Do you ever find yourself reading a book that you should be loving, and you’re having trouble motivating yourself even to finish? You don’t think it’s a bad book, quite the opposite, you think it’s a good one. It’s competently written, and the plot and characters should be totally compelling. But they’re not, not to you. So you check the reviews that have posted and find that you’re pretty much in the minority. Almost everyone else loves it. So what’s up?
When I began reading with an eye to figuring out why I wasn’t engaging with the narrative I recognized that what I was reading was an action/thriller with science fiction themes rather than the reverse. And while many thrillers sacrifice characterization for action, connecting with the characters is something that has to happen in order to find a way to identify with them and the things that happen to and around them. So there has to be a level of connection to the main character(s). And this is, I think, where Wilson falls down on the job.
He has two protagonists, an avtomat named Peter, and an expert in automatons, named June. We do get glimpses of Peter’s internal life, but Wilson wastes that opportunity by making Peter utterly boneheaded. He’s stumbling through the centuries, assuming he has a purpose, but not understanding it, he’s obsessed with his “sister” avtomat, Elena, and yet treats her as if she’s an accessory rather than family while expecting her to treat him like family. When confronted with the bare facts of his purpose, he doesn’t seem to understand or accept. He’s been stumbling, in an active way for three centuries since he opened his eyes in Peter the Great’s Russia and became his new self. For three hundred years, Peter has managed to avoid capture, but he doesn’t know why, and he doesn’t care enough to try to find out! Wilson squanders every bit of sympathy or empathy I might feel for Peter by making him one of the most passive protagonists I’ve ever read.
And then along comes June.
You know the whole White Savior trope? It takes a white guy to save the dark-skinned people. Well this is the Human Savior riff on the same trope. June comes along, joins Peter — albeit unwillingly at first — in his quest for whatever it is he’s supposed to do, he still has no idea, and she saves the hell out of him and possibly all the surviving automatons. I might not have minded this so much, might not even have noticed it, if June had had a single memorable characteristic. But she is so bland that she barely registers. But robots apparently need a human savior to save them from themselves, so we need June the Human.
Had I seen real, compelling evidence that the avtomats had made our world better, or even that they had a culture that might enrich and inform our own, I might have had a stake in the outcome. I might have felt that it would be a shame to allow them to die off because we could learn so much from them, we could have amazing allies in our journey through history. Wilson hints a bit about this, but never truly commits to creating a rich and vibrant automaton culture that has successfully hidden in plain sight, driving human culture towards greater knowledge and accomplishment.
At this point I’m tempted to crack wise about keeping your ’87 Chevy running, but that wouldn’t be apt. The automatons are more than just machines, they’re clearly sentient creatures, and I’d have given a lot if Wilson had made us feel that keenly, had managed to make the machines touch our hearts with their eerie humanness, and the depth of their internal lives. I think of Roy Batty’s “Tears in the Rain” speech:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost, in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.
And I can’t help but feel that if there’d been even a fraction of the emotion I found in those five sentences, in the whole of The Clockwork Dynasty, I’d have given the book five stars and forced all my friends to read it. But I didn’t.