#NotEnoughSciFi: Time of the Clockwork Dutchmen

It’s been a while since the last #NotEnoughSciFi, an occasional series looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies, and communities which are trying to get ready for the shape of things to come. See previous entries here.

I had a glorious time with a book last week. Something that hadn’t happened since I was a kid.

I was busy at work and didn’t have much time for leisure reading. So when I started Ian Tregillis‘ novel The Mechanical, I only expected to manage a half-hour or so a night before falling asleep.

Instead, I stayed up through the night to finish the book. The next evening, I started the second volume of the trilogy which The Mechanical begins. On the third night, bleary but compelled, I finished Tregillis’ series. I spent my nights lost in his world. It was heaven on earth.


The series – called The Alchemy Wars trilogy – is a work of fantasy, not science fiction. It is set in an alternate version of the year 1926 which owes as much to the 17th century as the 20th, where the Dutch and French are the warring European powers whose conflict has shaped global history.

So why does it have anything to teach us in 2019?

Tregillis’ novels explore a world in which Christiaan Huygens, the real-life Dutch polymath and inventor of the pendulum clock, stumbled on a way to create autonomous clockwork robots – “Clakkers” – in 1676. Since this date – “Het Wonderjaar“, the Miracle Year – the Netherlands has built an empire which dominates Europe and stretches across the globe.

Caspar Netscher's Portrait of Christiaan Huygens
Caspar Netscher’s Portrait of Christiaan Huygens

Set 250 years later, the trilogy follows a group of characters at the centre of a discovery which will transform the world: an optical element, a piece of glass, which has the power to liberate the robots from their programming. New forces arise from this discovery, and hidden factions are revealed, even as the Dutch fight to stamp out the possibility of insurrection and finally conquer the territory of their rivals, the Catholic French.

From their capital, Marseilles-in-the-West, the French – who have been driven into exile across the Atlantic Ocean – seek to turn the moment to their advantage, with their deeply held religious belief in the sanctity of mechanical souls discoloured by the temptation of using the robots to gain military advantage over their rivals.

Tregillis’ series is a gripping, emotionally satisfying adventure story with roots in the rich loam of genre storytelling. The Clakkers’ struggle with their imperative to serve Dutch masters recalls Asimov’s robots under the Three Laws; a Catholic priest forced to serve the Dutch against his will recalls the compromised churchman of Salem’s Lot; and the alternate-history “clockpunk” milieu resonates with both the unusual historical settings of Tim Powers’ work and Stanislav Lem’s robot fairy-tales.

But the resulting concoction is entirely Tregillis’ own: a unique and compelling fiction which belongs here, in #NotEnoughScifi, because of the lens it uses to examine questions of free will and mechanical servitude.

Tregillis’ world, diverging from our own in the 17th century, perceives the issue of free will and machine autonomy through the thinking of philosophers like Spinoza and the great European scientists of Huygens’ generation.

As readers encounter the various factions which seek to liberate or exploit mechanical labour, and the clockwork technology is extended from humanoid figures to vehicles of the land, air, and sea, plus nightmarish fusions of human and machine, we see how this divergent world addresses the issues which also trouble us at the dawn of the digital age:

Is free will a biological illusion? What separates us from machine intelligence?

How much agency, and responsibility, do we bear in our actions? What does this mean for the possibility of redemption?

What part do religious faith and perspectives have to play in our understanding of a world immersed in smart technologies? What does this look like in theory, theology, and the messy world of politics and practice?

What care and respect do human beings owe to mechanical or programmed beings? How would smart machines, given freedom, choose to treat their creators?

Stepping away from the concerns and allegiances of the here and now, the real history and politics of our world, makes space for us to consider alternate possibilities, hopeful or cautionary. Tregillis’ writing steers debates about contemporary technology back into valuable philosophical traditions of the past, and reminds us that thinking about issues like AI, data, smart technologies, and digital ethics can also be done using make-believe as our principal tool.

At the VALA 2018 conference, Deb Verhoeven, Associate Dean of Engagement and Innovation at the University of Technology Sydney, spoke about the ethics of how humans treat robots. Deb – @bestqualitycrab on Twitter – asked her audience:




Stories, traditions, myths, and beliefs about non-human life can help us to explore this challenging territory.





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These can range from tsukumogami – creatures in Japanese culture, household objects which become self-aware 100 years after their creation – to Tregillis’ clockwork slaves, alongside more conventional explorations such as Michael Schrage’s 2016 piece for the Harvard Business Review, “Why You Shouldn’t Swear At Siri”. Fantasised relationships to non-human life can help us to work out our options for real relationships in the future.

Exploring these questions requires imagination and fantasy precisely because we must anticipate technologies which have not yet arrived, and the consequences of their arrival; because we cannot prepare for a world which is different simply by repeating what we have chosen to do in the past.

That’s why you should visit Tregillis’ novels, and a past that never was, in order to think better about the choices which await us in the future.

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