Today we welcome Kate Milford.
Kate Milford is the author of The Boneshaker, has written for stage and screen, and is a regular travel columnist for the Nagspeake Board of Tourism and Culture. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. To learn more, visit www.clockworkfoundry.com.
Spin Round, Wooden Doll
by Kate Milford
I don’t exactly remember when I started to become obsessed with automata. I’ll have to ask my husband; he remembers this kind of thing, largely because it’s usually through him that I find the weirder stuff I become interested in. But somewhere along the way I found a book and two stories that have loomed in the background of everything I’ve written since. The book was the Penguin edition of Sigmund Freud’s essays on the uncanny; the stories were Hoffmann’s The Sand-Man and Automata.
I should explain that I’m not a fan of Freud, and I disagree with about 60% of what he says in his essays on the uncanny. But I love Hoffmann. In fact, if what I write is in any way interesting to fans of steampunk, it’s because I’m a Hoffmann fan.
Among the things that I most love about steampunk is the constant presence of mechanical stuff. I love clockwork and vacuum tubes and old metals with patina, and I think my grandfather’s hand-drawn circuitry diagrams are like art. And because, not being particularly mechanically gifted myself, even though I understand the basics of how a circuit and an escapement work, they retain an element of the wondrous for me. This is what has drawn me to the genre—not the Victoriana, not the inventors, not even the presence of spunky, sexy girl geniuses prevalent in modern steampunk. Nope, what does it for me is the frequent presence of richly-imagined machinery, the exploration of mechanics and what can be done with them, and the philosophical questions these things raise about what it means to be human, and part of society.
For me, one of the great beauties of writing about analog and mechanical technologies is that for many readers in the twenty-first century (and especially for my target audience of kids and teens) they are familiar and unfamiliar all at once. It is easy work to push things like clockwork just a little further toward the unknown and render them (to use one of Hoffmann’s and my favorite words) uncanny. Consider the escapement; in a world of smartphones that render even digital watches mostly irrelevant, most kids—heck, most adults—have no concept of the workings of the antique clocks in the shadowy halls of their grandparents’ homes. They don’t know that they’re made up of things that, like the components of a piece of music, are called movements, or that those movements are made up of things with beautiful names like ébauches and assortiments (the latter of which includes the escapement). Even the beautiful word escapement is strange, evocative, almost forbidding. Consider the automaton, the otherworldly oddity of any sort of human or beast-shaped simulacrum that winds with keys and moves with unnatural and often frantic gestures, slowing down to stillness in a brief parody of a human’s much slower decline…until it is wound again and brought back to life.
Consider how ticking is like a heartbeat. Consider how it is like a footfall. Consider how it throws the passage of time in your face.
Writers and readers are drawn to mechanical technology for more reasons than I dare guess at, but I can tell you exactly why it speaks to me. I grew up surrounded by men who understood mechanical things and spent time tinkering with them both for work and for fun. As an adult I married a man who makes his living in bleeding-edge information technology and automation and who is a reader of Ray Kurzweil, Charlie Stross, Neal Stephenson, and others who philosophize about or weave tales touching upon the increasingly blurry line between natural and artificial intelligences. I chalk it up to my father and my grandfathers and my husband that I like writing and thinking about mechanics and technology, and I think our innovations and interactions with those things reveal our humanity by constantly causing us to question what it means to be human. That’s why I love science fiction and fantasy as much as I do; to me, they are nearly always reducible in some way to interesting questions of identity. And if I can have those questions plus a world of bespoke gadgetry and oddball clockwork and steam-driven innovation where the transistor never happened, well, cool. Because according to my dad, we got the transistor by reverse-engineering stuff found in the Area 51 crash, so really, a pre-transistor world is a better place to discuss humanity as defined by human technology.
Just kidding. But back to E.T.A. Hoffmann, and the uncanny beauty of the mechanical.
Writing at the turn of the eighteenth century into the nineteenth, Hoffmann was an innovative and dizzying storyteller who made no apologies for leaping between different points of view, beginning stories with letters and ending them with third-person narrative, or pausing for pages in the middle of a very tense tale for one character to lecture at length on the subject of music and humanity. A few pages on, Hoffmann might just reveal that that everything up to that point has been a story being told by another character who then stops his tale to explain that he’d rather be left with absorbing questions at the end of a story that force him to muse over it than to have it end tied up so satisfyingly that he has no reason to think about it any longer. And yes, that’s where that particular story (The Automatons) ends.
Hoffmann’s tales are also replete with panic about the possibility of mistaking a simulacrum of humanity for a real person. In The Sand-Man, one of the most famous of Hoffmann’s “night pieces,” the passing off of an automaton for a real girl causes the complete breakdown of an impressionable young man; in The Automatons you get a lengthy panic attack from one character who’s horrified by the idea that a mechanical thing could be allowed to make music. To Lewis, the character in question, music is a thing reserved for nature and for men, and while attempting to duplicate the music of nature is the highest and most worthy challenge a (human) musician can undertake, for an unnatural thing like a mechanism to create music on its own is an abomination. Just two examples from two of my favorites; there are so very many more I could list.
In Hoffmann’s world, human identity is a delicate bit of machinery in its own right, a program that can be damaged beyond repair far too easily. In his world, things like doubles, automata, puppets, even spectacles and telescopes, are causes of anxiety—they present the appearance of something they are not. The arts, which Hoffmann’s protagonists often feel passionately about, seem to be the things they cling to in order to prove that they and those around them are “real” people. Hoffmann, a composer and music critic who lived in an era of tremendous musical innovation and a time during which some of the most famous automata were conceived and built, seems to have viewed the ability to create as what we might call a Turing test today. He also seems to have had a unique sense of the way that what is familiar can be utterly terrifying if it is suddenly suspected to be not quite what one thought it was, and the more completely at home you feel with something—as Hoffmann must have felt about music—the more terrifying it could potentially become. Dancing, for instance. In The Automatons, after his lecture on the dreadfulness of automatons playing music, Lewis has special words of horror for the idea of a man dancing with a mechanical woman and not having a clue about her inhuman nature. Sure enough, it is so scarring to Nathanael, the protagonist of The Sand-Man that not even dancing with the automaton Olympia tips him off to her mechanical nature that when he breaks down at the end of the book screaming, “Spin round, wooden doll!”
Two hundred years later, the uncanniness of his tales is amplified by the fact that his simulacra are made up of things that, for me, already inhabit that uncomfortable but wildly compelling place where beauty and familiarity and oddity intersect. They are made of pocket spyglasses and clockwork and instruments that sing in unearthly tones. They are made of things that wind up, of things that tick with mechanical heartbeats but sing like angels. They are made of things that, like those antique clocks counting quietly in dark and dusty hallways, are easy to take for granted today until it comes time to admit that most of us really don’t interact with them or understand them at all.
After reading E.T.A. Hoffmann, it’s not as easy to walk by that clock. We pause, then we look closer and wonder if we really know what we’re looking at. Then we look at each other, and try not to wonder the same thing.