io9 Talks to Ekaterina Sedia About Female Robots and Chemical Prejudice A couple of weeks ago, I told you about a haunting new novel from Ekaterina Sedia called Alchemy of Stone. It's the tale of a female robot named Mattie who works as a chemist on an alternate world where the industrial revolution is in full swing. Though the engineer who made Mattie has set her free, he refuses to give her the key that winds her mechanical heart. All Mattie wants is control of her own key and a peaceful place to work, but instead she gets caught up in a workers' revolt and her life begins to unravel. The novel was so thought-provoking that I tracked Sedia down and asked her some questions about female robots, politics, and magic. See what she said below. io9: One thing that makes Alchemy of Stone different from many other books about robots is that Mattie is more vulnerable than the humans around her. She doesn't have superpowers, and is in fact quite breakable. Why did you choose to take her character in that direction? Along those same lines, what abilities does Mattie have that humans don't? You mention at one point that her eyes are much better than humans' — are there other super-human abilities she has? Ekaterina Sedia: I noticed that in much of SF, written or visual, machines are portrayed as benign or menacing, but almost always as more powerful than people. To me it seems like a bad case of hubris, where we believe that we are capable of creating something more perfect than us, even if it will destroy us in the end. Of course, anyone who had ever owned a computer, driven a car or operated a toaster knows that it's not true — machines break a lot, redundancies fail, and basically without constant repair and upkeep, machines do not fare too well. Mattie was in part a reaction to the myth of superpowered machines (Terminator or Six Million Dollar Man or HAL) as a more realistic alternative, but also as a more interesting protagonist. Plus, I believe that we care about characters not because of their perfection but because of their vulnerabilities. Mattie cannot heal, she needs to be repaired constantly — and this is really the crux of her existence, because she wants to be able to survive on her own. Even her eyes, which were made to SEE better are still glass, breakable, and can be taken away from her at any time. As for other superpowers — she is a very good alchemist. And she is strong when working properly. That's about it. io9: Though Mattie is an outcast among humans, her life has been privileged enough that she doesn't fit in with the proletarian revolutionaries either. Do you think Mattie has a political position of her own? ES: You are absolutely right. Despite her being fairly wealthy, her wealth can be easily taken away from her, by whoever is in power — bourgeoisie or proletariat or aristocracy. Everything she has, she has because of someone else's kindness. So in that sense, she is in her own camp, simply because people around her are unlikely to accept her as anything other than an inanimate object with no rights. If you were to ask her position, I don't think she would have a very defined or politically astute one — except for believing that people ought to be allowed to live the way they see fit, and that she ought to be allowed the same. io9: Despite the fact that you set this novel in a semi-magical world, the chemistry that Mattie does feels very realistic. She does a lot of repetitive tasks to isolate elements, and generally acts as if she's working in a typical chemistry lab. Do you think there is magic in Mattie's world, or just events that don't have a scientific explanation yet? ES: Souls and the Soul-Smoker [a character who can absorb other people's souls] are the only explicitly magical things in this book; at least, this was my intent. The rest of it is based on the supposition that alchemy and the Doctrine of Signatures actually work — which are not quite magic, those are just theories that had been demonstrated wrong in our world. So they just have different laws of the natural world, which doesn't really count as magic, does it? Even the gargoyles appear, to me at least, as creatures that are different but not supernatural. io9: There were a lot of moments in this novel where it felt like Mattie's struggles to be accepted as an alchemist mirror the struggles of a lot of women who want to be accepted as scientists (especially in male-dominated fields). Were you trying to touch on those issues, or more broadly on the issue of inequality between men and women? ES: I am a scientist in real life, so yes, of course I am aware of discrimination and inequality that still exists in most scientific fields, and it colored my depiction of Mattie. At the same time, I did try to talk about inequality and oppression in their many forms — not just gender, but also class, ethnicity, and, in Mattie's case, chemical composition. Each of those is an added burden, and yes, I think women who work in male-dominated fields will be able to relate to that sense of constant swimming upstream and the simplest things being a chore when you just want to do your job and not to be challenged every time you take a breath. Most of us could do with a bit less overcoming, I think. io9: What are you working on right now? Any new novels in the works? ES: Oh my, yes. I have another one coming out in 2009, The House of Discarded Dreams. I also just finished a Victorian Gothic YA based in real-world alchemy; it is about a girl and her salamander. I am currently working on an alternate history/steampunk novel taking place in Russia just before the Crimean War, in which the British and the Ottoman Empires team up against Russian-Chinese alliance. So it's basically Russian steampunk with wuxia. And British spies. Ekaterina Sedia [official website]