My initial exposure with Kevin J. Anderson and Neil Peart’s Clockwork Lives was on The Steampunk Scholar’s blog. Him, being a doctoral researcher interested in Steampunk as an aesthetic, and Clockwork Lives, a book cast as a “Steampunk” Canterbury Tales, made a perfect fit. At the time, I wasn’t interested in medieval literature, so I didn’t much care that a medieval author’s idea was being reinvented, especially not at a time where books like Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies were making their rounds and slowly bastardizing literature.
Fast forward to the present, however, and I have more than a passing interest in medieval literature. Additionally, I don’t take as hard a stance on these modern adaptations as I once did; in the very least, I don’t consider them “bastardizations”. So, when I gained my interest in these “New” adaptations and medievalism in general, I remembered Clockwork Lives. Now that I am completing an Independent Study in “New Medieval Literature”, I thought now was as good time as ever to go through this book myself and see how it stacks up to this “Steampunk Chaucer” concept.
Clockwork Lives concerns itself with protagonist Miranda Peake. Living her solitary life alongside her eccentric elderly father, she doesn’t care much for grand adventures or epic quests. That is until her father passes away and bequests to Miranda the following: fill an alchemical tome with the stories of extraordinary peoples’ lives or forget about inheriting the vast fortune of his estate. Obviously, Miranda doesn’t much care for this quest but as she is locked out of her home until such a time as this special tome is filled, she doesn’t have much of a choice.
So, Miranda sets off for the grand adventure that her father insisted she take. Traveling around the fictional continent of Albion and later Atlantis, she pays people for their stories and collects their tales via a single drop of their blood which when spilled onto the page recollects their entire lives—the boring parts filtered out. This is where the “Canterbury Tales” aspect of the stories comes in as each “epic life” is cast as “a tale” in the sense of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (“The Astronomer’s Tale,” “The Fortune Teller’s Tale,” and so on); except, instead of a complex, interconnecting series of stories attempting to one-up each other, we readers receive short biographies largely disconnected from each other and the wider universe.
If I am honest, Lives is a poor “steampunk Chaucer”. After all, the whole point of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales was that each pilgrim was in conversation with one another. Each of Chaucer’s stories was told by a distinct member of medieval society and reflected something unique about how that person say themselves and their trade in that society. Each of Chaucer’s pilgrims competed for a prize and so were aware of how their fiction would need to top the fiction of the tale-teller which came before. Lives forsake this aspect of The Canterbury Tales. The tales here as disparate and told disjointedly. There is no contest, there is no Chaucer stand-in, there is very little narrative cohesion. There is just a blithe framed narrative—Miranda’s tale-gathering adventure—spruced up by some ultra-individualistic “lives”. That is it.
Beyond this one cannot even recommend Lives for its writing. Or its characterization or plot or narrative or really anything. Everything about Lives is cliched. Small-town rural protagonist unexpectedly sent on a grand adventure after their wise-old mentor dies? Check. A dystopia ruled by a benevolent dictator? Check. Haphazard personal growth and unexpected delight in their grand adventure now that their eyes have been opened to their world beyond their small town? Check. Heteronormative fairy-tale ending? Check. There are no surprises along the way and it is not an exaggeration to say that the entirety of Miranda’s personal growth is that she found adventuring beyond the confines’ of one’s routine daily routine a not wholly unpleasant affair. There is no antagonist, no central conflict, and to top it all off, Anderson and Peart’s writing is just simplistic, disharmonious, and above-all, amateurish. As The Steampunk Scholar pointed out, the framed narrative has nothing to do with “the tales” and at times even creates a disjointed sensation when uneducated tale-tellers blood reveals stories written in an idiom which the person themselves would never have been able to write or even speak. The book, then, constantly cannibalizes itself to steamroll the plot. It is just tedious.
I could go on about the political sensibilities of Lives. But I won’t. Sufficient to say that Lives reproduces bourgeois norms of ultra-individualism while demonizing revolutionary, anti-exploitative traditions in cartoonish ways (the violent Anarchist). Miranda’s journey to collect extraordinary lives betrays the anti-people stance of its authors by reducing the lives of proletarians to mere sentences while elevating the lives of petty-bourgeois inventors, explorers, naval captains, and others to epic tales spanning dozens of pages. It doesn’t take someone with a degree in literary criticism to see which class is deemed worthier of praise.
In the end, Clockwork Lives is a decent book. It is your brutally average steampunk story set loosely to the tune of Chaucer. Young readers will likely find it engaging and maybe even a delight to carry around as the hardcover version of the book is beautifully designed. Older readers, though, will find little to appreciate. If you absolutely must read everything in steampunk, then give this a shot. If you have discerning tastes, though, you can do better than this overrated commodity.
Kevin J. Anderson & Neil Peart
397 pages. Published by ECW Press. $16.96 (Hardcover), $5.99 (Kindle), $19.59 (Audible audiobook). 2015.
 All prices were taken from Amazon.com and were accurate at the time of writing.