Book Review: Devices and Desires

by K.J. Parker.

I love books in which the characters drive the plot. This is a book in which the characters are the plot.

The main character of this book, Ziani Vaatzes, is an engineer who makes the mistake of making improvements to “already perfect” specifications.  He’s condemned to death, but escapes–without his family.  Vaatzes realizes he wants his family back, and goes about making a machine to make this happen.  It’s not an actual machine; it’s a logical machine, made out of people, politics, technology, and probability.

Vaatzes will do anything to get his family back.

I’m going to go deep for a moment and say that the series–three books–describes a machine rather than a plot.  It’s interesting reading the chapters in which Vaatzes isn’t the main character, because in the first book, all the characters are cogs in a machine with only the appearance of free will.  Perhaps in the other two books, things will get out of Vaatzes’s control, and the story will turn back into a plot.  There are only a few places in which things do not occur as Vaatzes anticipated; he gets things back on track.

The intricacies of the machine–human beings and the way they work together–are fascinating, and the writing is superb:

They had told her that Orsea was in the arbor behind the chestnut tree.  She called his name a few times, but he didn’t reply, so she assumed he’d gone back inside.  Then she caught sight of a flash of blue through the curtain of trailing vine.  He  hadn’t answered her because he was asleep.

Like an old man, she thought, snoozing in the afternoon.  Orsea never slept during the day; indeed, he restned sleep on principle, the way people resent paying taxes.

Vaatzes is the embodiment of the idea that the ends justify the means.  He feels bad about what he’s doing and wishes he were someone else, so he wouldn’t have to do what he’s doing, but he isn’t about to stop himself.  I’m looking forward to the other two books.

From an interview with the author:

The Engineer trilogy started with a Bridgeport universal milling machine, a seventy-year-old miracle of engineering with which a competent machinist could make anything from an earring-back to a battleship. Its owner, who was teaching me to use it, spoke a strange language, where the words seemed familiar but had new and radically different meanings.

To him, ‘tolerance’ wasn’t an abstract. You could stick a definite article in front of it, or make it plural. A tolerance to him was the degree to which you were allowed to deviate from an unattainable ideal, and it was quantified in ten-thousandths of an inch. One ten-thousandth this side of the line was OK; the other side, and the thing you’ve been working on for two days straight turns into scrap and goes in the trash. It’s not often you get three complete books handed to you on a plate like that. All I had to do was go away and shuffle the words around.

Note: K.J. Parker is the pseudonym of an author who generally writes very different books but is keeping it a secret. How exciting!

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