Kage Baker was fascinated by the idea of being a cyborg. There was a certain element of horror to it – she had nightmares when she was young, of discovering complicated gears and levers beneath her own skin – but it was a bright-eyed horror, the sort that keeps you staring at the scary movie or standing in line for the haunted house.
When she was little it was mostly a fondness for clockwork automata – The Tick Tock Man of Oz was one of her favourites of that series of books (yes, there is more than one Oz book. Lots of them, in fact. Look them up.) Her interest graduated to famous, professional automata like the Chess Player (was he real or fake?) and the Digesting Duck (charmingly vulgar), and the various and sundry handwriting machines. That latter category varied from skeletal hands holding pens to lifesized young ladies writing out elegant invitations once wound up: but they all ran by clockwork.
Until she discovered the Internet, her research was of course conducted via the library. There are lots of good books on automata, although only in recent years have they gone back far enough to resurrect the amazing work of Heron of Alexandria. But the machinations (ha!) of Al-Jazari (The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, 1206 AD), and Villard de Honnecourt (14th century France) were known, along with all the elegant 18th and 19th automata that entertained the Crowned Heads and music hall audiences of Europe.
And of course, there was that Ultimate Artificer, Leonardo da Vinci. Kage got a facsimile copy of his notebooks, in several volumes, in her early 20’s, and practically worshiped them. Along with the tanks and wings and odometers, he designed automata; even the Great Horse was originally designed to be animated. Probably. The details are hard to make out.
And then the Internet blossomed, and Kage did her very best to become a cyborg via modem herself: as so many of us did, when first introduced to that endless and endlessly growing flood of information. Why be content with scholarly analysis from St. Martin’s Press, when you could find original and marvelously exploitative vaudeville posters scanned into some other fanatic’s website? Original sources, man! Complete with what the contemporary adman thought was scientific copy and technical drawing!
So a search for the classic Turkish Chess Player could now lead to a discussion of use of dwarves in automata, and then to the proliferation of dwarfed and crippled smith-gods who built robots (Lots of them. Very strange.) and then to the fact that Tolkien’s origin for the dwarves in Middle Earth was as robotic servants to a child-hungry Valar. A search for the Digesting Duck (a machine apparently designed by someone with a first-class brain and the aesthetics of a 4-year old) led to Ducky Doodles (a modern vaudeville horror rightly kicked off the Johnny Carson Show).
In fact, Kage’s original vision of the Operatives of Dr. Zeus involved clockwork; I think she was on the verge of developing some version of steampunk years ahead of schedule when she discovered nanomechanics. Then she could design her clockwork on a molecular level, and her cyborgs got a lot more elegant and easily disguised. On the other hand, the world was deprived of the vision of literal steam venting out of Joseph’s ears when he lost his temper …
She was finally able to indulge her fondness for really complicated automata with the short story “Oh, False Young Man!”. The hero there is a machine so exquisitely made that he is superior to a flesh and blood lover, and wins a rich and lovely bride by virtue of his, mmmm, customized physiology …
Which you can also find on the Internet. Look up old medical automata. There are some amazing things out there.
Tomorrow: maybe more cyborgery