Ian Tregillis may have a Ph.D. in physics, but his real genius is clearly coming up with novel premises—in both senses of the word. In the Milkweed Triptych, his debut trilogy, he told the story of the major conflicts of the 20th century filtered through a battle between the super-powered subjects of Nazi mad science experiments (think the Hexe-Men) and British warlocks. His followup, Something More Than Night, can be neatly summarized as “angel noir.”
Now, he’s back with The Mechanical, another suffusion of alternate history, technology, and magic. In the Milkwood books, the break with our own history didn’t occur until shortly before WWII, resulting in a fairly familiar landscape (there are Lucky Strikes and Soviets, Big Band music and the Cold War). In The Mechanical, the alt-historical break happens much, much earlier, lending a deep sense of strangeness and dislocation to the opening chapters. The year is 1926, but we are decidedly not in the Jazz Age.
In both worlds, Christiaan Huygens was a 17th century Enlightenment mathematician, horologist, and astronomer who invented the pendulum clock, among many, many other things. In Tregillis’ timeline, Huygens also builds clockwork mechanical men. Using alchemical magic, he imbues the “clakkers” with artificial intelligences bounded by geas, or hierarchical compulsions to serve humans. (These are not unlike Asimov’s robotic injunctions, though not as discrete as the Three Laws; obligations can be put on a clakker by owner, subject, or servant.) Though this wondrous new technology, the Dutch conquer the world, and the industrial revolution as we know it never occurs.
The clakkers are slaves in a world where the Dutch are the sole superpower, and their modern Calvinism the sole spirituality. They are resisted only by the French, who have lost the European continent and rule a small North American exile somewhere near Montreal. The addition of mechanical people to the historical Enlightenment changes not only national borders and the enterprise of empire, but larger conceptual shifts that relate to free will, the soul, and the nature of humanity.
The novel opens with a clakker, Jax, attempting to overcome his owner’s geas in order to witness the public execution of a rogue mechanical. Rogue clakkers are incredibly rare, almost an impossibility, and Jax hums and shutters with the pain of his small resistance. “The clockmakers lie,” the rogue clakker says, right before his death in the alchemical forge. This becomes a refrain—a secret greeting—when clakkers meet, spreading to North America and its New Amsterdam. Here we find Berenice, a French agent and spymaster in Marseilles-in-the-West trying to understand and subvert the clakkers and the Dutch, up to and including disassembling creatures her Catholic Church deems to have souls and sentience. In the Hague, a minister and secret papist deals with the fallout of his spy ring’s exposure.
Clakkers were invented around the same time American slavery was being created and codified. I see no African slaves in this world, though I recognize many of the religious arguments for slavery in the justifications for the clakker servitude. It’s an interesting shift. Throughout the novel, characters are placed into extreme versions of what might seem like bloodless philosophical questions, though they are nowhere near bloodless on the ground and in the flesh.
In books like this, where history shifts and the effects ripple out across centuries, the farther back the history changes, the more work a writer has to do to orient the reader. The first half of The Mechanical is more stage-setting than action, but once the scenery has has been set and dressed, it ramps up furiously. I’ve always felt that the number of times I’ve been sent to the search engine is a good metric by which to judge an alternate history. There’s a sweet spot: too many, and it’s too specialized; too few and it’s too dumb. Tregillis hits a sweet spot, with many questions answered by context, but enough that required my active engagement in the history of the Enlightenment and its incursions into alchemy.
If there’s an ascendent alt-history form of the day, it’s probably the steampunk novel (supplanting musings about a Southern victory in the American Civil War). While I certainly don’t want to be the kind of person who declares a genre dead (hipster!), it is true that the alt-Victorian play set has become familiar through frequent use. If a refreshed disruption of accepted historical dogmas is what you’re looking for, this clockpunk excursion may be just the thing.