The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis
My first encounter with Tregillis’ writing, The Mechanical uses steampunk infused alternative history to provide a fascinating exploration of free will, slavery, and ultimately, what it means to be “human.”
Set in the fall of 1926, we’re quickly introduced to a world where mechanical, clockwork automatons known as “clackers” were invented by the Dutch in the late 17th century. Controlled via a set of hierarchical “geasa” similar in nature to Asimov’s classic laws of robotics, the strategic and economic advantage proved an unstoppable force, enabling Dutch dominance over the known world. The clakkers, however, far from being an unthinking tool, are capable of independent thought, and depending on which nation and/or religion you ask, may or may not be sentient beings with a “soul.” The protestant Dutch, believe the Clakkers are merely following their instructions, no different than a sophisticated mechanical watch. The French, however, who have been forced to flee Europe and relocate to what we would know as Eastern Canada, are still loyal to the Catholic church, who ascribe sentience and a soul to the clakkers. Lengthy wars have been fought and New France is seemingly on the verge of collapse, only their more sophisticated knowledge of chemistry allowing them to survive by creating powerful epoxies to jam the Dutch’s clakker soldiers.
Into this setting, the author introduces the novel’s narrators: Jax, a nearly two hundred year old clakker servant; Berenice, the head of New France’s intelligence organization; and Father Visser, a French priest/spy posing as a protestant pastor in the Dutch controlled Hague. All three provide a unique vantage point for exploring the nature of humanity. Jax’s daily struggles with his geasa, commands that literally cause him unending pain in order to force compliance with his human master’s wishes highlight the seeming futility of the life of a being born into slavery with no hope of escape. Berenice must decide how far she is willing to go to ensure New France’s survival and what principles she will compromise to meet that end. Finally, Father Visser grapples with the philosophical aspect of free will, as he is forced to consider whether or not humans truly are as free as we think we are.
Engagingly written, I found the book to be a welcome twist on the increasingly common steampunk formula. A quick nod here or there to “real” world technology such as steam engines was clever without breaking the fourth wall. While Jax is the breakout character in my mind, the entire cast was convincing in their portrayal. I was left wishing for a bit more knowledge of the Earth that Tregillis envisioned, but I can understand the desire to avoid large swaths of world building description. Hopefully I’ll get to learn more in the next novel of the trilogy, The Rising.