Daniel H. Wilson is a New York Times bestselling author of 10 novels, including Robopocalypse. He holds a PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University and lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two children. Recently Wilson agreed to be interviewed by Daryl Maxwell for the Los Angeles Public Library Blog about his new novel The Clockwork Dynasty.
What was your inspiration for The Clockwork Dynasty?
History is filled with real accounts of ancient robots called “automatons” and I’ve always been inspired by them. I love that people have been trying to build lifelike machines for all of human history, across nearly every culture—making robot a very natural human endeavor. In The Clockwork Dynasty I imagined that those automatons were much more complex than we ever imagined, and that some of them have been walking among us for centuries, disguised as human beings.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
I tend to map out my novels as I write them, so I know where I’m going. One thing I didn’t expect was that the gender of a major character was going to need to be switched. A swordfighter and mathematician named Hypatia (after Hypatia of Alexandra, a real person) was originally a man, and it just wasn’t working very well. It hit me one morning that the character was female, and everything clicked.
Are June, Peter, Elena, Batuo or Leizu inspired or based on a specific individuals (or group of people)?
Many of the characters in this novel are ancient robots who have been disguising themselves as human and serving the great empires of antiquity for centuries. Those characters are more likely to be based on historical figures. So, Peter is based on Peter the Great, Batuo is based on the founder of Shaolin Monastery, and Leizu (the mother of silk worms) is based on the wife of China’s semi-mythological first Emperor, Huangdi. Elena’s origins are more mysterious. And as for my only human protagonist, June Stefanov, she is a scientist who was inspired by all the women scientists in my life (including my wife).
The Clockwork Dynasty covers a lot of ground historically and geographically. How familiar were you with the periods and areas represented prior to writing this book? What is the most interesting thing you learned in the research you did?
The historical eras explored in the book just happen to match perfectly with my favorite periods of history to read about and research—what a coincidence, right!? Some of my best-loved moments of the novel were recreating the Siege of Arcot, which happened during the British occupation of India in the 1700s. In these battles, thousands of Indian pikemen supported armored elephants with gold-capped tusks, fighting Englishmen who fired smoky volleys of musket shots, and staring down dragon-headed cannons that spewed fire. It must have been unbelievably terrifying and surreal.
Clearly the Automat in The Clockwork Dynasty are not bound by Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics,” but you did impose on them an overriding “Word” or attribute that governs their actions and reactions. In addition, they seem to be able to “adjust” or modify their interpretations of these attributes as the world changes around them. Do you see the Automat in The Clockwork Dynasty as having more independence, and a greater ability to grow and develop independently, than is generally allowed more traditional “robots” or androids in Science Fiction?
I gave each robot character in the novel a single “Word” that they have to serve (e.g., loyalty, logic, truth, etc). This gave me a chance to get philosophical about free will. If you are programmed to serve a single purpose like that, can you still think for yourself? I think the answer is yes, because a single word can be interpreted a thousand different ways. And the meaning of words changes over the centuries. So, the robot characters end up being defined by the context of humanity and our civilizations—by how we define their word—even though they are superior to individual human beings.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
I’m plowing through The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene and trying to wrap my head around parallel worlds! It pairs very well with my addiction to Rick and Morty—a morally nihilistic cartoon that takes place in an infinite multi-verse where everything that can happen, will happen.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel was such a pleasure to read that I do wish I could discover it again for the first time.
The ending of The Clockwork Dynasty seems to hint strongly at a follow up novel. Will there be a sequel? If so, is there anything you can tell us about the new novel? Will readers learn more about “The First Men?” Will this turn into a series?
I would love to follow up with another novel in the series! I have already written a short story from Elena’s perspective that is included in a forthcoming story collection (more on that below). I think it will be so much fun to go back in time and see “The First Men” and the birth of the automat, in order to understand why they were made and what they are capable of. And you have my apologies, I just couldn’t stop myself from including that twist on the last page of The Clockwork Dynasty!
What are you working on now?
I’m doing final copyedits on my short story collection, Guardian Angels & Other Monsters, which will be released by Vintage books early 2018! For more information you can always visit me at www.danielhwilson.com or on twitter @danielwilsonPDX.