Well, gosh. It’s been a while coming, but today I finally get to say, “Congratulations, you plucky little manuscript. Today you become a real book!”
Today marks the US publication of THE MECHANICAL, the first volume in my new Alchemy Wars trilogy. Thursday will mark the UK publication.
THE MECHANICAL, and in fact the entire Alchemy Wars trilogy, grew out of a short story that I dashed off for the Human For a Day anthology several years ago. When editor Jenn Brozek was pulling her team of writers together, she asked us to throw our hats into the ring for particular concepts or settings, to ensure the anthology would cover a variety of approaches to the concept. I’d been noodling with a very vague concept for a story about a mechanical man, so I called dibs on the clockpunk slot.
The world of the story was a blank slate. I needed a toehold, something that would orient me in this imaginary setting. I needed names and language. I needed slang. If I knew what the mechanical men of this world were called â€”both the official term for them, and how people referred to them informallyâ€”then I’d have a starting point.
A clockpunk robot would be a cacophonous thing, a source of endless tocking, ticking, clicking, clanking, clattering, buzzing, rattling, and creaking. It seemed reasonable that the slang term for these beings would be onomatopoeic in nature. So I started doodling at the keyboard. Literally just typing words at random to see if anything clicked (heh) with me. Tockers? Clickers? Clacks? Clackers? Clakkers?
And just like that, the entire backstory of a fictional world poured into my head faster than I could write it down. A 20th century world where The Netherlands are the sole global superpower. A world where, centuries earlier, the Dutch astronomer/lens grinder/pendulum clock inventor Christiaan Huygens had stolen the alchemical notebooks of his contemporary, Isaac Newton. A world where the marriage of clockmaking and dark alchemy gave rise to walking, talking, thinking mechanical beings made of brass and glass. A world where the Dutch never relinquished their colonies in North America, where New York has ever been called New Amsterdam.
I wrote the anthology story fully aware that the world was far too big for a single story. I knew right away it was large enough to support a novel. It practically demanded its own novel. Or so I thought.
Much later, as I was finishing Something More Than Night, my agents asked me for thoughts on my next project. I sent them a description of the Clakkers world and a brief rundown of a novel in that setting. And off they went. But when the great folks at Orbit heard the idea, they immediately recognized something that I hadn’t. The idea was still too big: a single book wouldn’t cut it. So they suggested that instead we make the project a trilogy. I, of course, said yes.
And I’m glad I did. Because once I had the freedom (and, in a sense, a mandate) to fully explore the world of the Clakkers and their makers, the full scope of the idea becameâ€¦ daunting. THE MECHANICAL and its sequels has involved the most challenging world building of any of my projects, even Something More Than Night. In the Milkweed books, the break with our history took place within the 20th centuryâ€”relatively recently. But in the Alchemy Wars series, the historical divergence takes place 250 years before the opening scene. That’s a lot of time for the world to change. Plenty of time for it to morph into something strange and unrecognizable.
Conveniently for the backstory (if not for the Dutch at the time), the Netherlands were embroiled in a series of wars in the late 17th century. So I deliberately set Huygens’s invention of the Clakker in 1676â€”aka Het Wonderjaar: the Miracle Yearâ€”not long after the French king Louis XIV, a Catholic, invaded the largely Calvinist Protestant Netherlands, and roughly a dozen years before William of Orange brought the Glorious Revolution to England. This ensured the very nature of the mechanical men would become a point of contentious religious and philosophical debate for centuries to come. This was, after all, the Dutch Golden Age, a time of philosophers like Baruch Spinoza.
So my task was to try to envision 1926 in a world where the Dutch Golden Age had been going strong for 250 years, thanks to an army of magical clockpunk terminators. A world where steam power is considered nothing but a parlor trick or folly, because after all it’s so much easier to tell your immortal slave, “Hey, you, go turn that crank 24 hours per day 7 days per week for the next 99 years,” than it is to, you know, invent a viable steam engine.
I’m deep into the third and final book of the Alchemy Wars trilogy right now, and my mind is still reeling at the implications. Perhaps quailing might be more honest. It’s been a true challenge to build this world, to populate it with interesting characters, and to make their lives as difficult as possible. But I’ve done my best. If you choose to pick up the story, I hope you enjoy it.
Physical and electronic copies of THE MECHANICAL are now available from many fine booksellers thanks to the great folks at Orbit Books, and the audiobook is now available from my friends at Audible. You can read an excerpt here.