Clockwork Angels: A review

Clockwork AngelsFew novels in recent months have crossed my desk for review and been snatched up with as much enthusiasm as Clockwork Angels, a collaboration between legendary Canadian rock band Rush and prolific SF author Kevin J. Anderson. While novelisation’s of rock albums are few and far between – giving this project a certain fascination right off the bat – my enthusiasm was guaranteed for the reason that Anderson’s novel and the exquisite illustrations by graphic artist Hugh Syme take the lyrics and broad narrative of Rush’s latest album as their inspiration, forging a beautifully illustrated work of fiction that draws on many of the philosophical, humanitarian and libertarian ideas that lyricist Neil Peart has been working with and evolving through the band’s music over some four decades.

Clockwork Angels imagines a world of extremes. One part is ruled by the Watchmaker, a well-intentioned megalomaniac who exercises absolute control over the lives of his subjects. In the main the Watchmaker’s realm is peaceful, idyllic in some ways, but this idyll is achieved at a terrible price: the Watchmaker’s subjects are little more than automatons pursuing a path from cradle to grave laid out by their “benefactor”. They lead lives of clockwork precision, without risk, with little joy and even less freedom.

But beneath the seemingly idyllic surface, Chaos threatens always to break through, driven by its agent, the Anarchist.

Clockwork Angels tells the story of a young man, Owen Hardy, very nearly an Everyman protagonist except that he is a dreamer, a young man who thinks big, so very unlike his peers. Coming to the attention of both the Watchmaker and the Anarchist, Hardy is thrust on a journey that takes him across a lavish and colourful world of steampunk and alchemy, with lost cities, pirates, exotic carnivals and airships, a journey on which he experiences the highs and lows of an unplanned life that shakes the very foundations of his beliefs.

The SF narrative and philosophical themes in this material are worthy subject matter for a concept album by one of the greatest rock bands to grace our stages, and I'm happy to declare that my enthusiasm for Rush’s album has grown with each listening, but unfortunately my enthusiasm for the novel failed to survive the literary journey. Such material doesn't provide a novelist with anything that hasn’t been done elsewhere. On the album Clockwork Angels, Rush’s music and musicianship give this subject matter emotional depth and immediacy, but even a good novelist would struggle to do something novel with this material.

And Kevin J. Anderson did more than struggle to keep this reader enthused.

For the last four decades, Rush has been at the forefront of progressive rock, acquiring a reputation as masterful musicians, song writers and performers. For the last three decades, I’ve been along for the ride, and although I’ve not enjoyed every twist and turn the band has taken on its remarkable journey, the risks that the band has taken are an eloquent expression of their immense creativity and one reason amongst many that they have stood the test of time so well. Another reason for the band’s longevity is the depth of thought that informs the themes in their music, the main driver of which is drummer and lyricist Neil Peart. Affectionately dubbed the Professor on the drum kit by lead singer Geddy Lee, Peart is an intelligent, erudite, and thought-provoking lyricist of the first order who draws on wide literary and philosophical inspirations for his lyrics. Although the themes explored in Rush’s music are diverse, there is an enduring humanitarian and libertarian focus, often expressed through songs and entire albums influenced by fantasy and SF themes with such titles as Rivendell and their first concept album, 2112.

A direct predecessor of Clockwork Angels, 2112 imagines a dystopian future in which the protagonist struggles against the collectivist forces of a totalitarian state. At the time (1976) the album was quite controversial due to Peart’s acknowledgment of Ayn Rand’s writings on Individualism and Objectivism as a major influence on its ideas. Clockwork Angels is the work of an older, wiser and more conservative writer, although not more Conservative (capital C), but rather one who is far less radical. If Ayn Rand was an influence on 2112, those days are long past for Peart: the dystopian Order of the Watchmaker in Clockwork Angels is diametrically opposed to an equally undesirable Chaos promoted by the Anarchist, a man who epitomises extreme individualism pursued at any cost.

To be fair to Anderson, the novelisation of Clockwork Angels and its philosophical themes is not entirely unreadable but its novelty doesn’t extend much beyond the fact of its adaptation of the Rush album. Anderson struggles to do anything particularly original with the material in prose that fails to breathe life into characters (who remain fixtures on the page rather than creatures of our imagination) traversing a plot that is devoid of surprises.

But when all is said and done, as much a problem as the novel’s prose are the ideas that inform it. The depiction of an alternate reality in which a totalitarian order controlling every aspect of life is under threat from subversive forces doesn’t give us anything we haven’t come across many times before. And as a work of philosophy, the ideas conveyed are simplistic and safe, a middle of the road philosophy that extols the virtues of avoiding the extremes and following your own path. As a philosophy of life it makes reasonable sense, but it does not make for particularly interesting literature.

To end then, enjoy the album, indulge in Hugh Syme’s exquisite illustrations, and perhaps give the novel a go. Maybe it will speak to you more eloquently than in spoke to me.

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