Kage Baker loved automata.

Her main love was clockwork things – wind up toys fascinated her all her life, and lots of them lived on her desk. (I have a wind-up yellow rook and a translucent squirrel on the desk right now.) When she was a kid, her tastes ran to wind-up robots and little metal dogs that did somersaults when wound up tight. She had a smoking donkey of which she was very fond, too; but I think modern morals have rendered those extinct.

Her favourite character in The Wizard of Oz was TikTok – the stalwart and virtuous Clockwork Man, imbued with common sense and bravery in the face of his own physical limitations (his spring was always winding down at awkward moments). Disney gave him an especially charming embodiment in Return to Oz, including beautiful lambent sea-blue eyes; Kage originally put him on the roof of the Emporium in Empress of Mars.

C3PO was, obviously, her favourite character in Star Wars.

She collected stories and photos of the automata of old; all those chess-playing robotic Moors – occasionally powered by clockwork, and occasionally by dwarves – and disembodied calligraphy-dispensing hands. Singing nightingales, crowing roosters, egg-laying ducks; blossoming plants, fountains of jewels and silk threads and wine: if it wound up and moved, Kage loved it. Player pianes, preferably with robotic piano players. All those maidens who sang and simpered and eerily applied makeup. All those medieval clocks, too, where Death and assorted burghers and woodland animals come out and dance for the hours; those fascinated her. The Delacorte Clock at the Zoo in Central Park – even though it runs on electricity.

Heron of Alexandria, in Kage’s opinion, was one of the finest mathematicians and engineers the world ever produced: because he built things that worked. Automata, moving set pieces, water dispensers, flying gods, levitating statues – Heron built special effect for the religious industry with such zeal and fervour that Kage could never decide if he was a mutant or a rogue Operative. She never settled on a story for him, because the field of his endeavours was so broad. And he did it without clockwork! Weights, levers, pulleys, pins and gears were all he had.

The Musee Mechanique in San Francisco, which is presently housed at Pier 45, was a place Kage visited whenever she could. There are automata there, of course, including Laughing Mabel, a life-sized fishwife who howls with manic glee. It also has a series of detailed clockwork pieces illustrating Hell, the Dungeons of the Inquisition, a racetrack, an opium den and a farm, and – Kage’s utter favourite mis en scene – “A Message From The Sea”, wherein vaguely Spanish military officers at an elegant ball are recalled to duty by an arriving messenger in a dinghy … she could stare at those things for hours.

Or at least until we ran out of change. They so enthralled her that several scenes in the Company novels and stories include scenes based on them, notably the Hugo-nominated novella “Son, Observe the Hour”. Kage studied the opium den for a couple of dollars’ worth of nickels to get that one set in her mind.

She loved the racetracks with little painted metal horses, too, as well as the  steel skeleton of a galloping horse there.

This fascination with automata was a little weird, since she had nightmares from childhood of waking to find clockwork beneath her own skin. I guess knowledge defeated the demons – the more she learned about clockwork, automata and robots, the less fearful she became. She finally laid the bogie to rest with her invention of the cyborg Operatives – although only after she reluctantly abandoned the idea of making them, too, run on clockwork. And I must admit, she had some hilarious ideas for where the keys went …

She satisfied that urge with the story “Oh, False Young Man!”, wherein the putative hero is an ingenious automaton. I’ve recently been asked to consider trying my hand at converting this one to a screen-play, an idea which appeals to me a great deal – though I’m not quite sure how to do that. We shall see. I may need to take a class or read a book or beg a friend for help.

In the meantime, I persist in soldiering on, at varying speeds and levels of success. I recently saw a photograph that pretty much sums up my condition right now: a sign on a vending machine that is still functional, if not obviously so …light inside

Takes a licking – keeps on ticking. It’s automatic.


About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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4 Responses to Automata

  1. Kara says:

    Still functional – sounds like a good tagline for the next time Pixar does something robot-themed. 🙂

    And did Kage Baker ever think of doing anything with the Japanese tea-serving karakuri?


    • Kate says:

      No, although she had them on her list of “interesting automata”. They are so very elegant; she felt they were a mature technology, not really open to outside invention.


  2. Dorlinda Chong says:

    Met Kage once, at a convention. She was very nice and encouraging, and I am sorry for your loss and happy that you are keeping her memory alive.


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