The setting is an alternative early twentieth century. The point of divergence, the early 1600’s, when the Dutch scientist Huygens discovers, via a mysterious process, a means of creating autonomous mechanical men. These quickly turn the Dutch into a world power, which dominates Europe and drives the only opposition into exile in the Americas. Three hundred years later, The Mechanical begins – in a world where a Dutch empire is a fact of life, whose economy and military power is maintained by a vast army of mechanical servants.
One of those ‘clakkers’ , ‘Jax’, is one of the three protagonists of the text. It is through his eyes that the reader is shown much of the Dutch Empire – at first as a beast of burden, and then as a fugitive. And the reader is also shown that the ‘clakkers’ regard themselves as individuals – that they are intelligent, that they think, and that they feel. What they mostly feel, it turns out, is pain – a series of restrictions placed on their behaviour by their makers, which cause pain in varying degrees if orders are not followed – as if Asimov’s three laws of Robotics were administered by a sadist. This makes Jax a very sympathetic protagonist, constrained by the demands of others, brutally punished when trying to avoid those demands – and also allows an examination of conditioning, and rebellion. The clakkers serve because they have no choice, compelled by internal torture if they try and refuse – but to each other, they are kind, civilised, apologetic, and, basically, humane. To avoid spoilers, Jax’s journey toward freedom is , to put it mildly, fraught, but he makes for a sympathetic and fascinating protagonist, whose struggles, physical and mental, make for excellent reading.
The reader is given another perspective alongside Jax –that of ‘Talleyrand’, the spymaster of the only opposition to Dutch hegemony – the French monarchy-in-exile. The exploration of the French court is also fascinating – constrained by their own reverence for the past, the court is unwilling to take risks in an effort to ensure survival. Talleyrand, more prone to risk than their contemporaries, drives forward exploration of the Dutch clakkers, and looks for a means to free them from Dutch control, in an effort to break the Dutch power base. It’s indicative of the tone of the text that this is not done for the clakker’s benefit – Talleyrand wants to replace Dutch control with that of the French, swap one master for another. This strand of the narrative is perhaps the most energetic – a lot of the ‘action’ focuses around Talleyrand. There’s more than a few murders. Blood everywhere. Political intrigue. Point scoring. At one point, someone is skewered in a sensitive area with a sharp fire poker. Where Jax’s sections are a page turner as the reader follows his mental journey alongside the physical, Talleyrand’s feel more like the non-stop action parts of the text. Jax has a few of these, but Talleyrand holds centre stage for resilience and pragmatism, and revenge – if not for reflection.
The last protagonist begins as an agent of Talleyrand, trying to bring key information and artefacts out to the French court. If Jax carries the mind of this text, and Talleyrand the heart, then this man is the soul – a secret Catholic in an empire where Protestantism is the only accepted religion, a man willing to risk everything to help fight what he sees as oppression of the clakkers. These sections read a bit like a John Le Carre novel – tradecraft, desperate escapes, murders in the dark.
Tregillis sets out to explore what makes us human through these characters, to explore what defines free will. What constraints we put upon each other and others, and how we define ‘humanity’. The prose is characteristically tight and well constructed, and an absolute pleasure to read – though be warned, at times it is explicit, and at other times, absolutely skin-crawlingly horrifying. At the same time, the characters, as above, are very well drawn, and fit perfectly into the world Tregillis has created for them. It says something for the text that I simply couldn’t put it down. It’s dark, often horrifying, relentlessly brutal, and certainly not for everyone. But it’s also absolutely fascinating, and unapologetically clever, asking questions of both the characters and the reader which they may be hard-pressed to answer. As a text, it evokes terror and wonder in equal measure – and does so brilliantly. Well worth the read.