lunes, 9 de marzo de 2015

The Mechanical, by Ian Tregillis

(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)

Review Soundtrack: I suggest reading this review while listening to A la Claire Fontaine as performed by Les Petits Minous (Spotify, YouTube). 

I must confess that I was not sure what to expect from The Mechanical, Ian Tregillis's newest novel. The synopsis, involving alchemy and clockwork automata, certainly seemed interesting. But so did the one for Bitter Seeds and I was unable of enjoying it very much (my review, in Spanish). Fortunately, I decided to give a try, for it turned out that my fears were completely unfounded. The Mechanical is an excellent book in almost every respect and one that I recommend without reservations.

The first thing that stands out in the novel is the solid and attractive world-building. The action takes place in 1926, but in a world that is very different from the one we live in. In the 17th Century, Huygens developed an alchemical technique to build mechanical men, something that has made the Netherlands the world ruling empire after defeating France with its almost invincible army of automata or Clakkers, are they usually called. The Mechanical is, thus, part alternative history, part clockworkpunk, part historical fantasy. But that just the beginning of it. 

The Mechanical is, above all and despite its many and really fun actions scenes, a profoundly philosophical book. The Clakkers are, by virtue of their alchemical nature, slave to their human owners. If they don't obey the orders they are given, they experience an excruciating pain. But that is not all. They also suffer a compulsion to protect humans from harm and, if possible, to protect their own integrity (Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, anyone?). The most interesting part is that these laws are not fixed, they interact with each other and even can be modified, "programmed" in a sense, by The Guild, the automata builders and keepers of the alchemical secrets. This gives raise to a very interesting hierarchy comprising rules with different priorities, as exemplified in the following paragraphs:
The hot ache of multiple geasa smoldered in his soul. At base, the slow, steady background throb of the hierarchical metageas, a constant reminder that he served many masters. In concert with that, filling out the lowest registers of discomfort, came dozens of generic geasa, those that only came to the fore in unusual or emergency circumstances. Layered atop these came the specifics of Jax’s circumstances. [...]
The clashing imperatives of the various Schoonraads’ orders – cruelly emphasized through an uncouth invocation of the Clakker’s true name – did not generate a true paradox owing to the hierarchical metageasa implanted in every mechanical servant. However, the urgency of her demand had worsened the tremendous pressure under which Jax had already been laboring. Jax officially belonged to the Throne, and thus the queen’s wishes, or those of her direct representatives, always took precendence. After that, the terms of his ninety-nine-year lease made him beholden to the leaseholder, presumably Pieter Schoonraad. After that, Jax served other members of the family in descending order of seniority. And then, like any Clakker, he was compelled to serve humans and humanity in general. 
This amazing setting is used by Tregillis to explore the central theme of the novel: freedom. On the one hand, the mechanical's lack of free will is a mirror into which we can study our own behavior and motivations as human beings. Religious beliefs, political interests, lust, love, greed... These and many other factors influence the actions of novel characters and limit their freedom of choice. The obvious question is: are we so different from the mechanical men? Are they so different from us? These issues are approached by Tregillis from different points of view: from the purely philosophical to more prosaic ones; from the implications to the possibility of the existence of souls to the consequences on the social order.   

On the other hand, freedom (or its lack thereof) is also the main plot device of the story. It is ironic that the Dutch's main preoccupation, despite their Calvinist rejection of free will, is precisely that the Clakkers can, under certain circumstances, subvert their programming and their alchemical bonds, and become rogue. The novel revolves around the possibility of autonomous Clakkers. The automata dream of breaking free from their rulers; the French plot to exploit this weakness to regain their lost empire; the Dutch try to avoid the secrets of the mechanical men nature from getting into the hands of the Frenchmen. All intermixed in a gripping plot full of treason, spies, persecutions and political manoeuvres.          
But the world-building and the plot are not The Mechanical only virtues. The characters are just superb. Jax, the brave mechanical, from whom we learn much of the world of the Clakkers and their enslavement. Visser, the French spy, a fully-fleshed Catholic priest with constant guilt and all. And, above all, Berenice, the foul-mouthed vicomtesse, one of the most adorable characters I've read in a long time. For how can you possibly not love someone who swears as creatively as in "Jesus blood-spattered Christ's gaping necrotic wounds" or in "You greasy shit stain on a diseased elk's warty asshole"?

Berenice's dialog is witty and full of funny moments and, in fact, all the novel shows a wonderful sense of humor. For instance, it is, again, quite ironic, that in the world of the bookl Huygens is a revered scientific figure, but almost nobody knows Isaac Newton even though, historically (in our, real History, that is), Newton, and not Huygens, was the one involved in alchemical pursuits. It is also impossible not to smile when reading how Tregillis very cleverly answers some of the questions that readers might have about the ascription of the novel to certain sub-genres. Were you wondering whether The Mechanical is steampunk? Look:
She passed the hulking boilers of dormant steam-powered harpoons. It was an intriguing concept, to be sure, but not very practical. Fighting mechanical demons with an oversized teakettle? [...] Unless somebody devised a better martial application, or a way to turn it into a lucrative trade with the Orient, steam power seemed destined for the scrap heap of technological curiosities 
Hmmm, it seems unlikely. What about alternative history, then?
Visser saw not a single Clakker on the streets around the docking mast. It was as though he'd stepped into an alternate 1926 where Huygen's grand experiment had failed.
And that's how you settle it, once and forever.

Tregillis's prose is not only clever, but also rich, beautiful and full of metaphors. Each character has their own, recognizable voice and the use of archaisms and French and Dutch terms is right on spot. The author's ability to use the language to create an atmosphere with just a few words was already patent in Bitter Seeds, but here his prose is much polished and terse and his control of pace is much better also. He has clearly grown as a writer and it shows.

As you can see, there is much to love in The Mechanical. However, the novel also has some minor flaws. For instance, a couple of plot twists are too predictable and certain decisions of the protagonists, especially in a crucial moment, are questionable. Also, one of the main characters is inexplicably missing from the better part of the last chapters. And, speaking of characters, I think that the novel could have benefited with the inclusion of a point of view from The Guild of Alchemists. Anastasia Bell, an amazing character, would have been an obvious choice, and I certainly wouldn't have complained to see more of her.

Anyway, The Mechanical is a delight to read. The setting is solid and believable; the plot, interesting and intriguing; the characters are completely three-dimensional and easy to relate to. I highly recommend reading it and I'm sure it will become one of the most important books in a year that it's already proving to be full of excellent novels. Here's hoping that the next installment of this series comes as soon as possible.

(You can also read this review in Spanish/También puedes leer esta reseña en español)

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