the mechanical [book review]

Read this 2015 book by Ian Tregillis with growing excitement as I was first unsure why I had ordered it. It is a mix of the Baroque Cycle and of the Difference engine, with Huygens playing the central role (rather than Newton). The postulate of the story is that he found [in the 1600’s] a way to create robots (or mechanicals, or yet Clakkers) with autonomy, prodigious strength, and unlimited “life” time. Endowing the Netherlands with such an advantage as to become the unique European power. Except for a small population of French people, living in exile in Montréal, renamed as Marseille-in-the-West, where the descendants of Louis XIV were desperately fighting the Dutch robots with their barely sufficient chemical skills… In addition to this appealing alternate history, where the French are arguing about the free will of the machines, and building underground railways to convey rogue mechanicals outside the Dutch empire, partly for being Catholics and hence following the Pope’s doctrine [and partly to try to produce their own robots], where the Pope is also a refugee in Québec, and where New Amsterdam has not turned into New York, but is a thriving colonial city in America, linked to the mother country by mechanical boats and Zeppelin-like airships, the machines are constrained to obey the humans, with the Queen’s wishes at the top of a hierarchy of constraints. And no Asimov’s law to prevent them from being used as weapons, to the French’s sorrow! But their degree of autonomous thought is such that a mere loosening of a component may remove the compulsion and turn them into rogues, i.e, free willed robots. On the converse side, a nefarious guild in charge of a Calvinist faith and of the maintenance of the robots is attempting to extend this control of the Dutch State over some humans. Which makes for a great setting discussing the blurry border between humans and AIs, with both humans and Clakkers bringing their arguments to the game… I am now eagely waiting for the second and third volumes in the series of The Alchemy Wars to arrive in the mail to continue the story!

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