The Big Idea: Daniel H. Wilson

Think the idea of robots is a relatively new one? It doesn’t have to be, and in The Clockwork Dynasty, author Daniel H. Wilson gives some thought to the idea of what it would be like if the idea were something other than on the cutting edge of modern civilization.


In 1928, a box of old junk arrived at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute. Really old. Rumored to be the remains of an incredible device, the loose pieces of brass machinery were unassembled, many of them twisted and singed by fire. A decade passed before an engineer could piece together the device into its true form—a little boy at a desk, holding a quill pen poised in his fingers.

Wound up and set loose, the primitive robot began to draw elaborate sketches and poems. And at the end of the final poem, written in French, it signed off with a flourish: “Written by the automaton of Maillardet.” Just like that, after over a century, the device revealed its provenance in a surprisingly simple manner—by writing it down on a piece of paper.

I remember being inspired by the story of Maillardet’s draughtsman; it left me thinking that although we live in a modern civilization, our ancestors had their triumphs, too.

And so, as these things go, a scene began to creep into my mind. I imagined walking, talking automatons, sent like messages from our ancestors in the distant past, created before written history and wandering here to our present through the long dark ages of humankind. Thus began the adventure of June Stefanov, a young anthropologist specializing in the study of court automatons—starting with the moment she discovers a hidden message in the writings of a revived automaton much like Maillardet’s:

“All who breathe do not live; all who touch do not feel; and all who see do not judge. Behold the avtomat.”

The Clockwork Dynasty imagines the avtomat (a Russian word that means “machine”), a race of humanlike machines built in prehistory by a fallen civilization. Concealing themselves among humanity for centuries, they have quietly served the great empires of antiquity and steered nations around the globe toward our familiar technological future. In the present day, they are running out of power and praying that civilization will soon be advanced enough to understand and repair their inscrutably complex bodies.

The central paradox is of course that our “primitive” ancestors reached technological heights we’ve never seen. The fruit of their labor still walks among us, each avtomat symbolic of some virtue prized by our lost forbearers. Though these robots are superior to humans, they are built in our image and carry our principles. And they are depending on us to save them from oblivion.

So, what the heck was I thinking? Normally, I write about shiny, new robots. These creatures (at least initially) are made of ceramic and brass; wood, leather and whalebone. Their story isn’t set “five years in the future”—it begins in an age passed out of all memory, a time of legends and myth.

In this way, The Clockwork Dynasty has something in common with some of my favorite fantasy and sci-fi worlds. In places like Star Wars, The Hobbit, and Dune, the older a technology is, the more powerful it is.

It’s an idea I find refreshing. Maybe it’s just fatigue. I’m the robot guy, you know? My flap cover story is that I earned a PhD in robotics and now I write (relentlessly) about the cutting edge of technology. Want to know what’s coming next? Ask the robot guy!

Not this time. There is hubris in assuming that our civilization is the latest and the greatest. It’s an assumption The Clockwork Dynasty does not make.

Homo sapiens has been roaming this planet for over a hundred thousand years. We’ve got just five thousand years of written history. A lot of smart people have been born and died in our uncharted past. Who knows what marvels they produced?

Another refreshing tidbit—I’m not destroying the world this time.

In novels like Robopocalypse and Amped, I’ve relished watching technology tear society (and let’s face it, people) apart. But the robots in The Clockwork Dynasty are pushing humanity toward a high-tech future. It’s a reverse apocalypse, and a theme much more in line with how I feel about robots and technology.

Looking back on it, I feel this novel is testament to the symbolic power of the robot in storytelling. We humans are obsessed with ourselves and our place in the universe. Our robotic creations hold up a distorted mirror to humanity, challenge our primacy and uniqueness, and force us to rethink our most basic assumptions.

And what amazes me most is that robots and automatons have been challenging us this way for millennia, and they will continue to do so for years to come…

Right up until the Robopocalypse. ;)


The Clockwork Dynasty: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (click on the “read an excerpt” button on the linked page). Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

9 Comments on “The Big Idea: Daniel H. Wilson”

  1. Wow. I’d never heard of Maillardet’s machine. That’s an awesome bit of mechanical history.

    And a robot story that does NOT end in some kind of apocalypse??? I am intrigued.

    Ordering a copy. Thanks!

  2. Yeah, I was pretty sure the automaton was made up – I went and checked. And I notice it’s in London this month, at the Science Museum. I will have to go and have a look!

    Behold the avtomat.

    This sounds a bit more unsettling when you know that автомат means not just “machine” but also “automatic weapon”. As in “Автомат Калашникова”, the AK.

  3. No, it’s not sheer hubris to assume that ours are the first advanced technological civilisations. Unless a past such only used renewables, which we would gave done if it were easy, there would be plenty of played-out mines, including for salt, and pre-depleted sources of petroleum, that couldn’t have renewed themselves over our short stay so far. The evidence would likely be obvious from space.

    Maybe it’s hubris, but it is far from a groundless opinion born solely of pride.

  4. Sounds like a fun book. I’ll have to get it for myself and for my grandson who wants to study robotics.

  5. “It’s a reverse apocalypse, and a theme much more in line with how I feel about robots and technology.”
    This right here. This is what I read science fiction for.

  6. “All who breathe do not live” should be “Not all who breathe live”. The phrases have different meanings. Such poor phrasing could be costly in a legal document. Such constructions are one of my domesticated companion animal peeves.

  7. EkW; not necessarily. In order to pass as humans these machines may well have some kind of breathing mechanism, that makes their chests rise and fall (and influence speech). So they may breathe and still not be alive.

  8. I think the point is that “all who breathe do not live” literally means “any object which is breathing is not living”. Like “all club members are not charged for admission” – if you read that, and you’re a club member, you wouldn’t expect to pay to get in. While “not all who breathe live” means “there are some things out there which breathe but don’t live”, which is what you’re getting at. It doesn’t rule out there being some things out there which breathe and live, or some things that don’t breathe and aren’t alive.

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