A Living Doll Tries to Survive a Workers' Revolution in "The Alchemy of Stone"

With a face made of porcelain, a wind-up heart, and a talent for alchemy, Mattie is hardly a typical science fictional robot. While most novels about robots focus on how these humanoid machines are stronger and smarter than humans, Ekaterina Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone (in bookstores this month) explores the vulnerability of mechanical beings who depend on humans for repairs and survival. Mattie is a rare emancipated automaton in an industrial city hovering on the edge of a workers' revolution. She's gone against the wishes of her Mechanic creator and joined the ranks of the biochemist-mystic Alchemists, selling medicines and perfumes to the city's middle class. Sedia's novel captures the surreal strangeness of a city whose power structure is about to be toppled, and her focus on Mattie's relationship with her creator allows her to grapple with the tiny power struggles inherent in all human relationships — especially those between men and women.

Mattie's creator Loharri has fashioned his automaton out of whalebone, metal, and porcelain, building the corset shape of nineteenth century fashion into the very structure of her body. Instead of sex organs, she has a keyhole in her chest. Her creator has the only key, which he uses to keep her powered up but also to bestow pleasure on her. He's also wired her to be obedient and come to him when she is distressed, and punishes her disobedience by forcing her to overheat or by removing her eyes. So the emancipated Mattie is well-aware that her freedom and even her very life are completely under Loharri's control unless he gives her the key.

While the idea of a man owning the key to Mattie's heart verges on twee, Sedia generally makes good use of the metaphor. This is no simple fairy tale about a woman wanting freedom. It's about a woman who knows she's been molded (literally) for servitude, who knows she cannot ever completely escape her programming, and who therefore throws herself into a vast and complicated alchemy project that might give others the freedom she can never have. Most of the novel is about Mattie's attempt to perfect "the alchemy of stone," a project that will prevent a race of creatures called the Gargoyles from dying of a disease that turns them to stone.

Though Mattie's chemistry experiments are fantastical, they have a kind of hyper-realistic feel to them: There are no incantations, instead there are simply repetitious experiments on stone, testing to see what elements it contains. Sedia is a plant biologist, and it shows: There is plenty of genuine biogeekery here among the spirits and mechanical dolls and mythological creatures.

As Mattie nears a breakthrough on her Gargoyle project, the city's coal miners and other proletarians stage a revolution that leaves huge parts of the city in smoking ruins. As the creation of an upper-class Mechanic, who is part of the ruling Mechanic party, Mattie finds herself in a strange position. She's a non-entity as an automaton, unable to vote and considered mere scrap by most people, and yet she has the education and income of what many of the revolutionaries would consider a bourgeois oppressor. To make matters more complicated, she's fallen in love with a man who turns out to be one of the lead revolutionaries.

Swept up in revolutionary and counter-revolutionary conspiracies, locked into a tragic battle of wills with her creator, Mattie has to figure out where her loyalties lie. And all the while she never knows for sure whether the people she's helping see her as their equal, or just as a very finely-crafted tool. There are a number of brilliant moments when Sedia completely nails Mattie's strange ambivalence, managing to tell a profound story about femininity as well as what it's like to be mechanical. Here Mattie wonders about Sebastian, the revolutionary leader who made love to her:

Was it a fetish of a mechanic enamored with intricate devices and easily prompted to express his affection the moment a device resembled a girl, or was it something else?

While it's action-packed, The Alchemy of Stone is most properly understood as a character study. Mournful and romantic, Mattie is the mechanical, wind-up doll so many gothy teenage girls imagine themselves to be. And her vulnerability haunts many adult women too: We may not have whalebone corsets embedded in our skin, but we all struggle to be perceived as something more than pretty little tools. It's that struggle that makes Mattie such a vivid, memorable, and ultimately human character.

The Alchemy of Stone