Books to be Scene: Ekaterina Sedia's THE ALCHEMY OF STONE

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Books to be Scene: Ekaterina Sedia's THE ALCHEMY OF STONE
"Her blue eyes bulge a little from their sockets, taking us in. Her frame clicks as she leans forward, curious about us. Her dress is low-cut, and we see that there is a small transparent window in her chest, where a clockwork heart is ticking along steadily..."
So what book are we talking about this time?

In a fantastical city in the middle of a chaotic industrial revolution, an android servant created by a paranoid, reclusive alchemist dreams of her emancipation. Mattie's status as a sentient automaton - a slave who can think for herself - means she's heard all kinds of secrets from both sides of the struggle, waiting patiently in the shadows while important people talk over her head. The robot girl just wants to be acknowledged as a living, thinking being with her own needs and desires, but more and more people want her help seizing hold of power as the city of Ayona draws closer to open revolt in The Alchemy of Stone.

Ekaterina Sedia's genre novels are hallucinatory, wildly inventive things that read like modern-day fairytales, though they deal with very real, relevant issues - class conflict, social status, identity, gender issues and suchlike. At the same time she never lets her messages get in the way of telling a good story. There's darkness in there, death, creeping horror, a touch of sticky-sweet eroticism; there's comedy and light relief, there's ass-kicking, and shit does occasionally blow up real good.

Seriously? This one doesn't sound that weird so far.

You might say that at first. The Alchemy of Stone doesn't seem like the most obvious of Ms. Sedia's books to adapt to the big screen - it lacks the comic-book wow factor of The Secret History of Moscow (Russian myths and legends coming to life) or Heart of Iron (steampunk and wushu in the age of the Tsars). But it's still a fantastical premise that genuinely challenges the audience to think about what's going on, and a piece of matinee adventure that shows artistry and grace at the same time. Christopher Nolan was the last one to promise that with Inception, but people seemed to forget about it in the sturm und drang of DiCaprio emoting and cities folding in half.

And it's got a heroine unlike just about any other. How long has it been since we had a genre protagonist who wasn't an action figure, angst-ridden superhero, or some random mashup of the two with tits awkwardly grafted on? How long has it been since we had a lead who genuinely breaks the mould - who isn't actually human, even? (Talking animals don't count.) What we generally get are visual exercises like, say, Shane Acker's 9 - a fun little film, but the art design doesn't really inform the story that much. Even a cursory glance will show you most of these things still riff on the Hero's Journey: they're just wearing a stranger skin than usual.

"She should be grateful, [Mattie] thought, but instead she felt hurt. Violated. He exposed her heart for all to see, he wound her up with the key around his neck right in front of his friends. "I want to go home," she said."
So what's so different about this robot girl?

Sedia's Mattie might have been built to look like a human being, and talk like one, but she's keenly aware she's not human. She's much more capable than a regular human being in some respects but dreadfully vulnerable in others and though technically her master's set her free before the book even starts, after all the history they've got she can't bring herself to cut him loose. Mattie's slowly realising she still doesn't completely understand what freedom is, and here it's not just that people treat her as the 'other', it's that she really isn't the same as them, and she's not sure what to do about that.

The way Sedia articulates Mattie's feelings about her inadequacies is shockingly emotive and coldly intriguing all at once. She hates her dependence on other people, but it's intrinsic to her condition in a way a disability could never be (not least given there's no 'perfect' ideal for her to aspire to). This isn't just high-blown philosophising, either, but a winning, determined young lady trying to do half-a-dozen things at once (political intrigue, action movie heroism, unrequited love and such) while struggling with crippling handicaps that come across as fascinatingly alien.

book to film_ian daniels_detail.JPGBut she's not Supergirl, you're saying?

By no means. Mattie can rationalise more efficiently than a human being, but she's still fragile, with parts of her prone to crack or shatter after taking the least bit of damage. She's even more hampered by her mortality than us squishy humans - hide her eyes and she's blind, or leave her heart to run down and she collapses. The idea of robots doin' it is a staple of countless jokes and geek fantasies but here Mattie's physical desires and where they take her are heartbreakingly awkward, unnervingly sensual and nothing like you're probably thinking.

The Alchemy of Stone is a slow book, true, with a lot of internal monologuing, but Sedia does an awesome job of interweaving the high-flown philosophising with more visceral gratification. She does it with the little things, like the detail when Mattie takes pleasure in brewing up potions, wandering the city and generally just being alive. It's there when she dreams about the people in her life, pining for the people she cares for or worrying about the ones who want something from her, and it's there when everything goes horribly wrong.

"[Mattie's] feet pounded the pavement, but [...] her footfalls were nearly inaudible in the cacophony of destruction that erupted all around and behind her. She heard a woman scream, and thought that the rioters had breached the gates somewhere and were destroying the houses. There was a smashing of glass, and a smell of burning wood and something else chased after her."
You did mention something about explosions, yes?

Well, this isn't Michael Bay. A lot of the book is talk, and character development, and Sedia takes her sweet time resolving the different narrative threads - Mattie's growing powers as an alchemist, her attempts to piece together the city's history, her relationships with the men and women fighting over its future. But they do come together, with chaos in the streets and big last-minute twists, with some gut-punching plot beats in the final act. Sedia's writing has the fine detail of an HBO production, but the blood and thunder, too.

Of course The Alchemy of Stone would never get picked up - a minor author working "geek", no huge fan following and no opportunity for a name actress in the lead? (You'd never be able to do Mattie with just practical FX, for starters, and how well would I, Robot have done without Will Smith?) But that's not to say it shouldn't be. To the men in suits; if you can't sell lush fantasy setting plus premium cable TV back-stabbing and double-dealing plus civil war plus that Björk video with the lesbian robots then Christ, you may as well stop pretending you're in the business for anything bar the kickbacks, then.

I see your point. But who'd be the right talent to hire?

Who could do the book justice? That's a tough one. Timur Bekmambetov is the only breakout Russian genre auteur who springs to mind, but he's arguably too much about the sugar rush - cool set-pieces every other scene and dense, near-garbled mythology. Guillermo Del Toro would probably like the book - if Pan's Labyrinth could become famous, so could this - but the stark moralising of his Spanish-language films would be an uncomfortable fit here. (Sedia does lapse into whimsy at times, but she never preaches.) You could go with someone from music videos or commercials; with the right artistic sensibility, style over substance might still work, if the audience got that time to reflect.

Either way, in an age where everyone either wants to one-up Star Wars, to give the same old stories a glitzy futuristic makeover or to bombard the viewer with more superfluous twenty-dollar words than a masters thesis it would be so good to see someone push the boundaries outside of the few cult directors still trying to make their select cadre of the faithful think. The Alchemy of Stone is a chocolate box of a movie, true, a crowd-pleasing indulgence, but it's got layers beneath layers and a hell of a bite. Cinema needs more genre material like that - but as always, when someone will next step up and take the risk is anyone's guess.

Header from the cover to the Italian edition (L'Alchimista: Il Destino Dei Gargoyle). Clockwork lady by Ian Daniels.

The Alchemy of Stone, by Ekaterina Sedia, published by Prime Books, is currently available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.

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More about Books to be Scene

Ben UmsteadAugust 14, 2012 4:33 PM

Matthew, you really put your all into these; it so totally shows. I applaud that for sure. I am also greatly intrigued by the premise and world of this book, and will seek it out.

Joe YoungAugust 14, 2012 7:01 PM

Glad to see you are continuing this column, Mr Lee.

"Who could do the book justice?"

I haven´t read the book, so it´s hard for me to say.....but you mentioned I, Robot (2004), so Alex Proyas name should be in consideration.......I would love to see Jaco Van Dormael in the directors chair. Thanks for the tip, Mr Lee.

Matthew LeeAugust 14, 2012 7:42 PM

If Proyas could revisit the mood of The Crow or Dark City and tone things down a little then that might work, sure. The book definitely has something of that same kind of dark fairytale approach. Sadly I'm not holding my breath for him to do anything really off-beat again, though. I haven't seen Mr. Nobody, so I can't speak for Dormael, but from the reviews I read he seems like he could be a good suggestion... more of a maverick than most.

Ard VijnAugust 15, 2012 10:37 AM

Great: another column which will cost me money.
In all seriousness though, well done Matthew! And I WILL check out this book.

Joe YoungAugust 15, 2012 4:33 PM

Too bad...I was hoping you had seen Mr Nobody.....and you might be right about Proyas. Another guy that I forgot last time was Mark Romanek. Part of your review reminded me of Never Let Me Go (2010) .....especially "This isn't just high-blown philosophising, either, but a winning, determined young lady trying to do half-a-dozen things at once (political intrigue, action movie heroism, unrequited love and such) while struggling with crippling handicaps that come across as fascinatingly alien."

I think Romanek could convey that progress on a screen, he touched upon that theme in Never Let Me Go (2010).