The Last Airbender. Yes, a TV cartoon show on Nickelodeon. But the story is ethereally and eternally great, the characters put their emotional hooks deep into you, and the grand themes are all there. The depiction of one "bad guy's" redemption is what George Lucas WISHED he could have done with Darth Vader's arc.

      I've already done my bit for Batchelor's Antarctica and Zindell's Neverness.

      Honorable mention to some others that reached for the heights, but remain flawed or problematic in some way: Silverlock by John Myers Myers. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. Joyce's Ulysses.

    5. If you have time, I'd love your response to this.

      Also, reading this, I am wondering about the 'originality' of Libby's denouement.

    6. I'll give prismcolour the same "Ye-owch!" you gave me above. :-) I should really read Steppenwolf again, since it's been about 20 years. I don't know Murakami at all. And sure, Germans of that era idolized Goethe and expected everyone to know him... maybe like how we'd talk about Einstein or Picasso. Gotta make some allowances when reading stuff written several generations ago.

      I suppose that even though I've railed (along with you) against gratutious tragedy and disaster in fiction, I must have a higher tolerance for the depths of despair -- as long as there's at least a HINT that the characters find their way back to the light. Some stories end in dreams that are only ambiguous harbingers of future goodness (Joyce's Ulysses is on my mind, but see also one of my favorite movies), and that's often enough hope for me.

      When those hints are totally absent (Sartre, Camus), or are implied but not backed up by what actually happens in the book (Currie), I'm out.

      I haven't yet gotten to the newest version of MT, so I can't yet speak to stuff that wasn't there in July. I'm curious which aspect of the denoument you mean, but maybe deets are best left to email.

    7. Cyg, I liked 'Raising Arizona!' It has been a long time since I've seen it but I love the dreamlike sequences and the blurring lines between the natural and, well maybe the supranatural?

      I did give Murakami's IQ84 a try and was enraptured and charmed by some of what he was attempting and revolted utterly by other things so I didn't get too far ...

      As for MT, I really don't want to give impressions before you engage the text because I feel very happy and pleased with what the text and I did together. So, I'm just going to wait for your email -- whenever you are able to devote the time to it. I am in no hurry and do not wish for you to be. This thing is 'keeping' for me in a big way. :)