Seemingly every word Portland author Daniel Wilson writes gets optioned for a movie. His dystopian sci-fi Robopocalypse is forever the next movie Steven Spielberg plans to make, and his newest, The Clockwork Dynasty (Doubleday, 320 pages $26.95), was optioned by 20th Century Fox before it was even written. It’s easy to hear the breathless pitch meeting with his agent: “It’s like a steampunk Highlander meets Interview with the Vampire!”
What Wilson does as well as any writer alive is create self-contained and fully realized worlds—the cinematic stuff of dreams and stardust, mixed with the dirt of actual living. He does so with sensitivity, intelligence and a gift for near-baroque detail.

Wilson's alternate world is one of clockwork wonders beyond human capacity, a race of near-supernatural avtomat—Russian for automaton—existing since the dawn of time and passing as human with faces of porcelain and leather. Their gear-toothed lungs and soul-filled clockwork hearts are animated by a word that defines their existence, whether Truth or Logic or Chaos. Their machined perfection is portrayed as a kind of alien nobility. At the book's beginning, an old Russian recounts seeing one of these beings fighting a German Panzer in the Battle of Stalingrad: "We had been eating rats, June. We were weak. But this man was strong. He was holy…. I felt I was somehow witnessing the truth."

The avtomat are, of course, locked in a centuries-old struggle, the slowly revealed nature of which forms much of the pleasure of the book. It is a new universe unveiling itself, a history overlaid onto our own with meticulous care.

It is both a virtue and a flaw in Clockwork that the avtomat themselves are far more compelling than the humans. Antiquity-sleuth June, the Portlander who narrates the book’s present-day sections, is like a Dan Brown character—a rote vessel for the awe, confusion and fear that is meant to be felt by the reader.
But Wilson is an MIT-trained roboticist himself, and his description of an avtomat coming to life feels foreign and beautiful, an undertow of otherness that’s nonetheless revelatory of being human. “Somehow, I am. And, I tell you, I find it a strange thing, to be,” Wilson writes from the consciousness of newborn avtomat Peter. “Somewhere inside me I am placing the sights and sounds into a smaller, simpler idea of a true world that is too complex. From within this little world in my head, I am making decisions.”

By mid-book, wonderment gives way to the necessities of plot—brother and sister avtomats reborn to serve Peter the Great, and a progenitor "mother of worms" stalking them through the centuries. It all plays out as a wonderfully imagined clockwork deism: The gods and their game have been set in place, and so the world will now run out according to plan. It's also difficult not to see the minutely choreographed battles and rococo robot mansions as self-consciously cool set pieces invented for the film to come. But what a wonder it still is, to see the gods' great and terrible work set in motion.

Daniel Wilson will appear Friday, August 4, at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St., 7:30 pm. Free. Throughout the month of Ahhhhgust! WW will feature reviews of thrillers, mysteries and potboilers by Oregon authors.