Daniel H. Wilson Interview: The Clockwork Dynasty

We talked to Robopocalypse author Daniel H. Wilson about his science fiction/steampunk novel, now out in paperback!

Daniel Wilson has been writing science fiction novels for a decade now, weaving his background as a Phd student in Robotics with his interest in fiction to create popular works like the Robopocalypse series.

Wilson’s most recent novel, a robot-centric adventure called The Clockwork Dynasty, is out on paperback today. It is a centuries-spanning journey of purpose and identity that imagines a world where a race of human-like robots have long been living amongst us.

We had a chance to talk with Wilson about The Clockwork Dynasty at last summer’s San Diego Comic Con. Here’s what he had to tell us about the inception, creation, and world of his new book…

Den of Geek: Where did the idea for The Clockwork Dynasty begin?

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Wilson: The Clockwork Dynasty is a story that imagines there’s this ancient race of human-like robots that have been serving the great empires of antiquity and living hidden among human beings for centuries. And that’s the past story.

And, in the present story, there’s an anthropologist. She stumbles upon evidence of these creatures and she… they happen to be running out of power after all these years and so she teams up with one of these machines to find out who made them and how to save their race.

It’s a world-spanning adventures all through different ages of history. And, at the very end, when I was done with it, I saw the cover and realized it was steampunk.

There are a lot of artificial intelligence stories out there right now. What sets yours apart?

I did this Phd in Robotics. I did my Masters in Artificial Intelligence, so I spent a lot of time studying the real world machine-learning, the algorithms in programming computers and all that. Then I wrote Robopocalypse, which was kind of on-the-nose in terms of the killer robot theme, though I try to support it. As you start reading, you realize, this guy actually likes robots.

But what I did here was I really wanted to use the robotic characters as a scalpel to dissect human behavior… the meaning of being a person. They’re called avtomat, in the story. The avtomat are these robots — that’s the Russian word for ‘automatic’ or ‘robot’ — it was originally the title of the book until I realized nobody can pronounce it. So, yeah, I changed it.

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So, each of these avtomat has a single word that’s engraved on their heart, basically, and it’s their purpose and I used that, that idea of fulfilling your purpose. Their words tend to be virtues. Sometimes, they’re very culturally-specific. So the main character’s name is ‘pravda,’ which is a Russian sort of word that means ‘truth’ and ‘justice.’ It’s kind of combined in a way that it’s not in our language.

And so what does it mean to fulfill your purpose? And they have a word, so it should be so simple. You just do that thing. What happens is, as they live through the different ages of civilization, they find that their purpose changes based on the human beings that are around them and the context that they’re in.

And so, to me, it’s kind of like how we as human beings find purpose. As we get older, it changes. It’s like a moving target. Different things give you different purpose at different times in your life. I’m at the age where I’m looking at my children and I’m like, ‘Oh my god. They’re so amazing. I’m so glad I did this.’ And they’re giving me a lot of purpose. But, you know, when I was 25, maybe that wouldn’t have been the same story.

So, yeah, this is 10 years out from my Phd, and it shows. It’s not as hard sci-fi as stuff I’ve written before.

You have an impressive background in the study of robotics and artificial intelligence, but this is also a historical fiction. What is your relationship to history like? What kind of research did you have to do for this book?

I am fascinated by the clash of civilizations and technology’s role in that. I’m not sure, but I think it has to do with the fact that I’m from Oklahoma, which used to be Indian territory and all of Oklahoma history is really about the clash of civilizations. And a lot of that hinges on technology.

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One thing I’ve always been amazed by are these moments in history when different human civilizations have rapidly upgraded all of their technology because they realized they were gonna die. It’s like science fiction when the aliens show up and it’s like, ‘Oh shit, we need to get our act together.’

So this has happened all over the world. It’s happened in Japan, and it happened in Russia. So Peter the Great went to Europe. He realized that Russia was going to be left behind, so he went to Europe and he hired a thousand scientists and he brought them all back and he modernized Russia. And so I fell in love with that idea and that’s what I wanted to explore historically, were these periods of time when we had these rapid technological changes in different cultures.

Did you ever consider telling the story in the historical perspective without the present-day storyline?

I’m not sure about that. Honestly, the past story is really fun and epic and I don’t do the Forrest Gump thing where my characters are walking through the background of every important historical moment. They’re living through these everyday moments because they’re trying to hide.

If someone found out you’re a robot, it’s going to be bad news. But you see them and I just wanted that contrast. I wanted to see what they would become in our society and in our civilization. What is the difference? What does it mean to be logical when there’s no such thing as science? When people believe in magic? When, even when they do see science, they call it’‘natural magic,’ which I love. The fact that people really did that in the Middle Ages is amazing.

And, so, to get that contrast, I really needed to see them now and I really needed to see them in the past. So what I did is the chapters alternate. So the chapters that happened in the distant past, which would have been hundreds of years ago, directly inform the next chapter that you read where they’re just like driving through Seattle on the way to a skyscraper or whatever.

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Did you enjoy writing one of those timelines more than the other? Did you have a favorite?

No. Basically because these characters that are in the past are also in the future, only they’re transformed by all these centuries of everything they’ve learned. And then I have a character I really love who’s in the future. So, June Stefanov’s this anthropologist, her grandfather told her this crazy story when she was a kid about something he saw on a battlefield when he was in World War II. Something that couldn’t have happened, and yet he has this relic he found on the battlefield.

And so it’s kind of inspired her to study the past, to study relics, and to try to figure out what this thing is, this secret that she has. And when she finds out, it’s just so amazing to blow open this world and reveal it to somebody. And, in a lot of ways, June is a stand-in for the reader because she has her own story, obviously, but she’s there so you can commiserate with her and be like, ‘Holy shit, did you hear what that guy just said?’ What she’s thinking is what you’d be thinking.

What will fans of the Robopocalypse series enjoy about The Clockwork Dynasty?

People who like Robopocalypse and Robogenesis and Ampedare gonna love this book. I think I didn’t set out to write steampunk. When people look at the cover, they think steampunk, right? And that elicits a certain set of expectations. So, honestly, I’m more worried that people will think they’re going to get a traditional steampunk story and, instead, they’re getting a little more Robopocalypse-y.

How would you classify that for people who have not read Robopocalypse?

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A thriller, I guess. It’s more like a thriller and it’s very technological. I’m getting into the thought process of machines, what it’s like to come online. I think people who have read my stuff are really going to like this, but I’m also super excited to reach a different audience because it’s way more character-based, and I never realized… people fall in love with characters. I’ve read some early reviews of Clockwork Dynasty and they’re like… people like my characters, and that’s amazing to me because usually people talk a lot of trash.

For people who are interested in steampunk, what will they like about this book?

There are scenes of these robots blending in not in Victorian London, but Baroque London, so a little before Victorian era. There are robots fighting in British-colonized India, fighting armored elephants. There’s a robot that looks like a 12-year-old girl in an abandoned mansion playing a harpsichord to songbirds in the shattered remains of a conservatory.

Yes, those things are great. But this thing, it goes farther than that. It goes farther back, it goes farther forward. I think it’s about watching an evolution over time and so, yes, you get that steampunk stuff that we all recognize, but just be willing to evolve behind that.

Think about what happens in the next 100 years and the next 100 after that and what the mentality is going to be of basically an immortal being who is superior to all the people around him, watches them live and die, and yet was created by human beings and, in some ways, is defined by them.

Do you see this book as an ongoing story?

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It could absolutely be the launch of a series. So I have a short story collection coming out in March of next year called Guardian Angels and Other Monsters and one of the stories takes in the Clockwork Dynasty world and it’s just begging for more stories, so I really hope people like it because then I’ll have the motivation to keep writing more stories.

The pleasure of this book, what I really like to share, is these reveals about this world. And you think you understand the situation and then you get a piece of information that totally recasts everything and makes everything bigger, older, and you just go, ‘Oh my god.’ And I couldn’t help it and I did one of those on like the last page. So, it’s not like the story doesn’t wrap up. Everything concludes. But, on that last page, you realize, ‘Oh shit.’

And, I don’t know. I just love it. It’s an idea I had right when I started writing and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m saving that one for the very end.’ So, I really hope people want to read more in that universe.

Could you have written this book without having written Robopocalypse?

Yeah, no. That’s how every novel is. With Robopocalypse, that was my first novel. I was very focused on plot and action and I just jumped to my favorite bits. It was very visual in my head. I saw this as these amazing scenes playing out and, as a result, there’s good and bad.

It’s like you’re just eating dessert the whole time. You jump straight to all… but there’s not as much character-building as there could be. But there’s a lot of characters and there’s a lot of time, and so this is a much more mature.

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Also, I got all my cliches out of my system. Like Robopocalypse, I’ll read it again and it will be something like ‘hot as fire.’ And I’ll be like, ‘Hot as fire? Challenge yourself! Come on.’

Every author will tell you that their latest work is the best, and I’m the same.

Is there any chance of The Clockwork Dynasty coming to the big screen?

Clockwork Dynasty was picked up preemptively by Fox and they’re been keeping up with me from the beginning and they’ve been getting screenwriters, so it’s been very exciting to watch that evolve on its own over there. And to have all the Hollywood types excited about what you’re writing, it’s really fun.

The Clockwork Dynasty is now available for purchase.

Read and download the full Den of Geek SDCC Special Edition magazine here!