WEEK 9: Sedia’s “The Alchemy of Stone” (II)

This is an open thread on Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone (2008). You do not need to have finished the novel to participate in this thread, but the entire novel is now fair game for discussion. This thread will remain open a week longer than usual: posts will be accepted until 9pm on Monday, November 14.

30 thoughts on “WEEK 9: Sedia’s “The Alchemy of Stone” (II)

  1. Today in class, we considered Ada Byron’s Modus as a program capable — at least in theory — of using a sequence of mathematical algorithms to predict the likelihood of future events. In The Alchemy of Stone, we encounter a very similar trope. On pages 103-104, Loharri reveals to Mattie that he is spearheading the Mechanics’ latest project — “a rational machine for figuring out the future” (104).

    Compare and contrast the Calculator to the analytical engines we encountered in The Difference Engine. You may wish to focus on the scene I’ve just mentioned (on pages 103-104), on the later scene in which Mattie encounters the Calculator for the first time (on pages 177-179), or any other moment in the text that you think is important.

    How are these two machines “made for analysis” similar? How are they different? What stands out to you as significant about how each one is represented — and what are some of the broader implications of the choices Sedia has made in representing the Calculator? In other words, how might reading these two texts one after the other reveal something you hadn’t noticed before in either one?


    1. David Poeung

      On page 104 of Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone, the character Loharri speaks of the mechanics’ new invention, the Calculator, a machine that takes facts as input to figure out the future. This machine is in many ways similar to and different from the Modus of the future in William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine. The first similarity between the two is their ability to predict events when given sufficient variables. However, they differ in terms of their capabilities. The Modus is shown by the end of the story to be nearly omniscient, capable of accessing and rendering the thoughts of humans long since dead to piece together their stories. On the other hand, Mattie insists that it would be impossible to feed the Calculator all the information it needs, since no one would know everything. Thus, The Different Engine emphasizes the unlimited power of computation, while The Alchemy of Stone focuses on its limitations. The second feature the two machines share is that they exist as ‘minds without a body’. In The Difference Engine, this is played positively, as it allows the Modus to access and process nearly infinite information from around the world, while in the Alchemy of Stone, the fact that the Calculator does not appear physically like an automaton is portrayed negatively and creates unease in Mattie. This plays into the two machines’ biggest difference, their capacity for self-awareness. By the end of The Difference Engine, the Modus seems to gain self-awareness and becomes a true intelligence that can identify itself as a being. The Modus appears to have free will and is capable of thinking and acting for itself. The Calculator on the other hand, unlike Mattie, is never shown to be anything more than a machine for analysis. It has no free will. It is purely a machine, a slave, that follows instructions and seems to only exist to serve its purpose. Just like all the other mindless automatons that Mattie encounters. Thus, when you read both texts one after the other, you come to realize that The Difference Engine tends to have a positive outlook on the future and power of computation, while The Alchemy of Stone generally has a pessimistic outlook on it.

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  2. James.

    Both these stories, despite the various social issues that each narrative contains, are similar in that they contain technologies that have the potential for unsettling and widespread change in their respective literary societies. The Modus has the ability to concentrate the power of predictability in the hands of one person and make said person independent of chance. The Calculator has the same potential for its owners. I realize for the first time that both novels contain, to differential degrees, individuals pursuing power that threatens the stability of the existing social systems. Both novels are about societal disturbances that are instigated by revolutionary technologies.


  3. Andrea Williamson

    In my reading of the first 100 pages of the Alchemy of Stone, the one significant aspect that I found interesting for discussion was the tension between the organic and the inorganic, and the implications of this strain. In this society, I there is a clear dichotomy between the alchemists and the mechanics. The alchemists who seek to control and manipulate the Earth’s organic substances are pitted against the mechanics who create machines using steam and technology in a political battle. In addition to this, through the use of Mattie, the novel explores the implications of being an artificial intelligence in an carbon-based world, and the internal struggle of an individual who is made of both organic and inorganic parts. To me, the novel is attempting to explore the limitations of both humans and machines, and arguing that the organic and inorganic work most effectively when in harmony. The novel uses Mattie, her pursuit of alchemy, and her quest for autonomy as a machine in a human world, as an expression of this idea. Do you agree that the novel is seeking to understand or expand upon these thoughts or did you arrive at a different conclusion in your readings? If so, what was it and why?

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    1. Brittany Groebmair

      When considering the thought that the novel seems to suggest that the “organic” and the “inorganic” work best in harmony, I would say that I definitely agree. Reflecting on what I have read so far, Mattie, a machine that displays certain human qualities, presents a “best of both worlds” concept in The Alchemy of Stone. She is efficient and physically artificial like machines, yet is like humans in the sense that she has desires, emotions and feelings, and has the ability to grow in knowledge. As a automaton, this makes her unlike many in the society that surrounds her; she has unique qualities that enable her to see her surroundings in ways that simpler beings cannot, which in turn allows her to pursue a life that is unconventional (learning alchemy despite the fact that she is a machine). In my opinion, Mattie’s idealistic and balanced character supports the idea that the “organic” and the “inorganic” work well when in harmony. Alternatively, when these dimensions are pinned against one another, there are consequences and lack of cohesion between the two factions of the Mechanics and the Alchemists. Overall, I agree with your claim Andrea! There are various elements within The Alchemy of Stone that suggest the organic and the artificial, while different and contrasting, can be beneficial when cohesively working in harmony.

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  4. Blandon Tang

    Throughout Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone Mattie is very clearly shown as an automaton. Sedia often describes how Mattie’s gears whirl and click as she moves as well as many other mechanical features of an Automaton. Yet despite this, Mattie views herself as not just a human, but as a woman. When she encounters Iolanda she is surprised and taken aback when Iolanda questions whether Mattie sees herself as a woman or not. Additionally, after meeting with the Soul-Smoker, Mattie makes a mental note to visit him again as he was full of information and Mattie “was not a woman to miss her chances” (35).

    Despite all the descriptors of Mattie’s mechanical body, she is characterized as a human character, one that can be empathized with. How does Ekaterina Sedia define what makes one human or not? Is there a particular trait present or is there an entire set of qualities to which the definition of human can be applied? How then do the servile automatons compare in humanistic characteristics to Mattie?

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  5. Kate Anderson

    In my reading of The Alchemy of Stone, the Calculator appears to be merely a human attempt to make life easier. Loharri explains that it’s meant to create judgments from a scenario, to eliminate the human need to make decisions. However, it’s just a tool. Loharri actually says “We’ll just tell it everything” (104), implying that the machine is merely a mouthpiece for the people in power. The engine in The Difference Engine develops, is allowed to grow, comes to a realization of self. The Calculator, on the other hand, appears much less free. It’s completely under other people’s control, often glitches, and, all in all, is less sophisticated and less thought out. It’s described as ugly, and disappointing, especially to Mattie. I’ve got two thoughts on the Calculator. On one hand, the entire book is smothered in a feeling of hopelessness, and I actually felt sorry for the Calculator as much as I did for Mattie. I thought that since the Calculator is so early in it’s development, that it could go in a similar direction as the Analytical Engine if given enough time. On the other hand, I also got a sense that Mattie could also have become the Calculator. She’s a mix of human and machine, with free thought and a mechanical mind. On page 178, she says that she “expected an intelligent automaton that looked like her.” I believe Loharri and his crew could have made an automaton to complete their requirements, but their fixation on human superiority and power over machines made them create a crude variation of their idea. As soon as I got to this part in the book, I was convinced that the ending would have something to do with Mattie becoming a kind of Calculator, but it never did. It would have been a fantastic ending: the perfect mix of human and machine, finally finding her deserved place in a society that clearly needs an unbiased form of leadership. Instead, she’s left powerless, without her key, in the ruins of her city. Did anyone else have this perspective? Was Mattie meant to be the Calculator? What other endings did you expect?

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    1. Joshua Simpson

      I find this to be a very interesting perspective on The Alchemy of Stone and question if Mattie does not in fact become the Calculator in the end. The purpose of the Calculator, as we discover, was to aid in uncovering who is responsible for the recent acts of terror and to tell the people, mainly the engineers, what they should do next. To this Mattie remarks that “You don’t know everything . . . No one does.” (104), yet, of all the characters, it is Mattie herself who almost does seem to know everything. She is an alchemist and has access to all of their information, Loharri seems to hold very little from her so she has access to everything the engineers know, she talks to Ilmarekh and has access to every soul within him, she learns blood alchemy from Niobe and talks with the gargoyles, hearing their tales of the past. Mattie also finds herself present for almost every major event within the city,or she is at least able to quickly learn of it from many sources. Thus, Mattie herself may be seen as the Calculator. Even Loharri’s last words “Yes it is.” (289) after Niobe tells Mattie that the chaos was not her fault, support this, for what was the purpose of the Calculator if not to guide the future, thereby ensuring every outcome to be a product of its direction or, its fault. Furthermore, It is Mattie who frees the gargoyles from their connection to the stone. It is she who uncovers the truth about something and provides a solution for it, the same function the Calculator is meant to provide. Finally, the most compelling evidence that Mattie was truly the Calculator, arrives in the epilogue where the gargoyles keep her within the remains of the Calculator. Of all of the places they could keep her they chose the remains of the Calculator. In a way she becomes its heart, reminiscent of the emotion and life she believed most simple automatons to be missing. She symbolises what the Calculator was missing to be whole and what she had, a heart, emotion mixed with logic, organic and mechanical as one. This is why, I think, she must be left powerless in the end, and why only the gargoyles and Sebastian visit her. We read that Mattie “gave one last look at the smouldering ruins and the lone figure of Niobe, to the prostrate form of Loharri, and walked east.” (291. The “smouldering ruins” represent the divided and destroyed city, “the lone figure of Niobe” represents the alchemists, tolerating one another but never really bonding or coming together and “the prostrate form of Loharri” representing the inability of the engineers to see beyond themselves, even to their death. No group, nor the city itself would be ready to accept such a being as Mattie, a unification of natural and mechanical. Only the gargoyles and Sebastian have understood this unification and thus only they visit and care for Mattie, while the city forgets about the Calculator and the namesake she lies within.

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  6. Maddy Robinson

    In The Alchemy of Stone, Mattie is represented as something between human and mechanic, able to think and feel, but whether she qualifies as ‘human’ remains a question poised to the readers. One of the common traits often applied to humans is the ability to love another, and whether or not Mattie can love becomes a theme in the book.
    Early on, she describes Iolanda as “beautiful, with her shining dark curls cascading onto her full shoulders and chest” (18), a rather romantic portrait. Her description of creating potions is also quite provocative – she describes mixing ingredients into a “sensual embrace” (35), and the nearby bookstore had books she “lusted after” (52). She claims “she felt closer to Niobe than anyone else” (116) and the two of them hold hands later in the novel (147). Iolanda brushes her hair, and Mattie notes her “soft flesh” (271). Mattie often describes the physical beauty of her two female companions, and even becomes jealous of their human bond (174).
    Due to all of this, I was personally surprised when the author introduced Sebastian as a love interest, as the novel seemed to foreshadow that Mattie would ultimately realize she loved one of the ladies (Niobe?). Did Ekaterina Sedia do this on purpose, to prove a point about Mattie’s warped understanding of love after all her time with Loharri, or was it to show something about her society? Did anyone else pick upon these vibes, or did they simply appear ‘friendly’?

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    1. I didn’t read Sedia’s “The Alchemy of Stone” as a possible LGBTQ piece of literature, mostly because I thought that the author might choose in this case to make the novel focus less on love interests and more on human-to-non-human interactions.
      While I understand one of the primary themes in the novel is love for an automaton, and what that means, I was reading it more from the perspective of companionship and friendship, as opposed to romance.
      As a result I thought that the detailed descriptions of the ladies were more just a way for Sedia to make the reader understand how perceptive Mattie is, and how thoroughly she notices peoples’ traits and characteristics. Additionally, the details give the reader clues about the importance of that character in the novel, and how important that character will be as a friend / companion to Mattie.

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  7. Song Dayoung

    The alchemy of stone by Ekaterina Sedia is the most ‘steampunk’ work that I’ve read in our courses. That’s not only because its background and the development of the story, but also its fantastic and magical settings of character. The protagonist Mattie is an automaton that made by a mechanic and becomes an alchemist as well. In my opinion, alchemists who create a new existence with a variety of objects can be likened to human, yet mechanics who create automatons with different technologies can be likened to machinery. Mattie is the intersection of two main themes of this book : alchemy and machine. Alchemy may not sound like a steampunk thing. Alchemy was a way that has made Mattie make her own living without Loharri her master. I think, after she learned alchemy by Mistress Ogdela, became more like human being in some way. Alchemy is described as more magical thing in the book. (and fantasy and magic are the ingredients of steampunk as well) For example, the book tells about the ‘perfume causes regret’ and ‘soul smoker.’ Isn’t it special that an automaton be an alchemist?

    At the page 47, Mattie “felt hurt”, and “violated” because Loharri “exposed her heart for all to see, he wound her up with the key around his neck right in front of his friends.” Mattie knows the feeling “shame”. She also could feel his ‘love touching.’ Mattie has just same feeling as human even she is an automaton. In the page 49, when Iolanda said “you are made mostly of metal,” Mattie said “”what does it have to do with feelings?” It seems that Mattie doesn’t understand what the relationship is between her metal body and her feeling, and think herself as a human. But when Mattie saw automatons which were described by her as slaves because they don’t have any feelings but used by humans. Therefore, Mattie is an emancipated automaton who has feelings and who is considered as ‘living’ creature, and it reminded me about the description of the article ‘what then, is steampunk?’ in the steampunk magazine. Can the ‘alchemist automaton’ be a kind of ‘magical existence’? And can the ‘living machine’ like Mattie be the best example of steampunk?

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    1. Song Dayoung

      But when Mattie saw automatons which were described by her as slaves because they don’t have any feelings but used by humans. → Matiie described automatons in the hall as slaves because they don’t have any feelings but used by humans.

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  8. The thing I found interesting about the setting of The Alchemy of Stone was that, despite this city seeming far more advanced than our own modern society or the world of The Difference Engine, their first “computer” is a primitive engine that seems paradoxically simple and barbaric in a world where a mechanical creature like Mattie walks around freely. In many ways, Mattie is far more advanced and undoubtedly more impressive than The Calculator, and is inherently capable of doing what the titular machine of The Difference Engine spent the whole novel working towards: understanding humanity. Loharri created a self-aware machine that identifies itself as a person, understands its own capabilities and psyche, long before the precursor to the computer was conceived. Meanwhile, The Difference Engine is essentially a whole novel’s worth of a machine extrapolating information in an attempt to accomplish the same state of being. It’s almost illogical that the world of The Alchemy of Stone is making the same technological leaps we saw in The Difference Engine, but in reverse. Whereas one began with a humble calculator and evolved into a device capable of analyzing the human spirit and recognizing itself, The Alchemy of Stone begins with a machine that is almost indistinguishable from a human and then works towards the Calculator. Given this backwards path of mechanical evolution, it’s no wonder that Mattie is so disappointed by the Calculator’s crudeness – it’s like a human looking at the primordial slime their first ancestors crawled from.

    I’m curious about how others feel about these opposite technological paths of development. On the one hand, Mattie’s inherent sentience means that she can take an active role in the events of her story and react to the barbaric things unfolding before her, but at the cost of any realistic imitation of technological development. On the other hand, The Difference Engine’s slow crawl towards Singularity is a much more impressive feat and climax (in my opinion), but the reflective nature of its narration means it cannot affect the course of its own story, removing its agency.

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  9. Emily McKay

    In the Alchemy of Stone, I find the gargoyles as an interesting part of the story. I think there relationship with the city is really important although it seems like the people of the city think otherwise. The gargoyles seem to being the power behind the city. It is said in the novel that the city would not exist without them, yet the people of the city don’t act with respect towards them. This is evident in chapter five when the palace is blown up. The palace is the gargoyles home and some people, at this point it is unclear who, feel that there existence is unneeded. I also find the relationship that the alchemists and the mechanics seem to put on the gargoyles and the Duke. The mechanics especially don’t like the relationship between the Duke and the Gargoyles. I wonder why these gargoyles are such an important characters in this book? How do the gargoyles relate to the steampunk genre of the book? Is the book really considered steampunk when the main points and conversations are on politics rather then technological impacts? Yes the mechanics being the head of the government, and there their technologies helping run the city do seem to be steampunk, but with such a highlight on political events in this book is it really steampunk through and through?

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    1. Stacey Haviland-Janzen

      I also had quite a few questions regarding the gargoyles when I was reading Alchemy of Stone. Even after thinking about them for some time, I still can’t really find a way to reconcile their existence with the rest of the novel and its steampunk nature. The gargoyles themselves are fantastical creatures—it seems that no one really created them (perhaps some alchemy was used long ago but we never learn of it if that’s true) and they have no real relationship to either the alchemists or the mechanics. Rather, they have a relationship with Mattie—an automaton that is tied to the mechanics through the very nature of her existence, yet who is also an alchemist. The gargoyles seemed to exist in this strange space of fantasy that, as you mention, seem to interact more with the political themes of the novel rather than the steampunk themes. Perhaps they reflect Mattie herself—her desire to be human, or at least, her wish to be treated like a human, may reflect the gargoyle’s own desire to change themselves.

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  10. Bailey Toth

    Through my reading of “The Alchemy of Stone”, I was very surprised to find that Mattie’s explanation to Iolanda based on her understanding of her gender is described as being built into her physical attributes and “as much as part of [her] as [her] eyes”, encouraged by Iolanda’s question to Mattie that if she changed her clothing, it would effect her view of her own gender. It makes you consider that Loharri’s designs of Matti gave her no room to make personal decisions (such as gender) even though she contains the means to personal thought, cornering her to think that because of the clothes built into her, she cannot choose anything but to be a woman. Ekaterina Sedia puts emphasis on this scene and not for no reason, the author wants us to question how much of Mattie’s decisions are based on her ability to choose or how much of her has been built-in.
    How many of Mattie’s opinions and views are effected by how she was created or what she is? Why does she so often refer to herself as a woman and most importantly as human? What do you think makes Mattie different from the other automatons and how does that effect how we view the world that Ekaterina Sedia has built?

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  11. Oliver Kingsley

    I find that whilst both, The Difference Engine and Alchemy of Stone, deal with depicting a vastly superior machine, they both handle it in very contrasting ways.

    I found it interesting in class when we talked about the possible sexist passage on Ada Byron’s Modus. It seemed that the language was very fearful about the Modus’s possibilities and the way in which it could alter the world. Alchemy of Stone, on the other hand, felt much less concerned about what a machine like that could do. In fact, Mattie’s response to hearing the machine’s description leads her to state “wouldn’t its answer change depending on what you told it?” (104). This statement, rather than become fearful and frightened at its power, questions the reliability of the machine. Mattie is able to point out many possible flaws aimed at the machine’s logic and ultimately can make the reader less convinced about its dangerousness. I felt that unlike Alchemy of Stone, The Difference Engine was never really so much concerned with the Modus’s ability to be questioned. It is almost assumed that it is already working and changing the world as it is.

    What did everyone else think?

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  12. Monique D

    What I found really interesting about the Alchemy of stone was how realistic the author portray the concepts of emotion and love. While there is some mystery to how much Mattie can truly feel verses what is she programed to feel? For example Loharri programs her to be able to feel pain. However, I feel like the author portrays the different dynamics of emotional relationships. If you look at Mattie and how she acts and wants to protect Sebastian we see that as an act of love. However contrastingly we can sometime equate feelings of comfort and companionship to romantic feelings – this can be seen at times through the thoughts Mattie has about what she was used for by Loharri. It arguably seems he made her to act as a companion for him, otherwise why would he have given her the ability to think and feel? But then we question if his motives are not driven by love and more for a thirst for power and control (making sure that Mattie does not survive without him can be argued more on the need for power and control). Is that what Loharri perceives as love? The reason this strikes me as interesting is because how many times do we see in western society people confuse the concepts of love and power.

    Another interesting aspect is that for Mattie her gender is built in to her. We see this through her first initial conversation with Iolanda and Mattie confesses that being a girl is ingrained in her and she wishes to be thought as one AND respected as one. We also see that the concept of what makes someone human-like remains in their heartbeat. We see this through the gargoyles when they are observing Mattie: “where a clockwork heart is ticking along steadily, and we cannot help but feel resentful of the sound and–by extension–of her, the sound of time falling away grain by grain” (2). The idea here is that to be human like you require a heartbeat with the potential to die. This is what the gargoyles are seeking out and in this moment they view the idea of being human-like through the sight of Mattie. To them she doesn’t only represent a savior but a model of human behaviors. As readers we question Mattie’s humanity throughout the novel but the Gargoyles don’t question her similarities to humanity.

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  13. Jane Wishart

    The Alchemy of Stone and The Difference Engine are two novels that represent steampunk in very different ways, all while falling into the same genre category. I have found that within the two books, the concept of the passing of time and the prediction of the future is all very interesting through their own unique interpretations. How Gibson, Sterling, and Sedia have chosen to include the ever changeable conception of time allows readers to imagine a world in which the passage of future, past, and present are represented as something that in theory can be easily manipulated. I have just read Spectres of Marx, a deconstruction theory on Marxism and the illusive “other”. I’d like to attempt to relate this theory to how time has become manipulated through the devices of steampunk literature.
    For the sake of brevity, I will explain the theory of the Specter and The Other within the terms of my still new knowledge of the matter. Derrida states “that the future can only be for ghosts”, which at first glance does not make much sense. But now by applying the ideas from the Calculator and the Difference Engine it can make a little more sense when we realize that these devices are merely concepts of manipulating time. They are fragments based on the idea of what the future brings, not entirely based in reality since the future cannot be realistically predicted. Thus making it an imaginary, to be haunted by the ideas of steampunk ideology – or a spectre.
    All the while, these two novels are rooted in Victorian England, and Ayona (a very close reflection of England, yet with the addition of gargoyles and animatrons) which are retelling the passage of time through a lense of accelerated technological progress. These are stories about a reimagined past in which characters strive to understand the future, that would in turn be reimagined since the past has been altered from our reality. Derrida argues that by looking to the past, we are asking to be haunted. Of course, Mr. Derrida is speaking of Marxism and the theories it brings along with it. I argue that his points have relevance outside of Marxism, and can simply be applied to most conceptualizations of time. These two novels demonstrate how time inverts on itself and revisits its past moments without physically situating itself in them. The novels have carved out a space that opens itself up to what is to come (the concept of the altered future/The Spectre). This altered future is made up of the past Victorian steampunk influence and is reformulated in a way of the future.

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    1. Greg Bevington

      These are interesting thoughts, and I agree that Derrida’s “haunting” insight extends past Marxism. I looked at the wikipedia summary of his book you cite, and it appears that some of it is to do with (some of) the worlds misdirected optimism following the fall of the USSR. Human suffering continues on as grand a scale as ever at the time of Derrida’s writing (1993) – the fall of the Soviet Union had not marked the rise of any utopian world order (an odd way for anyone to think of it, the USSR being perhaps a failed attempt at heaven on earth itself). Both of the books we read in class seem to me to represent a society where women, despite technological progress, remain subservient to men (Mattie subject to Lohari’s mechanical power over her, and Sybil’s view of herself through the lens of patriarchy). As in Derrida, one celebrated event is no panacea. In The Alchemy of Stone, the Calculator has only the past and the arbitration of it’s users to see the future; so, whatever future it displays will be haunted. There is always too much missing from the Calculators input: both a diversity of perspective, and the knowledge of what the given perspective itself amounts to (what kind of values inform the information being input? what do those who input the information hope for, and how does it colour the perspective the input represents?).

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  14. Barbara Baker

    Free Will in the Alchemy of Stone

    One of the most interesting themes brought forth in the Alchemy of Stone is the discussion of free will. To Mattie, autonomy is of the greatest concern and trumps well-being in importance.

    This attitude becomes clear in Mattie’s sense of injustice regarding the unthinking automatons. Even though Mattie knows that if they were able to think they would “be miserable with their lives of servitude” Mattie believes that at least “the choice of misery” is better than no choice at all (43). Interestingly, Mattie relates the negation of free will of these automatons to animal rights by stating “it was as if they managed to create a sheep that didn’t mind being slaughtered” (44). By not giving the automatons a chance to choose, the mechanics have essentially removed any “possibility of them questioning if it was wrong” (44).

    Mattie’s own actions also clearly indicate her personal desire for freedom over comfort. She leaves the protection Loharri provides in order to pursue her own desires. She would rather live in a little apartment that is hers than in Loharri’s big house in which she feels imprisoned. She cannot reconcile the care Loharri has showed her with him still being her creator (37). In some of her contemplations she states, “She had to see him subjected to another’s will – maybe then he would finally understand what it was like, and would stop being angry with her” (272). Her need for freedom over safety is clear at her utter discomfort when Loharri tells her “If anyone ever hassles you…just tell them you’re mine. Damn your pride” (137).

    Mattie’s prioritizing of freedom over well-being is highlighted explicitly at the end of the novel by Ilonda. She states, “I think maybe this is what we have in common, the desire to take one’s life into one’s own hands, even if it doesn’t work and one is worse off in the end” (273). Mattie agrees and thinks, “She would be better off if she stayed with Loharri and never angered him” (273). However, even though she acknowledges this Mattie makes no attempts to submit to Loharri to save her life and continues to try and get her key from him. It is clear that Mattie rather die than give up her freedom.

    What I found interesting about Mattie’s struggle is that it reminded me of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Like the automatons, the lower castes of Huxley’s society are content in their servitude because they do not possess the critical thinking skills to think otherwise. The Alpha’s of Huxley’s society, like the mechanics, believe that this is preferable as there will then be no uprisings and everyone is happy. Like in the Alchemy of Stone these lower castes never know better. Like Mattie, John would rather die than be subjected to such a fate.

    Clearly, this discussion of free will is important as it reverberates through literature. For instance, I find these discussions of “sub-human” freewill interesting for the topical discussions of animal rights? Are animals, like the automatons, subject to a miserable fate just because they do not have the compression skills to fight back? For those who believe this sort of order over animals is natural due to our superior intellect. Is it still natural when people artificially create a similar situation?

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    1. Callum McCormack

      I think this question will become increasingly important as AI in the real world continues to develop. I think, much like the mechanics in The Alchemy of Stone, humans will do all they can to remain in control of their environment. That means keeping all life forms, whether intelligent or not, under scrutiny and control. I don’t think this has anything to do with a natural order. I think it’s more or less just about human fear. If the automatons had choice it would lead to questioning, and they might not like the answers.

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  15. Anthony Hawboldt

    While it’s easier to write off the Analytical Engines from The Difference Engine and the Calculator from The Alchemy of Stone as more or less identical, there’s a key difference. In The Difference Engine, the Analytical Engines are tools. They’re used for different reasons by different people, but they remain a tool. It’s not until the very end of the story’s timeline that they actually achieve sentience (and even then, it’s not truly stated, only implied). The Alchemy of Stone takes a different approach. While their analog to the Analytical Engine is only being created when Mattie first encounters it. However, automaton technology is already mostly sentient in its capacity for learning and interaction. There’s a Terminator-like aspect to consider. Would a machine that observes and analyzes automaton patterns of behavior become jealous of their freedom of action and mobility? It’s not a stretch to assume that the Calculator would be built from similar principles to automatons, since both technologies draw from the body of knowledge of the Mechanics. Analytical Engines cannot express this same sentiment in The Difference Engine, which means that the fallout from their misuse is the ultimate responsibility of their user. However, for The Alchemy of Stone, what’s the ethical ramifications from using a machine that’s theoretically capable of computing and executing a plan for the future that results in the destruction of its own creator?

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  16. While it’s easier to write off the Analytical Engines from The Difference Engine and the Calculator from The Alchemy of Stone as more or less identical, there’s a key difference. In The Difference Engine, the Analytical Engines are tools. They’re used for different reasons by different people, but they remain a tool. It’s not until the very end of the story’s timeline that they actually achieve sentience (and even then, it’s not truly stated, only implied). The Alchemy of Stone takes a different approach. While their analog to the Analytical Engine is only being created when Mattie first encounters it. However, automaton technology is already mostly sentient in its capacity for learning and interaction. There’s a Terminator-like aspect to consider. Would a machine that observes and analyzes automaton patterns of behavior become jealous of their freedom of action and mobility? It’s not a stretch to assume that the Calculator would be built from similar principles to automatons, since both technologies draw from the body of knowledge of the Mechanics. Analytical Engines cannot express this same sentiment in The Difference Engine, which means that the fallout from their misuse is the ultimate responsibility of their user. However, for The Alchemy of Stone, what’s the ethical ramifications from using a machine that’s theoretically capable of computing and executing a plan for the future that results in the destruction of its own creator?

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  17. In Sedia’s Alchemy of Stone, the Gargoyles go through a character growth of their own, as they transform form meek creatures, uninvolved in politics or anything else really, who are only driven by their desire for a less bleak ending.

    However, as the book progresses, the gargoyles become more active, and participate more in other’s affairs, even if it is only because it will serve their end goal.

    Are there any specific examples of this that you can find in the book, comparing a scene from the beginning to a scene later on? What differences do you notice about these differences in activity? Specifically, who is the subject, and who/what are the objects being acted upon?

    And finally, how could this change in the gargoyles’ behaviour be linked back to our own reality? What could it be a metaphor for?

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  18. Jeremy Lehn

    As I read The Alchemy of Stone, my thoughts were continually brought back to the character of Loharri, and to be perfectly honest, I can’t help but feel that he is tremendously misunderstood, both by Mattie and by the audience through her eyes. He is not an abusive man – at least, not abusive in any way that would be permanently scarring for a mechanical being – and Mattie herself remarks about how he is “always forgiving” (125) and “never [makes] her feel like she [doesn’t] belong” (174), yet she harbors so much resentment for him because her key is the one thing she wants, and the one thing he is unwilling to give her, leading to a vicious cycle wherein she becomes ever more desperate to leave him and he becomes ever more reluctant to allow her to do so. It’s easy to hate him for designing Mattie to “halt and catch fire”, so to speak, when she ignores to urge to come to him, but I believe that, at his core, Loharri is a sympathetic character, because any father can relate to his situation. He fears that his daughter, “the only worthwhile thing [he’s] ever done” (119), will one day no longer need him the way he needs her, and this fear drives a wedge between them, which then colors Mattie’s interactions with all of the other mechanics, and even men in general, because she is naturally inclined to draw comparisons. Notice, for example, how she looks at the caterpillars and the Calculator with bold, emotionally-charged words like “monster” (99) and “angry” (179). From this, we can glean that Mattie turns to alchemy not simply to separate herself from Loharri, but because she suffers from a prejudice of her own: The belief that, like her key, anything made by Mechanics must be in some way designed to take her freedom.

    Someone else, above, noted that they were surprised that Mattie finds herself attracted to a man, and a Mechanic, at that, rather than one of the women, with whom she has more in common, but I must instead ask the question, why does Mattie need to feel attraction at all? I saw no evidence to suggest that she might have feelings of that sort for Sebastian, and her haste to make love to him implies that any feelings that might seem to be there are forced. There is also the impact on the story structure to consider: Having her fall in love with a Mechanic does not seem to change anything about her views on them in general, nor does it develop her character by helping her to reconcile with Loharri or forgive him for being selfish in building her. In fact, it feels shoehorned in, as if it was only written as a patronizing afterthought to appease those who might sympathize with the Mechanics’ viewpoints and subsequently become offended by the unflattering way they are portrayed (rather like a lot of women in fiction, now that I think about it). What are your thoughts on this? Do you believe Sebastian’s appearance as a love interest is necessary? Does it work? How else might we compare and contrast Sebastian with Loharri, or interpret the love triangle of sorts which Mattie shares with them?

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  19. Hannah Tennant

    I think the difference between the responses to artificial intelligence in The Difference Engine, and The Alchemy of Stone are quite interesting. In The Difference Engine, AI becomes all-knowing, powerful and invasive. The modus has access to all information, and is able to gather more when it needs it.
    It becomes a creature of its own, without limitations and without the need for humans or humanity. It begins to develop as a new form of life, perhaps the next stage of evolution where humans have created a being that surpasses them and renders them redundant leading to extinction.

    The Alchemy of Stone seems to point out the importance of humanity in regards to AI. The Calculator seems more dependant on humans for the information it receives. Mattie recognizes this before she even encounters it, and knows that it will not be able to make “true” judgements because it, and everyone else, can never know everything–even if it is capable of knowing more than anyone else. To me, Mattie seems the more intelligent. She is able to interact with the world and understand it in her own way. She, like us, will never be able to make a perfect judgement, but she has morals and purpose, and feels alive because of it. She makes choices and a life for herself apart from her creator. She becomes more than she was meant to be, but does not have the overarching power of the Modus in The Difference Engine. While the Calculator may be more ‘intelligent’ it does not seem to be creative, or capable of making its own decisions. Humanity is still very much involved in what it knows-and humanity’s ability to be moral and judgemental (for either good or bad) are very much interconnected with those of the AI.


  20. Daryl Patalinghug

    Throughout the reading of the novel, it was very natural to discern Mattie as a human being even though we are constantly being reminded that she is an automaton through Sedia’s use of language to reinforce her physicality – the clunking sound of her feet, the ticking of her mechanical heart, etc. Even though she is “emancipated” from Loharri, the wide range of sensibilities and the unusual self-awareness that Mattie inherits allows us to understand the underlying implications to break herself away from the boundaries and definitions of her very being that were placed on her upon construction, “And yet she couldn’t shake her anger as she walked down the hill. Not at Ilmarekh but at those who chose that life for him – just like the anger she felt when the soldier on the metal mount called her a clunker. There were these people – she wasn’t sure exactly who they were – who kept telling them what they could and could not be.” [86] I couldn’t help but think that the relationship between Mattie and Loharri (as the creation and the creator) is a metaphor for race as a social construct in our modern society, and the stereotypes and generalized categories that we have the unfortunate circumstance of being born into without first given the chance to define our own selves. On page 92, Loharri tells Mattie, “As time goes by, things happen to you. You learn new things. You make yourself a story – your story. Everybody has one” – yet we know that Mattie’s story is essentially paved by Loharri through his construction of her. Sedia’s description of Mattie has effectively allowed readers to sympathize with her more than the Mechanics(who are human beings), and to learn that the experience of being human can be manifested in many ways

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  21. Rebecca Scott

    Despite the amazing portrayal on gender dynamics in speculative fiction, I felt that some aspects of The Alchemy of Stone had a few missed opportunities for LGBTQ+ commentary. I confess having disappointment and confusion at Mattie’s sudden intimacy with Sebastian after building up her relationship with Niobe as a caring and equal partnership (with hopefully a romance?). I get that Sedia was interested in exploring the concept of personhood and possible attraction between organic and artificial life forms, but the gratuitous “keyhole-as-vagina” metaphor seems to conflate Mattie’s quest to achieve self-determination with acts of physical intimacy.
    When she first tells Sebastian that he’s beautiful, his expression “reminded her of the time she first asked Loharri for her key.” (95). Her relationship with Loharri is complex and dysfunctional, so I wondered why Sedia would want Mattie to describe the man she finds beautiful in terms of the creator who refuses her independence by denying her key to her. The only other mention of sexual encounters in The Alchemy of Stone are between Loharri and Iolanda, Loharri and other random women, and (if the description of her saying “[Sebastian] was the only one besides Loharri who had touched her secret place.” (205) is to be interpreted like this), Loharri and Mattie. None of these encounters are shown in a positive light, with Iolanda and Loharri trying to manipulate each other for their own ends and Loharri being abusive towards Mattie in multiple circumstances. Mattie herself even regrets the event later, and she promises that “if she were to get her key back,… no one but her would ever touch it.” (205).
    I find it interesting that at the end of the novel, the Gargoyles are the ones to search for Mattie’s key, and not Sebastian, although he sits by Mattie’s broken body. They say “we do not let him touch her because it is our duty to fix her, and it is our task to find the key.” (293). Earlier, Mattie specifically compares women like Niobe and Iolanda to the Gargoyles, as they are “respected in words, but hidden from view of those who ran the city and managing to live in the darkness” (172). I think that despite introducing Sebastian as Mattie’s love interest, the novel is more interested in the vital roles women play in a society beyond what men dictate them as in terms of sexual gratification.
    This is probably more wishful thinking than anything else, but in the first half of the novel Niobe truly was a wonderful companion to Mattie that I could see blossoming into a beautiful romantic relationship – one that didn’t need sexual acts to define it as such, instead expressing their commitment through teaching each other about the other’s alchemical practices and culture. I really felt Sedia missed an opportunity here, but the book still turned out really well as a steampunk novel.

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  22. Katie G

    I think the role of women and female agency is an interesting concept to consider while reading the Alchemy of Stone. The female characters, in which we are given a large cast of, in The Alchemy of Stone are arguably the most dynamic and complex we’ve read thus far, and Mattie herself has a lot of agency. Living by herself, being an alchemist whom others go to to hire, characterized in a relatable manner who is free to make her own decisions. (Mattie deciding to go north instead of east as the homunculus insisted on page 242 as an example.) Iolanda plays an interesting character, being someone who hires Mattie and who holds a lot of authority (“Iolanda would make him do what she wants—she would make him fix Mattie” (247)), and Niobe as well as someone Mattie can trust. Even the line “shy ghost of the woman who was the first alchemist to walk down this road” (253) suggests that this is a more “feminist” world. Despite this, I think it’s interesting to note that it’s due to a male that Mattie is undone. Because she betrayed Loharri, her creator and master, he destroyed her key that allowed her to live. Despite gaining her freedom and saving the gargoyles, because she loses her key, she deactivates, and while she is not dead, I found it read very much like a death scene. The ending reminded me of Joan of Arc in a way, in that Mattie won her cause but died a martyr whom the gargoyles worship as their saviour. Quite frankly, I’m not sure what exactly the ending means on a social level, on the relationship between men and women and between classes. Potentially that to gain something you must lose another? But I think it would be an interesting discussion to have with the class.
    (I think it’s interesting to note that the author is a woman, and I can’t help but wonder if this book was written as a critique of the lack of gender diversity in terms of steampunk characters and authors. Or if it was just a more feminist approach to steampunk. Upon some quick googling, I did find that the author is primarily known as a fantasy writer, explaining why my first impression of the novel had more of a fantasy feel to it.)

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