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Interview: Ian Tregillis on “Come the Revolution”

Alex IrvineTell us a bit about “Come the Revolution.”

“Come the Revolution” is the story of a mechanical woman, born on a magical assembly line into a life of painful eternal servitude. Though the process that created her and her fellow mechanicals imbued them with intellects and emotions and unique personalities (all the things that make us human, in other words) they have no free will. Every moment of their lives is spent doing their human masters’ bidding, lest they suffer terrible pain.

The more she learns about the world (its cruelties and kindnesses) and her place in it, the more she yearns to change it.


What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it? 

I’ve had the good fortune to hear from readers who enjoyed the Alchemy Wars books. Once in a while, when people tell me they’ve enjoyed that series, they express a hope that I’ll do more with that world. I don’t know if I’ll write more books in that world, but there is plenty of room for stories. I liked the freedom of telling a story that was tangentially related to the novels — meaning I wouldn’t have to invent a world and its rules all over again — while simultaneously exploring a new space.


Can you tell us about any of the research you may have done for “Come the Revolution?”

Backing up a bit… when I sat down to write the Alchemy Wars trilogy, I posited a massive change to history around the year 1675 or so. The invention of the Clakker — a tireless, superhuman clockwork slave eternally animated by alchemical magic — would have altered European history (and, eventually, world history) not unlike the way various meteoric impacts have altered life on Earth. As this particular meteor would have smacked Europe in the midst of a war between several powers including Catholic France and the Calvinist Netherlands, I imagined the emergence of Clakker technology would have influenced not only warfare and the fate of nations (fasten blades to your Clakker’s arms and you effectively have a clockwork Terminator) but also religion, the subsequent evolution of philosophical thinking, and even the development of other technologies. (Why bother to invent a steam engine when you can just snap your fingers and say, “Hey, you, go turn that crank 24 hours a day for the next 50 years”?)

The upshot of all this hypothesizing was that I had to give myself a crash course on the state of Catholicism and Calvinism in the late 17th century. In particular, I tried to get a handle on how various groups might have viewed questions of predestination, free will, and even the existence of the soul, pre- and post-Clakker. I also tried to learn a little bit about the philosophies of Descartes and Spinoza, as these became touchstones for several debates that occur over the course of the trilogy.

This was challenging. I am neither a philosopher nor a historian. (Yet I have a bad habit of formulating story ideas that play with history. Perhaps someday I’ll stop doing this to myself.)

By the time I sat down to write “Come the Revolution,” my large-scale historical interpolations (good or bad) were already locked down. (Once it’s published, it becomes canon, whether you want it to or not.)  So unlike the novels, this novella required little to no “true-historical” research — it takes place firmly in that radically altered Europe. Instead, I had to research the alternate history I’d devised.

Several years had passed between when I wrapped up the trilogy and when I started “Come the Revolution.” So… I’d forgotten a few details. Also, when I cracked open my notes, I found I had somehow managed to never establish a solid timeline for many of the events that took place prior to the trilogy and which are mentioned in passing throughout the books. I was honestly a bit shocked — it’s really unlike me to play things by ear.

I ended up skimming through the books, and my disappointingly scant notes, to infer a timeline. In order to make “Come the Revolution” consistent with the novels, I had to place the forging of poor Maklobellathistrogantus closer to the time of Christiaan Huygens (inventor of the Clakker!) than I’d originally intended. In fact, for a short while I worried that I wouldn’t be able to shoehorn her origin story into the continuity. But I managed to squeeze her in. I think.


Was there any aspect of this story you found difficult to write?

Clakkers can be extremely challenging characters to write. That was true when I started chapter one of The Mechanical, and it was still just as true three books later when I typed the final sentence of The Liberation.

When viewed from exterior points of view — say, through their leaseholders’ eyes — they’re frequently seen as little more than walking furniture. Though they have emotions and desires and personalities, the Clakkers tend to hide this from their makers. So when interfacing with humans they necessarily present a very sterile, and of course servile, façade. They do this out of self-preservation, of course, but it makes them boring… unless you happen to be in the point of view of a rare human who knows Clakkers are more than they appear. But those folks are rare.

It doesn’t get much easier when writing from inside a Clakker’s point of view. How do you write an compelling character who has no free will?  A character who has no free will and who dares not show the slightest hint of shrugging under that yoke?

They’re heart and soul (pun intended) of the universe presented in “Come the Revolution.” But they’re tricky. Mab was no different. Even though I knew who she was in the instant she’s first activated in the Forge, and who she would later become, the constraints on her made it a challenge to capture that evolution in a meaningful, compelling way.


Can you tell us anything about your writing process for this story?

In terms of Mab’s character arc, I had to work backward a little bit, which is not how I usually do things. Starting out, I knew exactly who and what Mab would be by the end of the story, but not how she got there. I knew a few little things when I created the character, but I’d never gone to the trouble of fleshing them out.

So I spent some time contemplating her long journey from that first moment of consciousness in the Forge to the Mab I already knew. I thought about the kinds of experiences that would resonate with her personality and sculpt her. Although Clakkers are potentially very long-lived, the story takes place over just a few decades, so it’s a story about Mab growing from infancy to full adulthood, much like a human being. How does a happy and curious child, just beginning to learn about the world, turn into an angry dangerous adult?


Why do you write?

I ask myself that question all the time. Very frequently in the past couple of years, as a matter of fact, because when I started work on “Come the Revolution,” I was just emerging from a years-long, burnout-fueled writing hiatus. During that time off, I thought long and hard about my relationship to writing, what function it served in my life, and whether I wanted to keep doing it.

In the end, I arrived at the same answer I would have given you if you’d asked me this question ten years ago. I write for the feeling of personal achievement. When I finish a project, whether it’s a short story or a novella or a trilogy, I feel proud of myself for putting the work in. Even things that never sell and never see publication give me a sense of satisfaction. Perhaps not always satisfaction with the work itself (what writer is ever satisfied with their work?) but satisfaction that I achieved something — even if that achievement is simply
following the project through from beginning to end. I enjoy being able to say, “I created this.” I started writing at a time in my life when I feared I might stagnate if I didn’t give myself new long-term goals. I’ve been very fortunate to have books and stories published. For me, that never detracts from the desire to achieve something new — to write another book, to sell another story. It’s not like climbing Mount Everest and then saying, “Well, there’s nothing left to conquer.”


What are you working on now?

When the burnout overcame me a few years ago, I had several unfinished stories in the hopper. Most of these were barely begun, just a few pages at most, but they were constantly in the back of my mind. When I was able to pick up writing again, I systematically worked my way through that backlog. “Come the Revolution” was the first of these unfinished stories. The next was a story called “When God Sits in Your Lap” that is forthcoming in Asimov’s September/October issue. The next story after that was a novella written for the Wild Cards shared universe, which has sold and will appear in the world someday. In the course of finishing off those stories, several new ideas presented themselves to me, so I had to tackle those stories, too. I’ve been more productive with short fiction recently than I had been in the previous decade.

I’ve also returned to some fairly extensive research I undertook as prep work for a novel. I don’t know if I’ll finish that novel. Even if I do, I don’t know if it will see publication. But like those unfinished stories, it will keep nagging at me until I do something about it.


“Come the Revolution” appears in the March/April 2020 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here:

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Ian Tregillis’s website:


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