Given that he has a hard sci-fi writer best known for his robot revolt novels Robopocalypse and Robogenesis, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Daniel H Wilson’s new novel has mechanical men rising up against their human overlords. But while there are robots in his new novel The Clockwork Dynasty (hardcover, digital), it seems Wilson has employed a different genre to tell this new story about metal people.
I always like to start with the basics. So, basically, what is The Clockwork Dynasty about?
The novel is about a race of human-like robots called avtomat, built in the distant past by a lost civilization. From blood-soaked battlefields to imperial courts, these robots have been serving the great empires of antiquity…and quietly pushing our civilization toward a technological future. They are running out of power, and only modern science can save them. In the present day, an anthropologist named June Stefanov discovers the existence of the avtomat and goes on a world-spanning adventure to discover who made them, why, and how to replenish their power.
Where did you get the original idea for the novel, and how different is the finished book from that idea?
Originally, I was fascinated with how Peter The Great modernized Russia in the early 1700s. At that time, clockwork automatons were all the rage, and mechanicians of the day were consumed with building lifelike machines. Exaggerating the existing history, I imagined a world in which Peter The Great discovered an ancient wonder in the depths of the Kremlin. Deciding to rebuild this strange artifact and put it to use, he sets out to create an eternal tsar in his own image. I wrote that as a short story, and it became the genesis of a novel that spans across thousands of years and between America, Eastern and Western Europe, China, India, and Russia.
The Clockwork Dynasty has been classified by some as steampunk. Do you think of it that way?
I’m a fan primarily of hard sci-fi, and that’s mostly what I write, so the comparison to steampunk took me by surprise. Though, in retrospect, it makes complete sense. I have well disguised, technologically advanced robots traipsing around English battlefields with muskets and sabers.
But half of the novel also takes place in the modern day, and the character development drives the story as much as the action does. I would call this a steampunk hybrid, sure to scratch that particular itch, and others as well.
Why did you decide to write this story as a steampunk hybrid story as opposed to, say, cyberpunk or fantasy? Or was it more that you sat down to write a steampunk story, and this is where it led you?
I’m not bright enough to predict what an audience would want and then cater to that notion. Instead, I write whatever I’m interested in. That happened to be a bit of Russian history, the idea of wunderkammern — medieval “cabinets of curiosity” or “wonder rooms” — and real court automata that were built for kings and queens. Choosing genre categories or thinking about a faceless audience is well beyond my ability, so my hope is that this novel fits in somewhere, and that someone besides me finds it enjoyable.
Along the same lines, you’ve also written such comics as Quarantine Zone, as well as three volumes of Earth 2 [Earth 2: Society Vol 1.: Planetfall, Earth 2: World’s End Vol. 1, and Earth 2: Futures End: Vol. 1]. Why did you decide to write it as a prose novel as opposed to a comic?
Imagine The Clockwork Dynasty as a sharp cutter sailboat in the English Royal Navy: it tacks back and forth by switching between chapters set in the past and those set in the present. This narrative mechanic — revealing the present via events that happened in the past, and vice versa — is crucial and it can only really exist in the form of a novel. The world is epic, the stories in it are manifold, and it may ultimately exist in many different mediums, but The Clockwork Dynasty had to manifest itself as a novel. There was no other choice.
Are there any writers or books that you feel were a big influence on what you wrote in The Clockwork Dynasty, or how you wrote it, that were not as big an influence on your other novels?
Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice was an influence in that it demonstrates the power of wonderfully textured, organic descriptions of elegant periods of history. Re-reading that novel, I realized not much really happens plot-wise. But the descriptions of vampires haunting cursed Louisiana plantations, peering through lace curtains in the humid night…they’re simply amazing and utterly satisfying.
What about pop-culture influences; do you think any movies, TV shows, or video games had an impact on The Clockwork Dynasty?
There is a certain impact from the film Highlander, which has always been a favorite of mine. I like the idea of immortals trapped in an evaporating pond, battling each other to survive. And having feuds and friendships that go back centuries is enticing…when used well, these deep histories can really bump up the stakes.
Speaking of Highlander, Ernest Cline [Ready Player One] said The Clockwork Dynasty is, “…like some fantastic hybrid of Highlander and The Terminator. Or maybe a cross between I, Robot and The Difference Engine, with a dash of Blade Runner for good measure.” Do you agree with him, or do you think there’s a better pop culture combination?
It is my belief that Ernie Cline literally sees the world as a kaleidoscope of memes, tropes, and fragments of pop culture. As such, there is no better person for choosing the particular set of ingredients that evoke a particular new novel. I agree with Ernie completely and earnestly, the way you agree with a master chef as she suggests the best course for dinner.
Now, Steven Spielberg was making a movie out of your novel Robopocalypse. Is that still happening?
DreamWorks still holds the rights and by all indications Robopocalypse is still moving ahead at a neat little clip. That’s about the extent of what I can say about that.
And how about The Clockwork Dynasty? Has there been any interesting in making a movie out of that?
Fox Studios optioned the film rights pre-emptively two days before I sold the novel to Doubleday, with Hutch Parker [Logan] producing. The studio has been very attentive, supportive, and I can’t wait to see the team they put together.
If Mr. Parker asked you, who would you like to see them cast in The Clockwork Dynasty movie?
I’m more excited about learning who is going to direct a movie than who is cast in it. The vision of the director really sets the tone for the entire project, on so many levels. So, if I had a magic wish and I could choose any director alive for this project, it would have to be J.J. Abrams [Star Trek, Star Wars: The Force Awakens].
Finally, if someone’s read and enjoyed The Clockwork Dynasty, and they’ve also read Robopocalypse and Robogenesis, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
I urge everyone to check out my upcoming short story collection Guardian Angels & Other Monsters, which will be out in March of 2018. The stories are more than just action, sci-fi, and horror. I really poured my heart and soul into them to create visceral emotional experiences that will stick in your mind for months after you finish reading. Plus, there’s a bonus story set in the world of The Clockwork Dynasty.