I blame the unimaginative blurb for The Mechanical for putting me off reading it for this long. It was written in the first person, from the point of view of Jax, an enslaved “clakker” or “mechanical man” who ominously warns the reader that he shall be free someday. I mean, read this and tell me this isn’t the most boring and generic introduction to a book ever written:
My name is Jax.
That is the name granted to me by my human masters.
I am a clakker: a mechanical man, powered by alchemy. Armies of my kind have conquered the world – and made the Brasswork Throne the sole superpower.
I am a faithful servant. I am the ultimate fighting machine. I am endowed with great strength and boundless stamina.
But I am beholden to the wishes of my human masters.
I am a slave. But I shall be free.
It sounds like Jax is looking at himself in the mirror in the morning, trying to psyche himself up for another day at the office.
What that blurb failed to tell us is that this is actually a work of alternate history. 17th century Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (yes, that Huygens who invented the pendulum clock) discovered the alchemical secret to animating clockwork automatons. With a tireless, superhuman army at its command, the Dutch conquered all of Europe and a generous bit of the Americas. The only nation that opposes the Dutch and their clockwork might is the French nation-in-exile in Canada but the French metallurgists are steadily losing the arms race as they defend their shrinking holdings in the New World. Yes, this is a world in which the American colonies have never overthrown the English, presumably because there was no England to overthrow (it was annexed by the Dutch). And since the Dutch are staunch Calvinists, they have driven the Vatican off the continent as well, and the pope now sits in Quebec. Doesn’t this sound more enticing than how they promoted the book?
And did you know they name the trilogy The Alchemy Wars? Yikes, it’s like they don’t want it to sell.
Anyway, this is a very nerdy book, and depending on your temperament, it may either attract or repel you. Scientists and philosophers like the aforementioned Huygens, Leeuwenhoek, Spinoza, Newton, and Descartes are part of the tapestry of this alternate history, where their contributions and influences are no less far reaching than in ours. The French’s spymaster carries the legacy title of “the Talleyrand” (a la Dread Pirate Roberts) which is a clear reference to the infamous Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, a wily, flexible knave who managed to survive the French Revolution, the Terror, Napoleon, and the Bourbon Restoration—all events that did not happen in Mr Tregillis’ alternate history. Instead, Mr Tregillis replaced his real exploits with folkloric feats of him (and his successors) outwitting the Dutch through the centuries.
The Catholics’ and the Calvinists’ differing views on free will and predestination forms the central philosophical backbone of the story—and I particularly enjoyed how Mr Tregillis incorporated the clakkers into that debate. I mean, if the very fact that sentience and free will can be manufactured in this world doesn’t cause some tremors in the foundations of theology, nothing would. The Catholics or “Papists” in Mr Tregillis’ book believe that the clakkers are thinking beings that possess souls, and laboured towards the abolishment of their slavery. The Dutch horologists, who have everything to gain from believing that clakkers are unfeeling dumb machines, go to extreme lengths to protect that belief. The way some high-ranking Dutch like Anastasia Bell (who is aware of the similarities between clakkers and humans) justify their position is frankly the most fascinating part of the book for me.
I wonder how the world might differ today if not for two hundred and fifty years of the subjugation of living, thinking beings. If the entire architecture of the modern world didn’t rest upon the fiendish foundation of imprisoning, torturing, and enslaving immortal souls. If the ingenuity you people celebrate daily hadn’t been devoted to the greatest possible affront to God.
The story follows three point-of-views: a lowly slave clakker named Jax, the French spymistress Berenice, and Pastor Luuk Visser, a secret Catholic spy embedded in The Hague. Let me just say that the author did a magnificent job in crafting three very different but equally engrossing story arcs. I was particularly invested in Berenice’s story, since she is the most morally complex of the three. While she is technically one of the good guys committed to breaking Dutch power, she is less committed to abolishing clockwork slavery, preferring instead to focus her efforts on subverting the Dutch’s control over the clakkers and placing that control in the French king’s hand. Also evidently, Mr Tregillis had no qualms about putting his characters through the wringer because some of the things they experienced during the course of the novel truly made me feel sorry for them. Mr Tregillis’ penchant for describing graphic violence and injury certainly added a plenitude of texture to their suffering. I would warn anyone squeamish about things like dismemberment, traumatic enucleation, or Mengelian surgeries to steel themselves if they found themselves trapped in the same room as this book.
There are very few notable works in the clockpunk subgenre of speculative fiction, and The Mechanical provides a rare example of non-cybernetic artificial intelligence. Clakkers are governed by programmed “geasa” and “metageasa”, and while they are mentally free, they are compelled to serve because disobedience would bring about intolerable inner pain. Unlike many sci-fi novels that explores the personhood of AI and robots, this book pretty much decided from the very first page that clakkers are people and Dutch horologists are moustache-twirling slave-owning villains. Sure, Berenice, Visser, and Jax do wonder from time to time about the nature of clakker volition but those idle musings never really result in any significant internal conflict for them. Not that this necessarily mean this is a bad book. Not every book needs to be I, Robot or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
All that being said, there are things about The Mechanical that do rob some of my enjoyment of it. The text can feel sluggish at times particularly when the author slips into tour guide mode and drone on about real Dutch monuments or his fake French fortress in Canada. Mr Tregillis clearly did extensive research in writing his book (which I genuinely appreciate for the most part), but not all of it deserves to be on the page. And anyone looking for a satisfying conclusion to this book needs to look elsewhere, because it is clearly act one in a three part story. By its end, even though a lot had happened, the fate of all three of its protagonists remained uncertain—though I feel it is fair to add that the places the book left them in are absolutely bursting with story potential. So you win, Ian Tregillis. I will read the next book in this trilogy, goddammit. I just hope that in the next book, we will get more moments of levity, like that grandiloquent, overly-dramatic airship, and fewer passages describing the Binnenhof.