27 September 2008

All the Pretty Dollies

The Avoidance/Accomplishment Ratio is the name I gave to a theory proposed by a friend about fifteen years ago. Simply put: The amount you accomplish on Project B is directly proportional to how much you wish to avoid working on Project A.

This is especially true if Project A has been hanging over your head like the Sword of Damocles--or the four hundred pictures I have to sort and select for the DragonCon report I've been meaning to write for three weeks now. [Insert sickly grin here.]

Now you know what I've been avoiding. My current Project B isn't even a real project yet. Another friend and writer who specializes in Victorian science fiction mentioned she'd like to do a Steampunk anthology. She was astounded by the turn-out for the few Steampunk-related panels at this year's DragonCon. In one instance, so many people showed up for a panel in one of they larger Hyatt conference rooms, they had to split it in two panels in two big rooms--and both of them filled immediately. The energy effervescing through the discussions, and the number and quality of the Steampunk-related costumes reminded us both of the way Paranormal Romance bubbled up from the fan base in the late 1990s to become the mainstream fiction movement it is today.

And both of us want a piece of it. Which is great for her. This is what she writes--or so close to it even the experts can't tell the difference. The fact she's an expert in the Victorian era doesn't hurt either.

Me--not so much. Sure, I gleefully watched Will Smith, Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branaugh in Wild, Wild West. I've even seen reruns of the original TV series. And don't get me started on The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne. How could I not watch anything starring Michael Praed and featuring a capable, red-haired heroine (Francesca Hunt) who spent as much time in a leather cat suit as she did in her crinoline? Swoon. I still watch the tapes.

So, you'd think I'd be all set. I know what the genre's supposed to do--mix science fiction and fantasy with the clockwork mechanisms of the 18th and 19th century, and wherever possible reference key historical figures like Verne, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison and Ulysses S. Grant. I also know what it's supposed to look like--Victorian.

There's just one problem. The Victorian period is my idea of the Ninth Circle of Hell. The mere thought of the strait jacket fashions, the soup-straining facial hair on the guys, the lethal pollution of the air and water, the repeated epidemics, the pointless wars and the screaming hypocracy of the moneyed classes is enough to make me grind my teeth. The period boasts all the bad of the 21st century and none of the good--wearable clothes, good-looking shoes, mostly safe food, garbage collection and antibiotics. Compared to the 19th century, there really is no place like home.

If I were ever condemned to visit a pre-20th century historical period, I wouldn't go there. Send me instead to the Georgian period. The 18th century had its flaws--and they were legion, as the Duchess of Devonshire could attest. But the Industrial Age had not yet reached the pinnacle of its foulness. The 18th century likewise passed on the smug, narrow-minded self-righteousness that makes you want to strangle all Charles Dickens' heroines at birth. It was rowdy, bawdy and a lot more honest about its flaws as well as its virtues.

It had gorgeous clothes--for the guys as well as the girls--country estates, the Hellfire Club, hot air balloons, Mesmerism, Ben Franklin and his kite, automatons...

Automatons--I've been fascinated with them ever since the first time I saw the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol and looked in the toy shop with Tiny Tim. Oh, the wonders that were there! Gorgeous dolls and clowns that bobbed and waved.

I could do automatons.

And so I have. Over the past 24 hours, I've compiled five, single-spaced pages of references and links. I've read about the the amazing defecating duck of Jacques de Vaucanson (No, I didn't make that up. I'm not that good. Besides, it was the inspiration for one of Voltaire's--that's the French philosopher not America's philosophical rocker--best lines. Though to be fair, it does call up images of the latter's "Zombie Prostitute".) and the gorgeous androids of Pierre Jacquet-Droz. I found a tantalizing article on the remote-controlled prosthetic arm of created by Jean-Frederic Leschott, which weighed less than 17 ounces.

I skipped back in time to read about the Talos, the man of bronze created to protect ancient Crete, who was only defeated after Medea showed Jason how to drain his fuel tank. The Islamic Golden Age produced all manner of mechanical wonders, many of them created by the Banu Masu brothers--the sons of a highwayman turned astrologer! (Now there's a story waiting to be told.) Following the Internet trail back to the 18th century, I took a left turn at Albuquerque and wound up in Japan, where they created the karakuri to star in sacred dramas and serve tea. Karakuri links led to articles about Ranguku, the so-called "Dutch Learning", which helped Japan stay somewhat current with European technology during its long period of isolation. From there it was only a small step to stories of the Hitokiri, the "honorable assassins" of the Bakumatsu period.

Then there's The Turk, the world famous chess-playing machine that wasn't. The Turk was actually an elaborate stage illusion--a lifelike puppet atop a large box, which used cams and gears and sliding doors to disguise the puppet's human operator. Edgar Allen Poe's 1836 essay on "Maetzel’s Chess Player" (after The Turk's then current owner) lay part of the foundation for science fiction by postulating a mind within the machine.

Of course, contemplating The Turk, I couldn't help thinking about The Lustful Turk, not to mention the wide range medicinal vibrators so necessary to relieve female hysteria during the Victorian period. (Heaven knows, they didn't have any other outlets.)

By the time I'd finished compiling my first page of links, I was well on my way to developing a plot--a plot for a story in an anthology which may never exist. But why let that stop me?

Um, when did you want that DragonCon report? Why don't you give me a deadline--and I'll think about...

Did you know Charlotte Bronte wrote about the Crystal Palace? Have you seen the pictures. It's all glass and iron. I bet it was really hot in there. Oooh, I just found pictures!

What DragonCon report?


###


Since I've yet to figure out how to caption photos on Blogger, here's the info:

The first picture was taken at this year's DragonCon. Notice the artist to the right is drawing something other than the amazing mechanical couple right in front of him.

The second is an 18th century writing automaton in the Centre International de la Mecanique d' Art in Sainte-Croix Switzerland.

The third is a tea automat and mechanism in the Tokyo National Science Museum.

I'm responsible for the bad photography in the first shot. The much better automata shots are Creative Common items found in the Wikipedia article on automatons.
Post a Comment