The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis, Orbit Books, Published 2015, Hugo eligibility: Best Novel.
Strange technology, alternate history, artificial intelligence are each favorite topics of science fiction. In particular questions of intelligence, free will and the soul provide a bridge between science fiction (or perhaps better to call it speculative fiction in this context) and philosophy. Ian Tregillis jumps into the philosophical waters with both feet to create a story of high adventure, intrigue and some philosophical depth.
In Tregillis’s Milkweed Triptych, he imagined an alternate history in which Nazi Germany had effectively developed electrically powered super-humans and the British had retaliated using a kind of Lovecraftian-style pact between warlocks and demonic creatures/beings from another dimension. While that premise sounds fun, the depth of the Milkweed books took sometime to establish itself and the first in the series (Bitter Seeds) at times felt like a grimdark version of the premise of the end of Bed knobs and Broomsticks. The craft of the first book did not become clear until Tregillis’s various threads came together in the final book of the trilogy Necessary Evil – which retroactively presented the whole series as an interesting meditation on the issue of predestination and predicting the future.
The Mechanical is the start of another series for Tregillis (The Alchemy Wars). Whereas Milkweed covered a period of history well known and frequently exploited by SF/F (World War 2 and its aftermath), The Mechanical examines a quite different European conflict and rivalry.
It is easy to forget that the Netherlands was once one of the world’s great power. By exploiting mercantile expertise and sea-going savvy, the Dutch were a force to be reckoned with and perceived as arch rivals by the British and the French. Tregillis takes this as a starting point and imagines a world in which the Dutch had, via alchemy, discovered the ability to create sentient clockwork automatons – called ‘clakkers’. Having done so the Dutch initiated its own kind of industrial and political revolution. With an unstoppable army and tireless workers, the Netherlands have become the world’s one great superpower. The nearest rival in the twentieth century is France or rather a kind of exiled French court that has decamped to Quebec. The French have one tiny advantage – whereas the Dutch has clockwork alchemy, the French have chemical alchemy which they use to create various substances to use against the clakkers.
The focus of the story lies with one clakker – Jax – who is questioning his role in modern society. The story follows his journey of discovery but also takes in the intrigues of the exiled French court and the machinations of the espionage apparatus of both the Dutch and the French.
Having put that altogether Tregillis then throws in Spinoza – the great Jewish/Dutch/secular philosopher played some unknown role in the development of the clakkers (presumably to be revealed in later books) but this connection between his alternate history and Spinoza allow Tregillis to take what is ostensibly an alt-history action adventure with clockwork robots and spies into a story that discusses the nature of the soul and free-will. Spinoza’s quasi-mathematical attempt to wrangle questions about god and the soul into a naturalistic framework are such a very good fit for a story about Dutch clockwork robots that by the end of the story I couldn’t help but think that there should already be a myriad of books featuring Spinoza and robots. For a robot that believes it has a soul what thinker could be better than Spinoza? And better yet, in a story that sets itself up in a cold war between Protestant Netherlands and Catholic France what better way to find an alternate theological framework to both than Spinoza’s secularized Judaism.
So: Spinoza, robots, philosophy, SF/F action adventure – Tregillis had me sold from the start. THEN he puts a sentient AIRSHIP in the novel. Really half of the good stuff in this book would have me raving about it already but airships as well? And note all of this is within a fast-paced, coherently told adventure story.
I simply cannot love this book enough. Genius. A really strong start to a series and easily one of my favorite books of the year.