“Does This Unit Have a Soul?” – A Review of The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

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The question of consciousness and self-awareness is one that has preoccupied many people, from philosophers to biologists to computer programmers and robotics experts. Rene Descartes is famous for the pronouncement “I think, therefore I am”, but before and after Descartes many others have tried to answer the same question: how do we know we are aware? From that question springs many, many others: does awareness of the self imply intelligence? Does it imply the existence of a soul?

This question has, naturally, interested writers of all stripes, who have explored the idea in their own way. However, some of the most interesting explorations into the nature of consciousness occur in the realm of science fiction, where aliens and artificial intelligences all act as vehicles for exploring the meaning of consciousness, self-awareness, and free will. The quote used in the title is actually from one of the games in the Mass Effect sci-fi video game series, and is uttered by a character who comes from a race of robots with what is called “synthetic intelligence”. This is distinguished from “artificial intelligence” in that, though both are created by another intelligent being or beings, a synthetic intelligence is not merely a copy or an imitation of its creators: instead, it is a valid and genuine form of intelligence, capable of identifying itself as being different from those that made it.

However, for all that it appears this sort of thing would be limited to just hard sci-fi, elements of the above have made it into fantasy, and into genres that bridge both, and others besides, with none of the questions diminished. That is the case with Ian Tregillis’ The Mechanical, the first book in the Alchemy Wars series.

The Mechanical opens with the titular character, a mechanical named Jax, standing in Huygens Square, in front of the Hague. He is a Clakker: a class of mechanical servitors who form the backbone of labor and defence for the Dutch Empire. Jax has an errand he needs to run, but he’s lingering as long as he can in Huygens Square so he can witness a most extraordinary event: the execution of a rogue Clakker—a mechanical who has broken the alchemical compulsions of obedience every Clakker is enslaved to. However, just before he is committed to the flames of the Grand Forge—both the source of life of every Clakker, and their funeral pyre—the rogue, who calls himself Adam, sends out a message in the Clakker language that will become a rallying cry for them all, one that will set nations onto the path of war: Clockmakers lie.

While those who know me can see why I would be interested in this book (steampunk is one of my favourite genres), it has surprised some of my friends to know I picked it up in the first place, mostly because those friends know that my first encounter with Tregillis’ writing didn’t go very well. Early last year I picked up Something More Than Night on a whim (and because the cover was so pretty), and had a mixed reaction to it. However, the good bits generally outweighed the bad bits, so I was willing to give Tregillis a second chance and see if getting away from noir would improve the reading prospects.

Fortunately, it turned out to be a risk worth taking, because The Mechanical is a fun and intriguing tale with great potential for even bigger things happening in the upcoming sequel. It proves that Tregillis is a writer to pay attention to, even if one might not like everything he writes.

One of the things that I like about Tregillis is the way he uses his writing style in service of his world building and character development. I might not have appreciated his attempt to mimic noir-speak in Something More Than Night, but I won’t deny that he knows how to write. Take, for instance, this excerpt from the very first chapter, which makes clear to the reader the nature of every Clakker’s servitude, while at the same time explaining what’s going on in the scene:

Rumor had it that in addition to a quartet of Papist spies, the doomed accused also included a rogue Clakker. No mechanical in the city would willingly miss this. Just in case the rumours were true.

Rogue Clakkers were a fairy tale mothers told to frighten disobedient children, and a legend their slaves told to comfort each other in the quiet hours of the night when their bone-and-meat masters slept and wept and made other uses of their flesh. Still…it was hard to resist the scandalous thrill of the tales of secret locksmiths and broken geasa and slaves with the temerity to pick the locks on their own souls. What an awful thing if it were true—so said the nervous fidgeting of the human crowd.

The mechanicals in attendance did not fidget.

Tregillis is great at describing a scene, but not only that, he knows how to use the scene to both build his world, and move the story forward. Other steampunk writers tend to cram their scenes with spinning gears and hissing valves and, oh, let’s not forget that airship! It’s not steampunk if there isn’t an airship or ten in the background! But for all that the excerpt reads as very lush in description, I still think it’s rather restrained. There’s plenty of information there, to be sure, but it’s packed in quite densely; what Tregillis has done is make sure that there’s just enough information to give the reader an idea of what’s going on, and then trusting in the reader’s own intelligence to figure out what else is going on that he isn’t quite saying. Tregillis gives the reader the world, but there’s always something underneath the surface, and he leaves it up to the reader to piece it all together.

This extends to his characters. Aside from Jax, the novel features two other protagonists, whose stories are intertwined with Jax’s in some rather unexpected ways. One of them is Luuk Visser: a promising pastor who works at the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam, but is actually a Catholic priest sent to the Netherlands as a spy by the French spymaster known only as Talleyrand. His story is an incredibly tragic one, but features one of the best chapters in the entire novel: a philosophical conversation about the nature of consciousness, between himself and another character, Tuinier Anastasia Bell. I wish I could quote the scene itself, but doing so would mean quoting three-fourths of the entire chapter, to say nothing of revealing spoilers. Suffice to say that if this book has any scene that might be considered its crown jewel, it’s this scene.

In truth, it’s nothing more than two people having a conversation over breakfast—indeed, some might consider it entirely superfluous. But Tregillis does something extraordinary with this conversation: he uses it not only to add more world building, but also to lay out the ethical and philosophical differences between the novel’s two opposing factions, as represented by Tuinier Bell on one side, and Visser on the other. Moreover, it’s used to build characters: the reader gains insight into who Tuinier Bell is (for better or for worse), while at the same time learning about what really drives Visser’s beliefs and ideals regarding his faith and the world at large. For a simple conversation, the scene is actually incredibly important, and it’s once again a testament to Tregillis’ skill as a writer that he can actually keep a reader riveted to one of the quieter scenes in the entire novel.

The third key protagonist (and perhaps my favourite) is Berenice Charlotte de Mornay-Périgord, vicomtesse de Laval—and much more, besides. She is precisely the kind of female character I love reading about, and don’t get nearly often enough: practical, pragmatic, eloquently foul-mouthed (I rather wonder if Tregillis has been taking lessons in creative swearing from Scott Lynch), and concerned about her status in life only insofar as it lets her do her job. Much ink, both literal and digital, has been spilled over what makes a “strong female character”, but in the end, I think the word “strong” in reference to characters means the same thing whoever or whatever the character is: the character must read like an actual, three-dimensional person.

Other readers, though, disagree with that assessment. They complain that Berenice is “stupid”, because she keeps on making mistakes; however, the fact that she keeps making mistakes is one of the reasons why I like her so much. Berenice makes mistakes not because she’s stupid—she makes mistakes because she’s too smart for her own good. In fact, she is so intelligent, and so convinced of her own intelligence (though to be fair, she is frequently surrounded by idiots), that she is completely blind to a whole host of factors that, in the end, lead her to making one of the biggest mistakes of her life. The conviction that she is the smartest person in the room is Berenice’s greatest weakness—and is a weakness I’m more than familiar with, being susceptible to it myself. I think it is also necessary to point out that Berenice’s mistakes also partially spring from the fact that she isn’t exactly omniscient, and so can’t account for events that are happening beyond her reach—something many of Berenice’s detractors appear to forget, simply because they, as readers, are in an omniscient position.

What really makes Berenice a strong character, though, is not that she makes mistakes: it’s that she knows how to pick up and move on after making them. The same conviction that led Berenice to making the mistakes she did is the very same conviction that allows her to keep on moving, to pick up even after one of the greatest defeats in her life and move on. She knows what she has to do, and she knows that if she doesn’t do it, she will lose more than just her life: she will lose her entire nation. And if there is one thing Berenice Charlotte de Mornay-Périgord has dedicated her life to, it’s protecting her country; nothing and no one is going to stop her from doing that, no matter her current circumstances in life.

Now, for all that the characters are absolutely fascinating, they also need to be supported by an equally enjoyable plot. Fortunately, Tregillis knows how to pace a story, and ensures that the novel’s plot is tight enough that even when it slows down some (as it did in the scene I mentioned, between Tuinier Bell and Visser), it still maintains its overall momentum. However, there are certain moments—particularly in Jax’s and Visser’s story lines—when it seems like things happen to them, as opposed to because of something they’ve chosen to do. There are also certain logical inconsistencies within the world itself, particularly where alchemy is concerned.The most egregious example of the latter is something that happens in the ending, which has remarkable—and rather irritating—similarities to certain scenes in movies of a particular genre, which I’m sure readers will recognise once they read it.

Overall, The Mechanical is an interesting introduction to Tregillis’ alternate take on world history. The world building is mostly very well done, and is woven together with character development and plot momentum so that the reader is easily sucked into the world of the story. However, the novel isn’t without its issues: in particular, there are moments when the plot seems to overtake the characters, forcing them to act, rather than allowing their actions to spring from decisions they’ve made. There are also certain questions about the way alchemy works: an inconsistency shown most clearly during the novel’s ending. However, those issues don’t detract much from the overall quality of the story, and hopefully Tregillis will find a way to resolve them in the sequels.

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