Mechanica by Lance Balchin was a kind of book we’d ever seen before – although shaped like a picture book, it’s a great pick for inquisitive older readers as Balchin tells a tale of a dystopian world devoid of wildlife through a field guide to all its new, technological creatures, known as Mechanica. You can check out the videos and learn more about the book here. We spoke to Lance about his ideas, unique style, and what will happen next in his distinct world.
BRK: Congratulations on the release of Mechanica! What inspired such a unique concept?
LB: It started by accident in a way. I was working on a fashion editorial that required the construction robotic elements for a male model and I realised that the same technique might work in the construction of some kind of animal. I then became obsessed and spent the next few years making the Mechanica Illustrations, with an eye to exhibit them.
When I ‘d finished a dozen or so of them I started to wonder about the world they might inhabit and quickly realised a book would be a much better vehicle for my growing little zoo. The look of the images and what is happening in the world today with military drones came together with the idea of some kind of artificial Darwinian evolution. The story is also hugely influenced by Phillip K Dick’s work Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which was made into the film Bladerunner.
I’ve never thought of my work as steampunk (but am totally happy to) as I’m probably more influenced by the earlier cyberpunk writers like William Gibson and comics like Cyberpunk – The Seraphim Files. I think the illustrations have a very steampunk look because I work with ‘found’ technology and reimagine it as something new, but that was not on purpose as it was dictated by the look of the equipment I photographed. The Victorian elements were initially driven more by wanting to reference Darwin’s work (Liberty’s ship is called the Beagle) than for aesthetic reasons.
BRK: This book will resonate deeply with kids who are interested in all kind of birds and creepy crawlies. As a kid, did you collect bugs or were interested in nature yourself?
I spent a lot of time in the Australian bush as a kid on camping trips where I got to poke all sorts of (probably very dangerous) creatures with sticks. I think growing up in Australia you have no option but to take an interest in the creepy crawlies around you, as a matter of self preservation.
It just has to be. It’s just crazy that we have one beautiful and fragile home in a seemingly infinite and menacing universe and we decide to set about destroying it through our greed. I think that our only hope is the development of a humanist culture that approaches the planet’s environmental and political problems globally rather than in response to local interests. I hope that the children that read Mechanica grow up to be very angry at the future we are leaving them and I hope they take to the streets to demand substantial change.
BRK: In the book we meet various characters that pique our interest, such as Liberty Crisp. How did you work to get the right balance of story, characters, and images?
The picture books tell fragments of a larger story that I am writing as a series of novels. This allows me to allude to characters and events without getting bogged down in a massive word count. I hope that the world and people that I’m sketching out in Mechanica and the following picture books will spark an interest for some readers to want to know the full story of Liberty Crisp, Bert the dry witted Mechanica Bat and Bastien the boy soldier who learns to dream the Mechanica dream.
BRK: Please tell us more about books and authors you loved as a child, and how they’ve shaped your style of writing and illustrating.
My step father, Dr Andrew Giles-Peters, was a political philosopher who came from the anarchist left of the late 60s student movement. I think that he shaped my early reading to include works that were outside the standard kids reading lists of my day as well as encouraged me to read the classics. Writers like George Orwell, Joseph Conrad, Anthony Burgess, Hunter S Thompson and even oddball stuff like G Gordon Liddy (Will is still one of the strangest books I’ve ever read). I love Oscar Wilde and think that The Importance of Being Ernest is just the most wonderful thing ever put to paper.
BRK: What advice do you have for kids who want to use their love of drawing to create something like Mechanica?
Work out what you want to say with your art. I think that is the hardest thing to do; to work out a single message that you’re trying to get across. The other important thing is to love what you’re doing, allow yourself to get lost in what you are making.
BRK: Will there be more Mechanica chronicles? What’s up next for you?
Yes, lots more I hope! I’ve roughed out a draft of the first novel and planned out the story so am excited to see where that goes. I’ve also finished Aquatica, which is the second in the series of the picture books and also started work on the next few (lots of dinosaurs and dragons).
I’m also excited about an Open Source project I’m developing called OS Mechanica where people will get to make their own Mechanica. I love the idea of user generated ‘fan picture fiction’ and having the various species evolve without me.