Author Daniel Wilson on his latest novel The Clockwork Dynasty

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Jul 28, 2017

Robopocalypse writer Daniel H. Wilson's centuries-spanning sci-fi saga, The Clockwork Dynasty, revolves within a secret society of 18th-century automatons and their plight to retain their principles and identity down through the ages. The time-shifting fairytale centers around a 7-foot sentient machine crafted in the likeness of Russia's Peter the Great, and a hidden truth behind his race's creation and ultimate salvation.

With hints of Highlander, a touch of The Terminator, shards of Edward Scissorhands, and a dusting of Doctor Zhivago, Wilson's latest introduces an autonomous race of ancient androids not so different from ourselves. It's a thoroughly engaging read that traps you in its grinding narrative cogs and lingers long after the final page has turned.

Here's the official description from Doubleday:

Present day: When a young anthropologist specializing in ancient technology uncovers a terrible secret concealed in the workings of a three-hundred-year-old mechanical doll, she is thrown into a hidden world that lurks just under the surface of our own. With her career and her life at stake, June Stefanov will ally with a remarkable traveler who exposes her to a reality she never imagined, as they embark on an around-the-world adventure and discover breathtaking secrets of the past…

Russia, 1725: In the depths of the Kremlin, the tsar’s loyal mechanician brings to life two astonishingly humanlike mechanical beings. Peter and Elena are a brother and sister fallen out of time, possessed with uncanny power, and destined to serve great empires. Struggling to blend into pre-Victorian society, they are pulled into a legendary war that has raged for centuries.

On the eve of his new novel's publication on Tuesday, August 1, I chatted with the renowned roboticist, who illuminated us on how Hollywood came courting, armored battle elephants, the central human paradox, and how these advanced automatons relate to their world in the impersonal Digital Age.

With The Clockwork Dynasty hitting book stores on August 1st, is it thrilling or terrifying waiting for the big day to arrive?

I’m mostly thrilled—the early reviews have been positive (and a few of them rapturous). I seem to have strayed out of hard sci-fi and into a bit of fantasy and steampunk with this novel and reached some new readers. I love them all!

Can you take us through a tour of how this project came to be and how it expanded from short story to 100-page treatment to polished novel?

The Clockwork Dynasty started when I got interested in late-17th-century Russian history, and in particular the reign of Peter the Great. The tsar was huge, at 6’8”, and a jack-of-all-trades who modernized an entire country. I started thinking, what if he wanted to build an eternal tsar in his own image, to reign forever? So I wrote a short story about the birth of an avtomat—an ancient android, disguised as a person, who survives through the ages and serves the great empires of antiquity. Then I started wondering what it would be like for that machine to survive for centuries, and reach our modern world. That led to a hundred pages, and then the sale of the novel.

How did the deal with 20th Century Fox all go down?

We went out to studios with the hundred-page sample sometime in late November, near the holidays, and didn’t hear much back at first. At this point, I know better than to hold my breath. Everything moves slow until it’s moving fast. The right person read the pages, fell in love, and an offer came in from Fox on a Friday night. We closed in a few hours and the project was off the table, presumably before everyone else could read it over the weekend!

Knowing this was bought in a preemptive strike by a Hollywood studio, does that change or influence the way you wrote the book?

I have been lucky enough to have experienced this situation before (with Robopocalypse going to DreamWorks), and it is a huge boost in confidence to have a studio invested in your work. While I was writing the rest of the novel, Fox was highly interested in seeing the manuscript—which is nice, and also a little stressful. In the end, they gave me room to do my thing.

Give us your impressions of the plot and what readers can expect from The Clockwork Dynasty.

It’s a sprawling, epic adventure that rambles across centuries. The whole thing evolved straight out of outlandish ideas and scenarios I fell in love with imagining. Humanlike robots sprinting across the no-man’s land of Stalingrad in World War II; an abandoned machine that looks like a little girl playing harpsichord in a ruined mansion; or a robot fighting armored elephants during the British Army’s colonial occupation of India. I went nuts, had a great time, and I hope it shines through.

How does your immersive tale of a race of artificial humans resonate in today's age of advanced robotics and the impending dawn of AI?

In my favorite stories (like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, & Dune) the older an artifact is, the more powerful. The avtomat in my story were built long ago by a lost civilization, and they are trying to push our society back to those technological heights. It was amazing to layer these immortal machines over our own familiar history, seeing how they subtly drive technology, upgrade themselves, and try to take us back to where we were before.

What were some of the challenges and obstacles to overcome in writing a dual history novel?

The biggest challenge was telling a story that alternates between the past and present, chapter by chapter. I really hate it when I’m reading a book that jumps around too much to keep track of, or when there are two characters and I really only like one of them. So balancing the pacing was incredibly important. I’m not smart enough to completely control everything, so I wrote the past and present chapters in pairs according to a single theme. This technique created all kinds of accidental parallels that tie the present and past together, and I think it makes for an engrossing puzzle—watching for those similarities.

Was it a difficult task trying to build empathy for your automaton characters?

Never! I love writing robot characters; they are often easier to empathize with than human beings. (In Blade Runner, how can you not root for the replicants?) The avtomat are relatable because they’re simply trying to survive in a world that would destroy them if it knew what they were, and they are trying to figure out what their purpose is. None of us asked to be born, human or machine. And all of us would like to know why we are here.

How extensive was your historical research, and how long did you devote to the process?

I read a lot of books, consulted experts, and went where the coolest stories led me. It took months and months. One thing I wanted to avoid was the "Forrest Gump effect," where the protagonist conveniently shows up for major historical events. Instead, I focused on researching little everyday details of life in the 17th and 18th centuries. What buildings were made of, what transportation they used, and how the cities were lit at night—little details that added up.

What were some of the more startling or incredible facts you unearthed in the research period?

This guy Jacques de Vaucanson was unbelievable. During the 1700s he created automatons (an old word for robot, basically) that could do incredible things and which he demonstrated for cash to thousands of people. He sparked an automaton craze that helped to inspire the philsopher Rene Descartes to imagine our world as a big machine. That mechanistic worldview helped lead to the science-and-technology-driven future we live in.

I noticed similar themes in this novel that were prominent in Robopocalypse and its sequel, Robogenesis, especially the notion that mankind can only evolve and achieve greatness through extreme struggle. Where does that notion come from, and why do you believe it?

The central human paradox is that we must build tools to survive, but those same tools can easily kill us all. Every time we advance technology, the danger and promise increases. Every day, we are placing more chips on the table, making bigger and bigger bets on ourselves, hoping that we will be able to control our most amazing creations. It’s frightening and inspiring, and it’s at the heart of everything I write.

With unlimited access to actors, what would your dream casting be if The Clockwork Dynasty becomes a feature film?

Honestly, I only think of actors when I’m writing scripts. When I’m working on a novel, the characters come to me with their own faces and voices. I’m one of those people who hates it that after you see a film you’ll never again glimpse the version of the hero you imagined while reading the book. Please don’t ask me to do that for my own characters!

Have you pondered the possibility of writing a sequel to the novel and continuing the saga of these ancient mechanical beings?

Absolutely! I am receiving an alarming number of emails demanding a third Robopocalypse novel to complete the trilogy, so that may come first. But I’m always at the whim of the reader, so we’ll see what people ask for.

Besides promoting your new book, what are you looking forward to most this summer?

It’s scary how long I had to think about this question, only to come to the conclusion that what I can’t wait to do is start my next novel after the tour ends. I love waking up in Portland, Oregon, taking a deep breath in the misty rain, and walking down the hill with my laptop ...