At a time when nearly all of its early-'70s hard-rock contemporaries are comfortably coasting on past glories, Rush continues to be propelled by a restless creativity. More than 40 years into the band's career, it seems that Canada's ultimate power trio still can't stop thinking big.
This summer, the band released Clockwork Angels, its first concept album in decades and most intriguing work in nearly as long. It's an excuse to tour the Americas one more time, sure, but Rush isn't stopping there. This week, they presented fans with something new: Clockwork Angels: The Novel, the very first attempt at translating the band's musical narratives into dead-tree format.
It's a preposterous idea, really. Even amongst die-hard Rush nerds, who's got the time and inclination to read a prog-rock concept album? Still, it's not a total surprise that the band would give something like this a try. Neil Peart, the group's superhuman drummer and lyrics-writer, has always been a thoughtful, literary guy, and Rush could never have remained a vital creative force for so long if they were afraid to branch out in unexpected new directions. But, come on -- could this book actually be any good?
Put simply, yeah, it's pretty respectable. Though the overarching plot points and ideas have Peart's fingerprints all over them, he was smart enough to entrust the actual business of novel-writing to a friend and sometime-collaborator, Kevin J. Anderson.
While clearly a fan, Anderson is no chump. He's the prolific, award-winning sci-fi author of more than 100 novels, and an experienced hand at diving into fictional worlds dreamed up by others.
Much of his work explores the popular sci-fi/fantasy universes of Star Wars, The X-Files, DC Comics and Dune. Anderson was a wise choice to work with Peart on this project: His practiced writing style effectively renders vivid characters and imagery, bringing the drummer's vision to life on the page.
The story itself isn't exactly a wildly original masterpiece. If you were expecting one, please consult your doctor. The book's themes will be quite familiar to any fan of Rush, or of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, for that matter. It is, however, a richly imagined steampunk epic of travel and discovery. If that sort of thing doesn't appeal to you, you probably aren't a huge Rush person to begin with.
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The novel follows the tale of Owen Hardy, a young man coming of age in a rural community that literally runs like clockwork. He's content and secure in his comfortable little hamlet, but his dreams stretch beyond the safe and well-worn boundaries of his prescribed existence.
Driven by a longing he doesn't quite understand, he hops a passing steam freighter in the night for the big city on a whim (or so he thinks!) to see the wondrous capitol of the Watchmaker, the nigh-omnipotent man who controls every aspect of life in the nation of Albion.
It's the beginning of a winding adventure that takes Hardy to faraway lands and hidden lairs of power and resistance as he's caught in a tug-of-war between the paternal, removed Watchmaker and his nemesis, the embittered and radical Anarchist.
Along the way, Owen discovers love, joy, loss and wisdom in a tried-and-true hero's journey to find his place in the world. Perhaps unavoidably given the source of the tale, he even falls in with a talented band of traveling performers with more than a few lessons and surprises to impart.
Based largely on themes that Rush explored in the '70s, Neil Peart is often hailed (and scorned) as a rock-star disciple of Ayn Rand. But Peart is hardly a strict Objectivist, and though some of Rand's ideas are clearly present here, Clockwork Angels is no Atlas Shrugged.
Instead, it's a rather obvious (though pleasant) retelling of Candide. In the end, our hero finds that self-actualization and good company are an adventure unto themselves.
Hey, if you're going to swipe ideas, you can do worse than Voltaire. For the fanboys, subtle and not-so-subtle references to Rush songs, albums and lyrics are sprinkled here and there throughout the book. They don't add much to the enjoyment of the story, but they don't detract any, either.
Is the novel self-indulgent? Shit yeah! It's the literary translation of a freaking prog-rock concept album, how could it not be? But that's practically the point. Indulging creative flights of fantasy for their own sake is what makes Rush tick.
This is no ancillary cash-in; it's a serious effort to stretch the band's ideas in a new direction, and in that regard it's pretty darn successful. Anderson has a practiced voice for science fiction, and his influence helps to ensure that the story doesn't collapse into silliness or pomposity as it might've.
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Mostly, it's just nice to have Peart crackling with new ideas and ambitions again. After suffering well-publicized family tragedies in the late '90s, it looked for a time as if he might withdraw into solitude forever. Clockwork Angels, both the album and novel, find him with stories yet to tell and places yet to explore. To Rush fans young and old, that's a happy tale worth sharing.
Clockwork Angels: The Novel By Kevin J. Anderson and Neil Peart ECW Press, 304 pp, $15.57 at amazon.com