The Big Idea: Lucas J.W. Johnson

Rome wasn’t built in a day — and its fall took even longer. But what if… that fall never happened at all? Lucas J.W. Johnson is on it with The Clockwork Empire.


There’s something compelling about the fall of the Roman Republic and its transformation to Empire—Caesar and Augustus and the whole thing. It’s a trajectory we see through history time and again. It’s something we’re seeing now. And that feels like something we need to keep exploring in stories.

I took a lot of world history and classical studies and religion courses in university. I love history, especially pre-modern history. (I once asked if I could get bonus marks on an essay about the Aeneid if I wrote it in dactyllic hexameter. The answer was an amused yes, so I did.) There’s so much we can understand about our contemporary world by understanding the trajectory of cultures and trade and technology that got us here.

And I’ve always liked steampunk. There’s something about the intersection of fantasy and sci-fi maybe? Or too much Final Fantasy VI as a kid? (Is that even possible?) 

So I had this vision, which became the basis for The Clockwork Empire: what if the Roman Empire never fell? Europe largely avoids a so-called dark age; technological advance takes a parallel (steampunky) path; people all still take Jupiter’s name in vain (he deserves it). The Empire of the novel has changed in the centuries of alt-history; over time the emperors became more ineffectual. Now, there’s a weak emperor, a senate with a lot of power, and we’re witnessing the rise of a fascist demagogue.

And yes, I’m still talking about the novel. Because yes, we’re seeing it again, all over the world. And the big question must be: what do we do about this? We, the masses, sometimes even watching on from other nations (I’m Canadian after all, not that we’re without fault or threat of the same), how do we stop this shift, how do we work to make a better world when so much is broken?

And the problem isn’t singular: fascism, white supremacy, colonialism, unchecked capitalism, propaganda and information warfare, not to mention actual warfare. They cannot be dealt with in isolation.

But I also didn’t want to write a book about a Hero that could Solve All the Problems. This isn’t a problem that a single person can solve. So how do we solve it?

The Clockwork Empire isn’t about definitive answers, because those are hard and complicated and they have to be. But the novel poses an important suggestion: we don’t do it alone.

The problems are multitudinous, and so must be the solutions. We need communities to work together, people and movements and organizations with similar ideologies and goals supporting each other, all working towards better systems, better solutions, better worlds. On the micro scale, we each need to find our own clans, our found families, the people who can support each other together. On the macro scale, we need all of the collective action: protests, strikes, and unions, we need people to work within the system to elect better leaders and we also need people to tear the system down where it’s broken. (We invented the system; we can invent a better one.)

At its core, The Clockwork Empire is about these movements, more than a specific answer. A queer, disabled found family, trying to fight for the right cause, and finding all of their allies along the way. Just as its main character’s clockwork heart beats on despite being made of brass and steel, the humanity at the heart of a nation—at the heart of our world—the people who have to live here—must beat on despite the crumbling systems around us.

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

Excerpts: Prologue | Chapter 1. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

3 Comments on “The Big Idea: Lucas J.W. Johnson”

  1. Read the first bits, now looking forward to the book!
    (I love the cover, it reminds me of Japanese prints.)

  2. Huh – I realise that Greek democracy is most definitely not Roman Empiricism, but now having read this, there are just too many connections for me not to share with both JS and Athena!

    I listened to this comedy history podcast today, and it really seemed Scalzi-connected to me! It has snark about Trumpish things, humour, and of course Athena’s namesake – and even includes the words “the big idea”!

    Perhaps you also might enjoy it :)

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