clockwork“Dear Professor Wellesley, I greatly enjoyed your recent visit from Oxford, and thank you immensely for the fine leather-bound tome in which I now write these lines.”

William Jablonsky’s novel jumped out at me one day while I was in the Science Fiction & Fantasy section of Brighton’s branch of Waterstone’s. Not for having a uniquely wonderful cover (handsome though it is) or being on sale, but for the small word ‘steampunk’ printed at the top of the spine.

Well, that and, how awesome a surname is Jablonsky?

I’ve had a passing interest in steampunk for a while, although mostly for the aesthetic side of the genre and I’ve enjoyed browsing the Internet for fashions, inventions and people that would fill a steampunk world. Given this fondness, and the fact that I’m working on something set in an alternate steampunk universe, I thought I better dive in.

The Clockwork Man is the story of automaton Ernst who is built by world-renowned clockmaker Karl Gruber (the Master) at the tail end of the nineteenth century. Although he is mechanical throughout, there is far more to him than just cogs and nickel-plating. Not only does he have a suede skin, a penchant for nice suits and is able to lift incredibly heavy weights, he is also capable of learning, having independent thoughts, and understanding people.

Ernst is very close to Herr Gruber’s daughter, Giselle, a self-taught astronomer who is something of a genius herself. Ernst is very protective over her (although he is also protective of the Master and his son, Jakob). However, something is occurring in Ernst’s wiring that seems unlikely to have been intentional, and his feelings towards Giselle may be more than he can deal with.

After a tragic incident one December, Giselle dies and Ernst, unable to forgive himself, lets himself wind down in a sort of suicide, wishing to be left to rust and break. However, this doesn’t go exactly to plan when he is wound up again and finds himself in a deeply changed world over one hundred years later, with only an unstable homeless man for company. He begins to discover the events that transpired while he has been “asleep” and with now no opportunity to make his way home, must make a new life for himself.

Featuring cameos from, among others, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, seems to cement this book in our world, but it is clearly slightly different, as technology of this level has still yet to be invented. Although the book lists itself as steampunk, the term “clockpunk” is actually far more accurate, as Ernst is powered by clockwork rather than steam, and he is the only real change between his timeline and ours. This is not a complaint, as I adore clockwork things – all those delicate cogs and wheels – and I found Ernst to be an interesting character.

It’s a great novel for contemplating the nature of the soul and what defines something as being “alive”, as while Ernst is definitely manufactured, he is far more than a machine. Interesting and thought-provoking.