Jun 22, 2010

The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

My first experience of The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia was an exclusive novel excerpt in the Fall 2008 issue of Weird Tales, courtesy of Ann Vandermeer, who generously gave me a copy at Steam Powered. The serendipity of that issue was manifold: it was an international author spotlight, and for a Comparative Lit major, that's a rare treasure in speculative fiction. Several of the pieces were translated from other languages, and it will come as no surprise to many of you the inimitable Lavie Tidhar was involved in that process. That man needs to be given an award for his efforts in global speculative fiction. As I was starting my work on steampunk, I'm also eternally grateful to Ann for the complimentary copy with Sedia's text, as it contained an idea about steampunk I wouldn't have caught onto as early as I did.

In the opening pages of the book (I read it in its entirety a year after reading the excerpt, in fall of '09), Mattie, a clockwork girl, is commissioned to concoct "a fragrance that would cause regret" (19). As I went to work on my "Steam Wars" article (then only a term paper), those words came back to me, conflated with Lavie Tidhar's post about magical technology in steampunk. Accordingly, I was already thinking about technofantasy that far back, in a discussion of the magical elements in Eric Poulton's steampunk Death Star:
This disregard for the realities of physics or history is taken a step further in Eric Poulton’s Massive Solar-Orbiting Electro-Mechanical Analytic Engine, Mark 6, which imagines Lucas’s Death Star as a moon-sized clockwork hybrid of antique globe and pulp-SF death ray. Poulton’s accompanying text states that the station is the product of research into “Arcane Mathematics, the mathematical study of the Force,” as well as using the Force as its energy source (Poulton 2007).
The magical Force as potential energy source might seem contrary to The Encyclopedia of Fantasy’s limitation of steampunk as technofantasies. However, the Encylopedia suggests “books which fit directly into the form developed by Tim Powers, K.W. Jeter and James P. Blaylock from models derived from Michael Moorcock, Christopher Priest and others” to clarify what is meant by technofantasy (Clute & Kaveny 1997: 391). The inclusion of Tim Powers is revealing. Powers’ Anubis Gates, often cited as one of the original steampunk texts, contains no hard technology. There are no automatons, no ornithopters, and no airships, but there is a good deal of magic. Christopher Priest’s The Prestige is about two magicians competing for the greatest trick, and the appearance of Nikola Tesla does little to dispel the narrative’s metaphysical elements, particularly the inclusion of a sub-plot involving Spiritualism. Newer steampunk works utilize alchemy or occult ritual to develop steampunk technologies, as demonstrated in Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone, the story of a clockwork woman who becomes an alchemist. Her fanciful commissions include creating an elixir to extend the lives of gargoyles, and a “fragrance that would cause regret” (2008: 19). To this example we can add the god-like Victorian Wintermute of Sterling and Gibson's The Difference Engine; the mysterious disease that transforms men into machines in S.M. Peters' Whitechapel Gods; the magical manipulation of creation made clockwork in Jay Lake's Mainspring; the divining alethiometer of Pullman's The Golden Compass; or mathematics as the power to alter time and space in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.
Steampunk technologies require some facet of “magic” in order to be rendered plausible. Based upon these images, it seems that steampunk technology is exposed, not to explain its underlying impetus, but to communicate its purpose through visual hyperbole. While steampunk has long been considered a sub-genre of science fiction, its technology is far closer to magic than hard science. 
I can only imagine how far off track I'd have been with my research without Sedia's bizarre mix of alchemy and engineering to expand my perception of steampunk. If all one had for research was the internet, you'd certainly be lead to think steampunk is just science fiction, focused as much of the art is on technology. Yet without an understanding of steampunk's regular dalliances with technofantasy, the joke of "but it doesn't really do anything" is all too appropriate.

Two comics having fun with steampunk's "useless" tech: Greg Dean's Real Life and David Malki's Wondermark (The Wondermark cartoon is among my favorites by Malki.)

Steampunk technology, on the whole, doesn't do anything, especially in its literary manifestation. That is to say, if you were to bring the technology of steampunk out of a book and into our world, it wouldn't work very well once it ran out of phlogiston or aether, or when you tried to invoke whatever arcane powers it runs on. It's very easy to assume that since the aesthetic device of technofantasy is pointless in terms of physical reality, it is likewise meaningless in its thematic content. Yet consider the relevance of the municipal Darwinism in Reeve's Mortal Engines, the underlying social contract theory of the living airship in Leviathan, and the complexity of constructing gender identities in The Alchemy of Stone.

Mattie considers herself a "female" automaton, because she was "created as one," and because of the clothes she wears: "The shape of them is built into me--I know that you have to wear corsets and hoops and stays to give your clothes a proper shape. But I was created with all of those already in place, they are as much as part of me as my eyes. So I ask you, what else would you consider me?" (18, 83-84). Because she identifies with females, Mattie sees herself as other women in her society, without agency, despite involving herself directly in the the events that are going on around her. This complex balancing act is carried out consistently in Mattie's character: she is intelligent enough to have become an alchemist, yet naive about emotions like love; she is simple and childlike, yet she is also an old-soul, wise about the way in which she has been made. Where others are horrified by the restrictions her creator, Loharri has 'programmed' into her, she considers the way in which that predisposition keeps her from harm. 

The Alchemy of Stone contains one of the best passages about the balancing act of technofantasy itself, nearly allegorized in the polemical relationship between the the societies of Mechanics and Alchemists:
“The Dukes had always insisted that both alchemists and mechanics are represented in the government,” Mattie said. “They represent two aspects of creation—command of the spiritual and magical, and mastery of the physical. Together, we have the same aspects as the gargoyles who could shape the physical with their minds” (Sedia 69).
This echoes the Virgin and the Dynamo of Dexter Palmer's The Dream of Perpetual Motion, but captures perfectly the tension in steampunk between science and magic. I've included discussions of how alchemy is often used in steampunk because of its historical relationship with chemical science, but in Alchemy of Stone, it operates as one end of a spectrum for changing the world. So long as the Mechanics and Alchemists remain in opposition, there is chaos. There must be a marrying of these minds, an idea conveyed using the steampunk aesthetic. Does this mean this idea is inherent in steampunk? Possibly, but it doesn't come automatically - it seems to require an artful writer to draw it out. Lesser writers using these same elements would simply tell an adventure story, rather than a bildungsroman.

Sedia also uses magical technology for existential questions in the relationship between Mattie and the Soul Smoker, this secondary world's version of a Sin-Eater. Because the Soul Smoker consumes souls at the time of death, he is a pariah--Mattie is the sole source of compassion and community for him, since she ostensibly has no soul. The question of the ghost in the machine is always lurking whenever robots take the stage. The Alchemy of Stone would make a great comparative work to contrast and compare with Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl. There are some really Big Ideas in this book, delivered in a story of bittersweet emotion. The cover blurb says it's a "novel of automated anarchy and clockwork lust," an assessment which falls so incredibly short of this book's content as to cheapen it. There is anarchy, but it is hardly the focus. Whether there is lust is difficult: there is certainly desire, but I'd argue those words carry very different connotations.

Jha Goh and I have been discussing the prevalence of female vs. male automata in steampunk, and SF in general: are robots feminized more often than men? Are there more androids than gynoids? How are they treated differently? Sedia takes the road less traveled by keeping Mattie from objectified sexual fetish, unlike Pris in Blade Runner, the clockwork girl in Abney Park's Herr Drosselmeyer's Doll, or Emiko in The Windup Girl. Although her maker violates the position of trust, it is in the role of abusive parent, not necessarily sexual predator. This allows a broader base of reader connection: when Mattie is broken and Loharri takes away her eyes, it isn't a gendered crisis - all readers can relate to that moment of fear in darkness, of helplessness. Mattie is a wonderful combination, a Kleistian version of Pinocchio and Cinderella (as the little ash girl, not Disney princess), wondering about who she is, all the while toiling in the dirt to make a place for herself in the world.

Sedia's great accomplishment in Alchemy is making Mattie accessible to all readers, an achievement I'd call a truly feminist piece of writing. Unlike more agenda-driven writers like Atwood, Sedia lets us relate to Mattie's vulnerability, innocence, and questing curiosity about ontological questions without making all men monsters, all beautiful women idiots, and all seats of power corrupt. There is a poetic complexity to Sedia's writing that defies an analysis from one reading. The steampunk tech isn't here as window-dressing: it's more like stained-glass, changing the color and shape of the light as it passes through the pane. It's directly related to the themes of the book, and in that way, this is a rarity. The Alchemy of Stone is definitely a book I'm seeking space for in my teaching, and one I highly recommend, not only for steampunk fans, but lovers of speculative fiction, and those desiring something literary in their summer page-turner. 
I often make mention of covers in my posts, but found it difficult to weave into today's post. So as a post-script, I'll say that I haven't seen a cover of The Alchemy of Stone yet that doesn't convey something strong about the book's tone and themes. 


  1. I disagree with you on Mattie being kept from objectified sexual fetish, but this is more because Mattie is gendered female, and most female main characters tend to deal with sexualization in some form or another, within the context of most societies. While it's true that for most part, she is ignored because this is how androids are treated in the society of AoS, there are still two male characters who see her as a sexual object - one who did formerly, and one who starts to see her that way later on.

    Loharri's abuse of Mattie might be that of an abusive parent, but parental abuse can be sexual as well, and Loharri created Mattie for the purpose of having female company that he cannot sustain in his relationships with other women. His continual complaints of Mattie not visiting him, keeping her key, is very reminiscent of abusive ex-boyfriends who use whatever means to guilt-trip women in staying.

    That said, it is indeed a magnificent read.

  2. I should have qualified my statement further I suppose, but I don't think the text requires us to think of Mattie's relationships in this manner. Loharri's abuse isn't explicitly "ex-boyfriendish," but because he is her creator, it is clearly a (dark and twisted) parental one. The relationship with Sebastian isn't healthy either, but it's a far cry from the sex-toy status of Emiko in Windup.

  3. This book has been in my to-be-read stack for a long time. I think it is time to move it up to the top.


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