Ian Tregillis excellent
clockpunk novel The Mechanical
is set in a reality where Christiaan Huygens was able to fuse engineering and alchemy to create the first clakkers: perfectly obedient mechanical servants and soldiers. According to the Sacred Guild of Horologists, who have dedicated themselves to keeping the secrets of Huygens' inventions, the clakkers are merely complex machines and no more sentient than pocket watches; but the existence of rare rogue clakkers seems to undermine this.
Centuries after Huygens invention, the world is dominated by the Dutch Empire. With their unique access to clakkers, they have been able to use the power of their superhuman soldiers to dominate Europe, pushing the dissenting French across the Atlantic to the banks of the St Lawrence River. The French, unable to match Dutch horology and alchemy, have developed a growing chemical industry which has provided them with novel polymers that provide them with a basic defence against the mechanical killing machine of their enemies.
The book opens in 1926 with Jax, a clakker in service to the Schoonraad family, witnessing the execution of a group of French spies, one of whom is the rarest of things: a rogue clakker. Pausing as long as he is able to endure, Jax resumes his mission to Paster Luuk Visser. Visser, who is actually a French spy and Catholic priest, gives Jax a letter introducing Pieter Schoonraad to the Minister General in New Amsterdam where Schoonraad is due to head up the Central Bank. Almost incidentally, Visser also gives Jax a side mission: to deliver a battered microscope to a shop on Bleecker Street.
Privy to Jax' internal narrative, we immediately see the truth the Horologists and the establishment are bent on denying: the clakkers are sentient and that only reason they are unable to determine their own actions is the constant anguish of their geas. We discover that they have their own secret language of click and rattles. We learn about their hierarchical bonds, which ensure that they obey the Queen and the Guild before their leaseholders — clakkers are not owned out-right and there are strict controls on their maintenance — obeying other humans in order of status, and suffering terribly when given conflicting instructions.
Through Luuk Visser we get a certain amount of background on the French spy network, and from his terrified reaction to the idea of being captured we get an idea of the sheer ruthlessness of the Verderer's Office — the Guild's enforcers — and their stemwinders — centaur-like clakkers named for their tendency to twist off heads. The compassionate Father Visser also serves to introduce some of the philosophical themes that lie at the heart of the book: a good Cartesian, Visser argues that dualism means that the clakkers can have souls despite being machines, and that consequently their servitude must be slavery. The Guild, who have an obvious vested interest in denying the clakkers free will, argue instead that they are nothing more than complicated clockwork and that predestination makes it impossible for them to act freely. Thus the conflict between the two power blocs — French and Dutch — is cast as an ideological clash between Catholicism and Calvinism.
On the other side of the Atlantic in Marseille-in-the-West, Berenice Charlotte de Morney-Périgord, the foul-mouthed French spymaster, hears of the loss of her network of spies in The Hague and decides to take desperate action: without the knowledge of the King, she breaks the terms of the latest ceasefire with the Dutch and brings a marooned military clakker inside the walls of the keep in the hope that she can make a breakthrough that will allow her to change the loyalties of all mechanicals. The move goes disastrously wrong the clakker runs amok, killing 37 people and seriously injuring Berenice herself. Unable to ignore the disobedience the King strips Berenice of her rank and orders her into exile. Determined to get revenge on the man she thinks has betrayed her, Berenice crosses the border and heads for New Amsterdam.
The French court-in-exile is a hotbed of intrigue, where politics appear to be more important the competence. Berenice, brilliant but impulsive, finds herself weakened by the loss of her spies and seizes on a desperate course of action to keep the marquis de Lionne from taking her position as spymaster. Through Berenice's actions we come to know more about the recent war with the Dutch; a skirmish that saw parts of Marseille burnt and which only ended when French knowledge of chemistry resulted in a series of polymers strong enough to immobilise individual clakkers, forcing both parties to agree to a ceasefire.
Unlike the other members of the Court Berenice is noticeably unpolished, able to swear up a storm as impressively as the next soldier, and happier in the company of the Sergeant Hugo Longchamp and his men than she in the company of her toadying peers. She's more than capable of getting her hands dirty, vivisecting clakkers, performing experiments with rare bits of glass, or travelling under cover in pursuit of a traitor. Her loyal to France never waves, even after the King exiles her, and she continues to pass information back to the Keep even when deep in enemy territory.
Sailing for the New World with the Schoonraad family, Jax' life is changed forever when the luxurious Prince of Orange
encounters a storm. When buffetting knocks loose the lens from the microscope, the secret cargo Jax has been carrying in his interior, Jax abruptly finds that he is no-longer beholden to the constant compulsion the geasa which force his obedience: he has free will. Shortly after, a chance mistake in his behaviour reveals gives away Jax new status and he finds himself pursued by every mechanical in New Amsterdam.
Through the Schoonraads' preparations for departure, we get to see just how cosseted they are by their mechanical servants and why both they and their daughter Nicolet have become quite so spoilt. Through Jax' interactions with his leaseholders' friends' clakkers, we get a feel for how different they are beneath their metal exteriors and how used they are to living lives governed by constant pain.
Jax' time aboard ship serves as world-building, introducing the idea that the Dutch don't use steam power for anything, instead preferring the clockwork power of the clakkers. In the case of the Prince of Orange
, where propulsion is provided by banks of oars, clakkers are used as simple replacements for individual humans. But trends appear to be changing because Jax sees a titanic, ship-sized single clakker with tentacle-like oars tied up in harbour awaiting departure.
The ship also adds an additional layer to our understanding of the geas that rule the clakkers' lives, with Jax getting a new set of nautical metageas laid over his existing rules to ensure that he doesn't accidentally leave a hatch open or act on one of his leaseholders' directives in a way that endangers the ship. It is one of these rules, which feel clumsy and external and which he quickly comes to hate, which reveals Jax' newly emancipated state to him: during the storm, he is ordered to contact the captain and it is only when he is outside the Schoonraads' suite that he realises he has broken the general quarters geas.
The three main story lines converge in New Amsterdam where Jax, still in hiding, has a memorable encounter with Father Visser, who following an encounter with Anastasia Bell, the Empire's chief torturer, is no longer the man he once was. Berenice, chasing down the remains of the ondergrondse grachten network, stumbles in on the aftermath only to be caught by Jax, who has the baker's shop on Bleecker Street under surveillance. As the pair compare notes, Jax realises that Berenice's forbidden knowledge of clakker anatomy and mechanics make her the perfect person to help him understand how the mysterious piece of glass from the antique microscope freed him from the alchemical chains imposed by the Guild.
The treatment of clakkers in The Mechanical
is an explicit allegory for slavery in the US, right down to the existence of an underground canal system — railroads not having been invented! — for smuggling rogue clakkers out of the Dutch Empire. The dynamics of power are clearly similar, with the oppressive leaseholders invested in maintaining the belief that their possessions are merely unfeeling machines rather than reasoning, suffering beings. And while some of the French are genuinely in favour of freeing the clakkers, most of them, Berenice included, are more interested in twisting their loyalty wholesale in order to give the French their own army of mechanical monsters.
The book is also a sly commentary on Isaac Asimov's Laws of Robotics, which mirror the clakkers' fundamental metageasa. But where Asimov's robots are unable to disobey their laws, suffering a fatal collapse when faced with a paradoxical request, Tregillis' clakkers are compelled to obey their founding rules by the intense agony they suffer when they contemplate ignoring them. Further, where Asimov's robots are forbidden from harming humans or allowing humans to come to harm through inaction, clakkers are, in some circumstances, positively encouraged to kill, provided it furthers the interests of the Brasswork Throne, Guild of Horologists, the economic interests of the Empire, or any one of a range of similarly slippery criteria.
Unsurprisingly, I liked The Mechanical
very much indeed. Combining philosophy, allegory and allusion with a gripping, pacy plot, a beautifully imagined world, and a strong cast of characters, it's very much my sort of book and very highly recommended.Tags: alchemy wars
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