The Jub Jub Bird

A literary blog with fantasy tendencies

The Alchemy of Stone – Ekaterina Sedia

The implications of advances in artificial intelligence have long been a source of inspiration for science fiction writers and film makers.  In recent times rock bands – Radiohead and Grandaddy to name two of my favourites – have been getting in on the act; Radiohead in particular have peddled a brand of alienated electronica which encapsulates a sense of humanity left behind or subjugated by machines.  This is an inversion of the usual Sci Fi approach, which is to look for the humanity in robots.  With the Alchemy of Stone, Ekaterina Sedia has taken the more traditional approach but breathes new life into the trope, by giving her central character female attributes.

Mattie is a sentient automaton, built by Loharri – an esteemed Engineer – to resemble a woman, or at least an abstract view of one; Mattie’s casing is shaped like a dress and her replaceable face-mask has female features.  Superficially, these may seem like very small indicators of gender but to Mattie they are the basis for her identity and the jumping off point for a wider exploration of a range of related themes, more of which later.  At first Loharri built Mattie to act as his home-help but the sentient part of her mind pushed for ever greater sophistication and ultimately emancipation; pain and pleasure sensors were needed to help Mattie protect herself from everyday accidents, feeling and emotion circuits developed an increasing desire for self-determination.  At the start of the book, Mattie lives and works as a practicing Alchemist (arch rivals to the Engineers), having first been set free by Loharri to take on an apprenticeship and later having branched out on her own, (when her skills surpassed that of her tutor in true fantasy tradition).

Loharri though, has not been passive during the course of these events and it is clear that while Mattie may appear to have her own freedom, Loharri has a lingering hold over her; emotionally she feels she owes a debt to her creator but more crucially tangibly: Loharri still holds Mattie’s key, the one she needs to wind her up and give her life.  The relationship between these two protagonists – essentially that of a domineering and abusive father and his daughter – is at the heart of the novel, as Mattie seeks to find and define herself, in the confusing tangle of where she comes from and who she wants to be.  Being different from everyone else, she thinks these contradictions are unique to her robot nature but in doing so of course, she reveals herself to be just as human as everyone else.

Loharri’s abuse extends to the physical.  In an unsettlingly original passage, we learn how Mattie lost her virginity to Loharri, once she was able to experience pleasure. ‘The almost hungry caress of the fingertips as they traced the outline of the keyhole on her chest, and made her heart tick faster.  The taste of human skin on her lip sensors, salty and precipitous, and the feeling in her abdomen that some great misfortune was about to befall her mixed with light headed giddiness’.  The concept of automaton sex is disturbing-yet-fascinating, asking questions about pleasure, intimacy and the difference between genuine experience and vicarious sensation.  These formative events have become indelibly printed on Mattie’s being; as her resentment builds, so does her determination to break free from Loharri’s thrall, whatever the cost to her creator.

It doesn’t take searing insight to spot the feminist strand running throughout the piece but it would be wrong to consider the book purely from a gender perspective; identity, self discovery and what it means to be human in a mechanized world, are thematically just as prominent.  Sedia is skillful at layering her tale with these metaphoric strands without hectoring, the reader is left to make the connections, draw the analogies and come to their own conclusions. It’s during these passages that Sedia is at her strongest, taking genre writing into new territory, bringing a genuinely literary element to the steampunk tradition.

Indeed up to this point in the review, I’ve barely mentioned the fantastical aspects of the book; given the stated aim of this blog, that’s very promising.  Genre fans can rest assured that there is a secondary world here, with steampunk and fantasy elements.  All the action takes place in one large – part Victorian, part magical and part mechanized – city.  I particularly liked the gargoyles, who roam the city’s rooftops in packs and speak with one voice, in italicized segments distinct from the rest of the text.  The gargoyles are part of the very fabric of the city; they made the buildings out of the rock from which they too are made.  One by one they return to stone as they age, calcifying permanently on roof-tops when their time comes.  It is the gargoyles who set the narrative running at the start of the book, by entrusting Mattie with the task of stopping their eventual petrification, if she can.  Mattie’s investigations lead her to seek out the Soul-Smoker, a sad character feared throughout the city because he involuntarily sucks the souls from the bodies of all living creatures nearby.  Mattie the automaton is immune but her contact with the Soul Smoker leads to revelations which are just as life threatening, to Mattie and to the city itself.

The author’s prose is deceptively rich, given her economy of style; a style which contributes to the fantasy feel of the book.   Sedia originally hails from Russia and I suspect that her writing reflects a non-typical outlook, while some phrases feel like they’ve been lost in translation.  It would be pushing it too far to say that there’s a Russian feel to the book but there’s certainly something other-wordly – to this western reader – about the city and its inhabitants, beyond the mere descriptions of the things themselves.

The book is relatively short, some 300 pages of big type, and there are so many ideas inside, it doesn’t leave much room for serious world-building.  With the focus on the characters – what they say and don’t say – it seems harsh to complain about the lack of attention to detail in the wider world.  Even so, I wanted these strong characters and compelling themes to be grounded in a world which was much more fully realized.  The plot too is a little thin, or rather it starts off well but then resolves itself in a slightly clumsy rush, with interesting characters from the first half, referred to fleetingly or forgotten by the end.  Perhaps this is the trade-off where literary fantasy is concerned, plot and world-building vs. allusion and metaphor; though Iain M Banks proves that it’s possible to do both, well.  I found myself thinking around the book itself, pursuing themes and making links way beyond the requirements of the plot, which is the acid test for me.  Perhaps a little underdone in parts then but The Alchemy of Stone is proper literary fantasy and Ekaterina Sedia is definitely one to watch.

December 15, 2009 Posted by | Reviews | | 2 Comments