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'The Mechanical' Will Make Your Clockwork Pulse Pound

One of science fiction's toughest challenges is making nonhuman characters feel human. Robots are particularly hard: SF authors have spent decades putting every conceivable spin on the concept of manmade automatons, and the results have just as often been laughable as profound. Ian Tregillis tackles this prickly puzzle — and many more — with great skill in The Mechanical.

The first novel of a new series titled The Alchemy Wars, The Mechanical counts among its main characters a robot named Jax; in Tregillis' alternate-history vision of 1926, robots called Clakkers are indispensable to the Dutch Empire, which has become the dominant force across the globe. Sentient yet servile, the 118-year-old Jax is enthralled by so-called rogue Clakkers who are inexplicably able to attain free will, even though going rogue is a crime punishable by destruction. Tregillis not only manages to make Jax — a being made of cogs and cables — sympathetic, he imbues the robot with a philosophical curiosity that matches the book's own vast, sprawling scope.

The Mechanical is an ambitious novel, and it delivers on that ambition. It sparkles with detail. The Dutch Empire has reached a stalemate with its rival, France, whose government — along with the French-controlled Holy See — is in exile in Canada. It's a religious war, Protestant versus Catholic, but with a scientific clash at its heart: The Dutch have mastered clockwork technology, a mix of advanced mechanics and mystical alchemy, while the French monopolize the field of applied chemistry. Steam power is a development that never caught on; in fact, it's been relegated to "the scrap heap of technological curiosities," which feels like Tregillis' winking dismissal of the subgenre of steampunk, which The Mechanical resembles in many ways. But where steampunk often fetishizes the colonialism of the Victorian Era, Tregillis' vision of a clockpunk world takes the injustices of empire to task.

Jax, along with his fellow Clakkers, are more or less slaves. If they even contemplate ignoring their programming, they feel acute agony; they're treated no more humanely than a pocket watch. But as Jax — who has been given a simple delivery job that winds up having earthshaking ramifications — learns more about the insidious truths behind Dutch society, his growing humanity is contrasted starkly against humankind's cold cruelty. There are two other main characters in The Mechanical, both of them human secret agents. As their complicated struggles with life, love and loyalty grow more tense, so does Jax's essential dilemma: What does free will mean in theory and practice, and if it can be both granted and taken away, is anyone ever free?

As dazzling as all that detail is, none of it is ornamental. Tregillis threads the philosophies of Descartes and Spinoza — who existed in his alternate reality, and who exert a huge influence on his skewed vision of the early 20th century — seamlessly into his story. The notions of free will, freedom of choice and the nature of sentience manifest themselves in clever, subtle ways throughout. It all meshes together immaculately. But it's fun, too, full of intrigue, adventure, horror and go-for-the-throat thrills. And at the heart of the book is Jax, a robot whose quest for humanity is a fresh look at an age-old trope. While merely the warm-up for what promises to be a uniquely compelling series, The Mechanical is as intricate and exquisite as the clockwork wonders it brings to life.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club and author of the novel Taft 2012.

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Jason Heller