While most of the stuff on io9 concerns poorly made television shows and gossip about films I have no interest in, I must confess a love of editors Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders. When Annalee rustled up a list of books that will make you think differently about robots, I was intrigued. I am in a place where I think I need to think differently about robots so I thought I’d check out a few of the suggestions. Luckily the library had both of the ones I was interested in.
The Alchemy of Stone is a steampunk affair, without the punk. The story concerns a housekeeping robot-turned-companion named Mattie and her painful relationship with her creator, Loharri. Although she is emancipated and has her own alchemy work making potions for apothecaries and lost lovers, her creator has the only key to her clockwork heart and lords this fact over her when he feels powerless against her ambition. The alchemists and the mechanics, of which Loharri is part, run the city, which is also looked after by a dying race of gargoyles. Mattie’s newest commission is to help the gargoyles while the people who do its dirty work threaten the order of the city.
A machine-girl is an interesting idea, but I found Mattie to be an uninteresting character. Her naiveté, explained as resulting from her short time out of Loharri’s care, comes off as grating, especially when applied to the unsubtle anti-discrimination theme of the book:
“And yet, she couldn’t shake her anger as she walked downhill. Not al Ilmarekh but at those who chose that life for him—just like the anger she felt when the soldier on the metal mount called her a clunker. There were these people—she wasn’t sure exactly who they were—who kept telling them what they could and could not be. And Mattie was quite certain that she did not request her emancipation just so she could obey others beside Loharri.” It’s the “quite certain” that gives away the prim simplicity of the book’s take on race relations (and to some extent, gender relations).
In fact, it is primness overall that makes this book forgettable. “Mattie thought that she had never yet seen Iolanda like that—so energetic, so giddy, crackling with some hidden excitement. And the fact that she was here and undressed… she decided to ponder the implications later, when she wasn’t so distracted.”
Despite the requisite bit of Victoriana present in the book, I just couldn’t believe that a former blank slate, made by a flawed and dark creator and exposed to the ugliest of human emotions on a daily basis would evolve such an earnest do-gooder personality. While the questions her existence asks—what is emancipation, what is bondage, can a mechanical thing love—are compelling, nothing complicated can be pinned to such a blah character, and relieves Sedia’s exploration of those topics of any weight. Sedia never goes past Mattie’s limited perceptions (except during the aggressively italicized passages in the gargoyles' voice, who speak like forgotten royals struck with a fever of vagueness), to really mine the themes she has set up and is instead content to write a chaste romance novel with a steam and metal wrapper.
I hope the other book I got from the list is much better.