The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis is an alternate history. In seventeenth century Europe, the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens visits Isaac Newton in Cambridge, looks at his work on alchemy, and makes a massive breakthrough. The mysterious aim of alchemy, to win the ability to transmute matter and find a universal elixir of life, becomes a reality in the shape of clockwork robots imbued with the self-aware force of life. To maintain control of this technology, Dutch clockmakers imbue their creations with a ferocious sense of obligation that demands absolute obedience through pain. Using these robots Holland becomes the world’s leading power. Only the French hold out in eastern Canada. The story then follows the fortunes of a rogue “clakker” robot who goes on the run after coming into possession of a mysterious lens, freeing him from his internal compulsions.
The story itself is rather James Bond in its feel. A French spymaster tries to help the freedom loving clakker. Their efforts end up, as usual, in an underground lair, the setting for fighting and explosions. Perhaps it is right that the story follows this highly conventional pattern, since it is really about how we might find freedom in a life that demands we follow a destined path. While the clakkers have an overwhelming internal obligation to do their masters’ bidding, there are also suggestions that humans have obligations of their own built into them. This human element of compulsion becomes overt when the Dutch secret police capture a priest, acting as a French spy. They place clakker controls within his brain, and send him off against his will to spy on the French in Canada. His only hope of escape is the lens in the possession of the rogue clakker.
The freedom-offering lens is the work of a Dutch contemporary of Huygens, philosopher and lens maker Baruch Spinoza. Ironically, Spinoza’s reputation as a philosopher is based on his Ethics in which he argues that all human life is destined. Famously in Ethics he says : ″the infant believes that it is by free will that it seeks the breast; the angry boy believes that by free will he wishes vengeance; the timid man thinks it is with free will he seeks flight; the drunkard believes that by a free command of his mind he speaks the things which when sober he wishes he had left unsaid. … All believe that they speak by a free command of the mind, whilst, in truth, they have no power to restrain the impulse which they have to speak.”
Given all this, why is it a lens ground by Spinoza offers the chance of freedom? Perhaps the answer lies in Spinoza’s idea that we can become aware of the compulsions that drive us. We can detach emotions from their external cause and in this way master them.
Whatever conclusion you might come to, the important thing is that Ian Tregellis gets you thinking. The book encourages a reader to explore all kinds of things. I was off reading about Huygens, Spinoza, Descartes and Newton. This is a very interesting book. I recommend it.