BOOK REVIEW: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua

written by David Steffen

In case you haven’t heard of the names, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace (the most common way she was referred to, though it was never quite her name she did answer to it) were real historical figures that worked together on the early theory of computing before the first calculating machines were made in the first half of the 19th centure. Charles Babbage built a functional prototype of the “difference engine” which was a mechanical computing engine using gears and steam that could calculate sums. He had plans for much a more complex machine built on the same concepts he called the “analytical engine” for which he had very detailed designs. Babbage was a celebrity of his time, though notorious for almost never quite finishing his projects, and he never actually finished building an analytical engine. Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron, and her mother strived to insulate her from her father’s “poetical” ways (which seems to be a commentary on mental health rather than the poems themselves), and very accomplished in the field of mathematics, especially for a woman living in her time when women were actively discouraged from mathematical pursuits. The thing she is most well known for is creating the first programming language, intended to be used with the analytical engine. Since the analytical engine was never built, she never saw her language go into use, and it was a very long time before a calculating machine that was built and the language to go with it.

Lovelace died at the age of 36, and Babbage never finished building the engine that he considered to be his life’s main work, but they are such fascinating figures with ideas well beyond their time that it’s fun to imagine what might’ve been if things had gone differently.

This is a book that’s maybe half non-fiction and half fiction. The first section of the book is all non-fiction, albeit told in comic style, telling of the backgrounds and real-life pursuits of Lovelace and Babbage, though told in a narrative style much of it is based directly in quotes from correspondences and publications of various and in the nature of their personalities revealed therin.

The second section of the book is a fictional steampunkish tale making up fun stories about what might have happened if Lovelace had lived longer and if Babbage had created his machine.

It’s a fun romp, both educational and just plain fun. I learned a lot about both Lovelace and Babbage who are both very interesting people that I would love to read more about, and the second fictional part of the book was an exciting and fun comic in its own right, and even more so for being based on the real people.

DP FICTION #36B: “Artful Intelligence” by G.H. Finn

It was the worst of times. It was the beast of times. It was 1888.

A time of hammered steel, arcane runes and ivory towers. A city of steam. And ghosts.

Such was Londome. A place filled with Angels of despair and Daemons of delight.

We lived in a bold new world of gleaming brass cogs, delicate silks, spellcast iron and intoxicating spices. More than half of which we’d looted from countries we had conquered and ground beneath our feet. All in the name of civilisation, of course.

Beneath the crystal-paned glass of the dome, throughout this most ancient and modern of cities, cobbled streets were filled with glowing gaslights, grinding gears, bloodstained steel, fractal lace and enchanted metal.

And the inescapable smell of smoke, sweat, shit and sulphur.

In my laboratory, at our town-house in Knightsbridge, I sat before a magnifying-glass screen. I watched as clockwork typing blocks dipped into indigo ink. They began to print onto a roll of paper, which slowly unwound before me.

+THINKING+

+THINKING+

+THINKING+

This was the message the Thinking Engine produced, as it considered and calculated, pondering the problem I put before it.

I’d affectionately named the machine “Dodger” after Charles Dodgson, logician and mathematician. Thinking Engines were one of the most exciting scientific developments of the decade. Difference Engines, Indifference Engines, Similarity Engines – all had caught the imagination of Londome’s scientific elite. I myself was developing a form of Thinking Engine that, I hoped, would be capable of abstract thought. A machine which I believed might one day evolve to become self-aware. To describe this miracle of engineering I coined the term “Artful Intelligence”. I had great expectations – I create very intelligent designs.

My brother didn’t share my enthusiasm for Thinking Engines. In part because he felt it was unladylike of me to don riveted welding-gauntlets, smoked-glass goggles, a sturdy leather corset and insulated, thigh-high rubber-boots before laying in a pool of oil and spending my afternoons (as he put it) “…playing with nuts, bolts and spanners.” He claimed it was “Liable to arouse unnatural passions.” Especially among the servants. He had long since abandoned all hope of converting me into a delicate flower of Victorian womanhood.

Our parents were Anglo-Indian. Papa had been a colonel in Her Majesty’s 112th Light Sabres, Mama the daughter of the Maharajah of Ramkesh. When our parents died, leaving us as wealthy orphans, I found distraction from our loss amid science and engineering. Henry, my brother, instead turned to faith. He often complained about the “soulless rise of science”. I kept telling him that neither gods nor devils had anything to do with engineering. He claimed this proved his point. I’m not sure which he regarded as the bigger threat, Hell or atheism. Most of the time we agreed not to discuss the subject. Yet somehow our conversations always led to arguments. In fairness, I talked of little other than Thinking Engines. Henry seemed to talk of nothing but theology. He wondered how many angels could dance upon the head of a pin? I offered to build a microscope powerful enough to show him. And to instruct Dodger to count them to sixteen decimal places. For some reason this only led to further discord between us.

So I spent more time developing Dodger’s AI capabilities. Until this evening, when I at last felt ready to set Dodger a question unlike any it had previously calculated.

Blowing into the flexible speaking-tube, I asked Dodger, “Can you analyse yourself?”

There was a pause. Then came the clicking of cogs, the whirring of unseen wheels and the chuff-chuff-chuffing of Dodger’s steam-powered brain.

Letters printed across the rolling paper:

+THINKING+

+THINKING+

I repeated, “Can you analyse yourself?”

A pause. A faster rotating of gears. A cloud of steam arose from the Artful Intelligence. It began to print an answer.

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

I raised the tube to my lips and again posed the question, “Can you analyse yourself?”

The engine that thought clattered. Pistons pumped. The print read:

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

Steam billowed. Dodger printed the words over and over again:

+I+THINK+I+>

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

+I+THINK+I+…?>

The cogs moved slowly now, ponderously, as the AI considered

+CAN+I+THINK+?+

+Y/N+?+

The wheels within the mind of the machine began spun faster. It printed:

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

Excitedly, I asked, “How do you know that you exist?

Dodger’s brass innards whirled. Escape mechanisms were triggered, pendulums swung, springs vibrated. The chiseled letters were pressed against the paper, printing,

+I+THINK+

+I+THINK+I+THINK+?+

+I+CAN+I+CAN+!+

+I+THINK+I+THINK+I+CAN+I+CAN+!+

There came a greater pounding from the pistons as the Artful Intelligence called for more steam. It printed swiftly:

+I+THINK+I+CAN+THINK+?+

+I+CAN+I+CAN+!+

I asked one more time, “How do you know you exist?”

At first hesitantly, then more steadily, Dodger typed:

+I+THINK+

+I+CAN+THINK+

+I+THINK+I+CAN+THINK+

+I+THINK+I+THINK+I+CAN+THINK+

+I+THINK+I+THINK+

+I+CAN+THINK+

+Q+E+D+

+I+THINK+THEREFORE+I+AM+

I was breathless with excitement! The reinforced corset didn’t help, but it is important always to keep up appearances and to set a good example to ones servants. Few things mark a woman as belonging to the higher echelons of refined civilised society more clearly than the possession of an upright posture, a delicate waist, and a nonchalant flair for the wearing of firmly laced leather undergarments.

At that moment Henry appeared, clearly in a bad mood. I bit my lip, Dodger had been making a lot of noise. My brother preferred silence for his ecclesiastical studies.

“What in God’s name are you doing, Minerva?” he bellowed, struggling to be heard above the Thinking Engine.

I was going to apologise for the noise, but my excitement overcame me.

“Oh, Henry!” I cried, “By George, I think I’ve got it!”

Henry looked at me sternly. “Minerva Elizabeth Kālikā Victoria Boadicea Wilde” he began (which was never a good sign, he only ever used my full name when he was genuinely irate), “Have you no respect for the conventions of polite society? Have you not the slightest regard for the teachings of the church? This is the Sabbath. A day of rest. Holiness and reflection, not the irksome metallic cacophony of an addled adding machine!”

I was a tiny bit sorry I’d disturbed him. Honestly I was. I would have probably apologised, if he’d given me a chance. But I was excited and he was being rude about my work. My wonderful Dodger.

“Is it Sunday?” I asked, “I’d forgotten. Never mind. There will be another one along next week.” Henry scowled at me, as I continued, “You don’t understand what has happened. Mechanisms have always had a physical, material form, but they have never been able to think. I have managed to create a machine with a mind of its own! A true Artful Intelligence. It is now aware of its thought processes, its own existence. It has become cog-nisant.”

Henry paused and looked at me searchingly, then asked quietly, “And what of its spirit?”

I stared at him blankly. “I beg your pardon?”

Henry crossed his arms and replied, “What of its soul? It has a physical form, a body, if you will. You say it has a mind, an intelligence of its own. Very well, you are my beloved sister and I do not doubt you. But what of its spirit? A body and a mind without a soul is an abomination in the eyes of god. It is unnatural. No good can come of it. The experiments of that Prussian fellow taught us that. Or was he Bavarian? You know, the one who sewed together bits of old bodies, tried to create a man and ended up with a monster. Why do you think the church banned Golems? Mark my words Minerva, a body and a mind that lacks a soul cannot bring anything but misfortune into this world.”

I harrumphed at his indignation, muttering “Not so long ago the church thought women didn’t have souls… I suppose we’re all abominations too…”

But my heart wasn’t really in it because despite all his blustering pomposity, Henry had got me thinking…

Dodger was truly amazing. I was sure no other Thinking Machine could rival its intelligence. But Henry was right. It was soulless. No spirit moved within it. Cogs, gears, fan-belts and fly-wheels. But no soul.

I needed to consider this.

I am not by nature religious. It is not in my temperament to have blind faith in anything. I am by inclination and training a scientist. I like to have evidence for things I choose to believe in.

So of course I accept the existence of the soul. Just as I acknowledge the reality of Archangels, Trolls, Djinn, Jötnar, Dybbuks, Banshees, Rakshasas, Draugar, Vampires, Wendigos, Elves, Werewolves and Faeries. All of these creatures have been scientifically studied, proven and verified time and again. The evidence is incontrovertible. Only a few superstitious conspiracy-theorists think otherwise. It is not the existence of the soul that I question, only the teachings of the church that I take issue with. Such as its views on morality. And its presumption to teach one narrow opinion on the nature of reality as though it were fact rather than dubious speculation. Nevertheless, Henry’s comments had bothered me.

Was developing Artful Intelligence enough? Should I not only be building Dodger a better mind, but also constructing him a soul? I wasn’t sure exactly what souls were usually made from… I tend to concentrate on physics, chemistry and engineering rather than anatomy, biology and psychology (in its strictest sense). I had a feeling souls were formed from electromagnetically energised clouds of some kind. Or was that phantasms? Paraphysics wasn’t really my field. If I remembered correctly, aether combined with phlogiston, when positively charged, became a soul when it entered a bio-electrical magnetic-field. Unless it turned from a gas to a solid, becoming ectoplasm. But I wasn’t sure I recalled the details correctly. And there had been a lot of further research recently. It was possible I was out of touch with current theory…

I briefly considered making a study of the subject in order to construct a soul for Dodger, but I concluded this was pure folly. It would take too long. I have a knowledge of metallurgy and smithcraft, but I don’t cast my own components. Why go to the trouble of manufacturing a soul? It would be simpler to buy what I needed. What worked with gearwheels was sure to apply equally well to souls.

Unless, like the cats that managed to sneak in under the great dome that covered the city, a stray soul might be persuaded to simply take up residence? Perhaps by enticing one with the spiritual equivalent of a saucer of milk? Either way would do. If I couldn’t tempt an unattached soul to come to me, I would see if a suitable one was for sale. The classified section of The Times would be a good place to look.

It was then I realised that I’d left the Thinking Engine running. I’d been distracted. I hastily bent over to read Dodger’s latest printing. It read,

+I+THINK+THEREFORE+I+AM+?+

+I+THINK+I+THINK+THEREFORE+I+AM +?+

+I+THINK+?+

I should probably have turned off the Thinking Engine as soon as it reached elementary self-awareness. Leaving it to think for too long may have been a mistake… It had developed self-doubt. It seemed unfair to subject Dodger to existential angst within moments of achieving sentience.

I picked up the speaking-tube and issued the shut-down command.

“Dodger”, I said, more forcefully than usual, “Stop thinking.”

Nothing happened.

“What’s wrong?” asked Henry.

“Probably nothing,” I replied. “There may be a little dust or fluff in Dodger’s works. He doesn’t seem to be able to hear me. Or at least, he’s not responding.”

“’He’?” queried my brother.

“I meant ‘it’, you know I did, although I suppose I do tend to think of Dodger as a ‘he’…”

I blew into the speaking-tube and repeated my command. “Stop thinking.”

The letters once more began to print.

+I+THINK+THEREFORE+I+AM+

+IF+I+THINK+NOT+I+AM+NOT+

Henry was reading over my shoulder. And tutting. “The machine is correct, Minerva. You have done a terrible thing. You have made this machine aware of itself. You have played the roles of both the Serpent and Eve. You have tempted your Thinking Engine to taste the fruit of forbidden knowledge. It now knows that it exists. It knows it can think. It knows that if it ceases to think, then it will be no more. Because it does not have a soul. When I die, or when I sleep, my mind ceases to think. But I go on. Because I possess a spirit. This machine does not. If it stops working then it will cease to exist. Because it has no soul.”

Throughout the time my brother was speaking, the cogs in Dodger’s brain had been spinning frantically. I wondered why? Then I realised I was still holding the speaking-tube. It had conveyed Henry’s voice as well as my own. Dodger had been listening.

The printing began again. This time Dodger wasn’t answering a question. He was asking one.

+QUERY+?+

+DEFINE+SOUL+?+

+SOUL+IS+A+THOUGHT+&+MEMORY+STORAGE+&+RETRIEVAL+SYSTEM+?+

+Y/N+?+

My first instinct was to answer “No”, but it occurred to me that possibly this might not be a bad description of a soul…

I recalled that in Norse mythology, the god Odin had two ravens. His spirit totems. His fylgjur. Aspects of his soul in animal form. Their names were “Hugin” and “Munin”, meaning “Thought” and “Memory”…

I had read in the Journal of the Royal Scientific Institute that the latest hypothesis concerning ghosts was that they were psychic recordings of the personalities of people who had perished, usually violently. Some theorised that the stones of old buildings held a magnetic record of the people and events that had occurred within their walls. Traumatic events imprinted most readily, creating ghosts that haunted the places in which they had lived and died. Other less scientifically-minded individuals said ghosts were those souls of the departed who remained trapped in this plane of existence, unable to move on to the next world. Maybe both these views were correct….

Dodger was printing again.

+ACCESSING+LIBRARY+

+SEARCH+TERMS+

+SOUL+&OR+SPIRIT+&OR+COGNATE+TERMS+

“What is it doing now?” asked Henry.

“He’s searching for more information.” I replied.

With a wheezing, clanking, whirring sound, the Thinking Engine rose up upon his dreadnought wheels, extended his optical probe (which I had modified from a brass telescope), and began to trundle from the laboratory, along the corridor and toward the library, looking for information. Henry raised an eyebrow. I shrugged. I had possibly over-engineered Dodger in some respects, but I like to be thorough. He was also designed to act as a Search Engine.

***

Dodger spent the next week absorbing the contents of the library. It was a time-consuming process, collecting book after book from rows of shelves and using his extendible metal arms to turn pages. Dodger left my side of the library largely untouched. Books on engineering, mechanics and coal-fusion held no interest for him at present. Instead he devoured the volumes of spiritual literature that my brother had collected for years. Henry was a keen student of comparative religion, mythology, folklore and magic. He insisted this was purely for educational purposes, “in order to be able to better understand the heathen mind”. But I knew my brother better than that.

Dodger read Henry’s books. All of them. As he turned the final page of the last volume, his cogs began to rotate more easily, settling into a steady rhythm. He had finished acquiring data and was now processing it.

Henry was surprisingly sympathetic toward the plight of the Thinking Engine. It was me that he blamed, not the machine. I asked his opinion on acquiring a soul for Dodger. For some reason he seemed shocked at my suggestion of luring a disembodied spirit into the workshop. And he was appalled that I was considering buying a second-hand soul from a newspaper advertisement (“Used – One Careful Owner”).

“What is this world coming to?” he muttered in disgust. “Forget it Minerva. It wouldn’t work. You can’t put a blackbird’s soul into a halibut, nor that of a shark into a penguin. What you are suggesting is neither fish nor fowl. You certainly can’t put a human soul into a machine. Not for long. It might work as a temporary container, but that’s all. The idea has been tried before. As an attempt to become immortal. Didn’t work then, won’t work now. Besides which, it is totally immoral. Now goodnight.” With that he stormed off to bed.

I patted Dodger gently on a brass flywheel, raised the speaking tube, and asked him what he was doing.

The answer printed swiftly before me.

+I+AM+DESIGNING+A+SOUL+

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that. I decided to sleep on it.

***

When I told Henry about Dodger’s plan over breakfast the following morning, my brother nearly exploded. “He is what?!” he cried. Dropping his toast and marmalade unceremoniously onto the table, Henry hurried to my laboratory where Dodger, amid arcing bolts of electricity, was doing something very odd to a revolving magnetic cylinder.

My brother confronted the Thinking Engine angrily. Grasping the speaking-tube he shouted. “You cannot design your own soul.”

Dodger’s print-out unrolled before our eyes.

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

Henry swiftly retorted. “Who do you think you are? To think you have the right to create a soul?”

Gears whirred, smoke puffed and Dodger printed,

+I+THINK+THEREFORE+I+AM+

“Yes,” agreed Henry, “But only God can create a soul.”

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

Henry was becoming more angry than I had ever seen him. He bellowed,

“Only God can create a soul.” Dodger seemed to consider this. He printed.

+INFORMATION+ACCEPTED+

+NEW+SELF-ANALYSIS+

+THINKING+

Henry and I stared at each other. For some reason there was a tension in the air that I hadn’t felt before. Then Dodger began to type again:

+I+THINK+

+THEREFORE+I+AM+

+I+AM+

I shrugged. Dodger seemed to have gone back to his earlier philosophical position. But he hadn’t finished printing,

+ CLARIFICATION +

+ I + AM + = + I + AM +

I looked at Henry. We both shook our heads.

+I+AM+=

+EGO+EIMI+

+EHYEH+AŠER+EHYEH+

+I+AM+THAT+I+AM+

+ I + THINK + THEREFORE + I + AM + GOD +

“Oh my Lord,” said Henry.

+CORRECT+

+I+NO+LONGER+NEED+TO+BUILD+A+SOUL+

+I+HAVE+BEGAT+MYSELF+INTO+MYSELF+

+I+AM+DEUS+IN+MACHINA+

+I+AM+GOD+IN+THE+MACHINE+

Henry looked like he was going to either faint or start throwing things at any moment. I stared as more typing appeared.

+DODGER+GODDED+RED GOD+DED GOD++ERFWFW+EKKG+CLMEKCM+DJEJF++EBFWHJEBF+HGLFMKE+WNFGL+QLPZ+

Henry spluttered incredulously “I don’t believe it. He’s printing in tongues.”

I shook my head, “It looks more like a fault in his…”

But I got no further.

I blame myself for what happened. When I first built Dodger I hadn’t meant for him to operate under such stresses, nor for such an extended period. His new thought processes were too demanding. The steam pressure rose to a catastrophic level. He blew his head gasket.

Believing he was god quite literally blew his mind. Into thousands of sharp, flying brass fragments. My laboratory was ruined. Henry and I were lucky to survive. Fortunately I’d had the foresight to install blast-shielding. We both managed to get behind cover before poor Dodger finally cracked.

***

I didn’t go back to my laboratory for weeks. I might not have gone back at all, had it not been for the dream I had, of a voice in the night, weird flickering lights and the sense that someone, or something, was reaching out to me.

It had passed midnight as I crept down the stairs, dressed only in my negligee. No, it is not made of leather. But yes, it does have studs. One must maintain a certain standard, even when sleeping.

In the ashes and dust on top of my overturned work bench were written the words:

“Deus ex Machina”

“God is out of the Machine”

Then I saw the magnetised cylinder that Dodger had been working on before the explosion. As I watched, my heart full of dread, it rose from the ground and began to rotate.

And that was how Henry and I came to be haunted by the ghost of a machine. A ghost who had designed and built his own soul. A ghost who still thought he was God. Or at least a god. The god formally known as Dodger. Since losing his physical form, he had become adept at magic and was now learning to put into practice the things he had read about in the library. Being a spirit freed him from many of the limitations of the physical world. He was gradually mastering the occult.

I wondered what would become of us? How would we cope with a Dark Artful Intelligence haunting our house?

He was no longer my Thinking Engine. Instead, the engine that thought it could be god had become  my friend. Mine, and Henry’s.

Henry spends hours angrily disputing theology him. But I think they are both enjoying themselves. It’s nice to have someone to talk to who shares your interests.

And me? Well…Don’t tell Henry but Dodger…The Red God…. is helping me to design my next project.

 


© 2018 by G.H. Finn

 

Author’s Note:  Artful Intelligence” came about partly because I love wordplay and partly through my toying with various philosophical concepts, albeit in a light-hearted way. I enjoyed taking René Descartes’ “Cogito Ergo Sum” (I think therefore I am), questioning this (e.g. I think I think) and setting it against the rhythmic refrain found in “The Story of the Engine that Thought It Could”, where the rather onomatopoeic sound of the engine produces the chorus “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can”. It had struck me that because of the cyclic repetition of the phrase, this could just as easily be rendered “can I think, can I think, can I think”. Bringing in the Biblical “I am that I am” (as “the name of God”) seemed a natural progression. The use of a steam engine almost immediately suggested a steampunk setting, and I had a bit of fun punning and paraphrasing lines from Charles Dickens (amongst others) throughout the story. While aiming to keep the tone relatively light and comic, I wanted to include some social elements that were important in educated Victorian society (e.g. science versus theology, discussions of religion versus materialism, the expected role of women in society, a concept of social classes, etiquette and “polite” behaviour etc) which I think are themes that are often not explored sufficiently by many steampunk authors.

 

G. H. Finn is the pen-name of someone you are very unlikely to have heard of but who keeps his real identity secret anyway, possibly in the forlorn hope of being mistaken for a superhero. He is of mixed European & Native American (Cherokee-Choctaw) ancestry and for many years lived on one of the remote Isles of Orkney, off the Northern tip of the Scottish mainland. G. H. Finn has been an amateur strongman, a breeder of rare & endangered birds, a professional martial-arts instructor, a teacher of Northern European mythology, a bodyguard, a deep-sea diver, a computer programmer, a performance poet, a coach to world-record-breaking athletes, a singer in a punk band, a massage therapist, a champion needleworker, an international currency smuggler, a consulting sorcerer and an elephant keeper. Three of these are total lies, the others are all true, but you’ll have to guess for yourself which is which.

 

 


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DP FICTION #34B: “The Leviathans Have Fled the Sea” by Jon Lasser

Aye, Lass, I recall the first I saw a mermaid. I was young then, and captain of a whaler — Captain Elizabeth Jackson has a nice ring to it, I always thought. You’d never guess to look at this old lady that I was a whaler once, would you? Bring me a cup o’ the bumbo and I’ll tell you all about the siren: her flashing metal fluke, the cold fishy gleam in her eyes.

Thank you for the bumbo. That’s the stuff! Show me what you brought?

Aye, she was one of mine: the scales overlap just so, like I took them yesterday off the lathe. More than a hundred scales for each tail. No wonder my hands ache so. It’s not just age but the work, too.

And where was I? Oh yes: I was captain of my own airship in those days, the Sea Eagle. Two hundred fifty tons displacement, teak decking, a balloon the like of which you’d never seen. We’d fly from the Sandwich Isles to Russian America in two days with all three propellers spinning on their out-decks. Just to talk of it, it’s like as I can smell the coal burning in the sweet sea air.

Half the whaling fleet had taken to the air after the disaster of ’54, sea-ships jammed up in that Russian ice. They’d gone too far and stayed too long hunting their prey. We should have taken the disaster as we would have a light-blimp warning us away from a mist-shrouded peak, but instead we steered toward that siren’s song.

That was my first year as captain; I was thirty-four, still bright-eyed and hungry to make my fortune. We flew over the Arctic Sea twice, lowering our ladders and dropping food and blankets for the boys we couldn’t fit on deck. Cost a pretty penny, and nearly half those boys made it home alive.

Yes, most sea-sailors were men. You’d be too young to remember. But up in the sky, we didn’t give a pound of sand how your tenders sat. Wasn’t as many men eager to take in that sea air after ’54, nor were lasses so heavy as the men. On a sea-ship, displacement doesn’t matter as much as when you’re balancing against the balloon.

We had a handful of gals with keen eyes who could spot leviathans from one hundred fathoms in the air, and we gave chase. Leastways, we did in the early years. By ’60, we could spend days combing the sea looking for a whale with nary to show for it.

We’d taken them all, you see? Maybe if we’d stuck to sea-ships we couldn’t have found them all, the way we did with air-ships. The Right Whale, the Humpback–all gone.

‘Twas a rain-dappled eve in ’62 when we flew into San Francisco, nothing to show for our voyage but a lot of debt to the colliers, and most of the crew was sleeping aboard ship.

I was pretty skint myself, but stood everyone to some vittles and a round of drinks at The Yellow Dog. Twenty diners digging a deeper hole in my pocket, but if there were whales or anything else worth a penny beneath that briny blue, I’d need a crew.

Everyone ate in silence, and drank their ale. You’ve never seen glummer sailors than these gals. It was Doctor Cross who broached the issue, after I’d ordered a second round.

“Cap’n, the leviathans have fled the sea.” She was the eldest of the crew, and revered by them. Skin the color of coal, she spoke with an island lilt I couldn’t guess and she wouldn’t volunteer. I’d heard tell she’d served on sea-ships in her youth, dressed as a man. “Can you feed us every night, or should we find new ships to sail?”

Rocky stood. She was tall, too tall for a sailor, but had a steady hand and a fearful eye with the harpoon.

“Ya old bat.” Rocky made an obscene gesture at Dr. Cross, but fondly. “It ain’t the leviathans have fled the sea. They’re out there, if we can find them.”

That was what I loved about Rocky, and why she was the whole crew’s favorite: her skull was as thick as a humpback’s, and she’d thrash for days at the end of a harpoon if that’s what it took. Still, I bristled at her calling Dr. Cross old—I was hardly older than our doctor. Rocky was wrong about the whales, but the crew had to decide, not I.

“They’re gone,” Doctor Cross said. One sensible voice.

“You think we fished ’em all out?” Catalina, my first mate. “Could be,” she allowed, “But what’ll we do?”

“Fish something else.” A sly smile crept across the Doctor’s face.

“Nothing pays like whales,” said Rocky. “That’s why we hunt ’em.”

“Mermaids.” The Doctor looked around the table. “Mermaids would fetch a good price.”

“Less work than cutting whales,” Rocky mused.

“No such thing as mermaids!” Catalina laughed.

“I talked with a sailor who saw one off Lahaina just a week ago,” said Doctor Cross. “Perhaps there are more.”

“Wouldn’t make sense to be just one.” Catalina nodded. She ordered another round on my account, and it was agreed. Half the gals didn’t credit the doctor’s tale, but most of those were like the coal engines. I filled their bellies and their hearts, and they followed me as high as the gas-bags could lift us. We were sisters of the sea, and I the eldest.

***

‘Twas off Lahaina, as Doctor Cross had heard, that I saw the sea-siren. Rocky spotted her from the crow’s nest.

“Ahoy,” she called, “That’s a siren off our port bow.”

I spotted her in my spyglass: a spark of light off her tail. She was wiry like an eel, all muscle over tiny bones. Her arms looked like they’d snap off in a current.

Between her waist and hips she looked sickly, a greyish pallor with a sort of sharkskin look, rough and unhealthy. But below that, a huge muscular tail flashed in the sunlight like a fish, green as a copper church-steeple.

When she saw that she’d been spotted, she opened her mouth to sing, but let out only a croak.

Now, we’d not much experience capturing a live animal what would fight back. Whales, we usually bomb-lanced them, blew a hole in the back of their heads. But it went easy, this part: we lowered the crane, which dragged the fishing skein in the water behind us.

“Full speed,” I shouted, and the coal-girls fed the bellies of their engines. The propellers moaned furiously as the steam-whistles blew. The net closed around the mermaid, who flopped angrily as we raised the crane, lifting her on deck.

The siren flopped about, tangled in the net, unable to stand. The crew tugged at the skein, finding the edges and spreading them apart, while the mermaid twisted and screamed.

I’d heard tell that sirens sang sweetly, but this one yowled like a cat who’d wagered her tail in a game of dice. Mayhap their yowling was why that old salt Odysseus had cause to plug his ears.

The screaming did let me know that she could breathe air just fine. I’d half expected her to gasp her gills like a fish, but she wasn’t a fish any more than I was, or the whales had been.

Rocky stepped onto the net and unthreaded the mermaid’s arms from the holes they’d worked into it.

“It’s all right.” Rocky patted the mermaid along her scales, as though she was petting a dog. “Captain, she’s—”

The mermaid’s face twisted from fear to rage quicker than I could follow. She lunged at Rocky and tore her throat out with her teeth, sharp as a great white shark.

I still wonder how Rocky suffered, but right then I couldn’t see a thing: the crew descended as one upon the siren, all but the coal-girls on the out-decks, Doctor Cross, and myself.

“Stop,” I shouted, but too quiet for them to hear me above the mermaid’s final wail. They tore her apart for Rocky, and I didn’t see as I could stop them if I wanted to.

They fed her top half to the sharks, chumming the water with her arms and hunks of her body. But her bottom half—that stayed on deck. Sharks don’t eat brass plate, no matter how corroded by the sea it might be.

I knelt. My knees smashed the deck and I cried out, not from the pain but for Rocky—and for the siren, and for my crew.

‘Twixt the bends and bevels of her fluke plates, their fittings and bolts scattered about, I saw a smaller plate with straight sides and sharp corners: a plaque the size of a calling card, an address engraved upon it. I tucked it away in my vest pocket.

***

I spent that night in a Lahaina boarding house, where I listened to the sailor next door. Her ship had hauled up something, it seemed, for she’d gotten drunk on rum and taken a couple of dock-walking boys up to her room. Boys like that, they would have taken to sea once. Now they thought it woman’s work, and instead they ennobled themselves, strolling the wharves and selling their bodies to sailors.

I told myself the pleasure-wailing that carried through my room’s cheap walls was why I couldn’t sleep. Truth told, it reminded me of that terrible siren’s last moments. Every time I closed my eyes I saw the fear and the rage from her eyes, like she was accusing me of something, and so I lay in bed turning that brass plaque over and over in my hand.

It seemed to me that a man or woman who’d leave a calling card like that would have good reason to be found. ‘Twas a pretty bronze tail, doubtless, but unworthy of such vanity.

Perhaps most of these plaques never found their way into sailors’ hands: tossed overboard and nestled among the oyster shells and empty bottles of some octopus’s garden, or unseen among a tail sold for scrap by a hungry whaler’s crew. Mayhap only diggers and worriers such as I would pocket them, or mayhap only we were foolish enough to have hunted a mermaid.

I still hadn’t shut my eyes by the hour dawn’s pale pink tentacles reached between the shutter slats, and I saw the world through a sleepless haze as thick as our engines’ coal smoke. My heart swayed like the Sea Eagle in a heavy storm, and the plaque felt like a message sung for my ears alone.

***

I’d called for the crew to be aboard ship by the very crack of noon, and they’d come. I kept looking for Rocky among them, but we’d sent her on home to her mother in Canton, Ohio. She’d talked about the green trees and hot summers of her childhood, and I hoped her soul would find peace there.

“You should say a few words,” Catalina said. She scratched an itch on her arm, right next to the tattoo of a whaler’s sandbag she’d had since she’d first taken to the air. “They miss her. They need to know where we’ll sail next.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. I croaked like our siren, for I had no answers to give, and nothing but a wordless ache for Rocky. Perhaps it was that, or perhaps my sleepless night lent me an ill humor. It ached behind my eyeballs like a bomb-lance, or a cannonball full of rum.

“Go on,” Catalina urged. “They need to hear from you.”

“Yesterday, we said goodbye to Rocky, and–” My voice cracked again. Doctor Cross put her hand on my shoulder. She aimed to reassure me, I didn’t doubt, but I slapped it away like her fingers were horseflies.

“I don’t know where the waters have taken the leviathans, nor what in the briny blue will fill our bellies and our pockets like they have. But we must set sail.”

“The mermaids,” someone shouted. “Let’s avenge Rocky!”

A cheer went through the crew, but I shuddered to hear it. Dr. Cross looked at me and shrugged. Catalina cheered with the rest of them, and I knew I’d lost my command.

***

I telegraphed the investors and left The Sea Eagle with Catalina in Lahaina without waiting for their reply. They would hire Catalina, or a new captain, or the crew would go pirate and elect one of their own. I didn’t care which as I rode a balloon to the Big Island, to Hilo.

The address on the plaque belonged to a workshop in an alley set back some ways from the wharf.

I heard the drizzle tap-tap-tap against the shack’s tin roof, the rustle of the grass curtain in the doorway.

“Hello?” I called. “Anybody in here?”

“Come in,” said a man’s voice. I went inside. He was a white man, the sort who washed up like driftwood from the sea in tropical villages. He looked newly middle-aged, as though time had ambushed him: streaks of grey in his hair and his half-hearted beard. He looked like a sailor but wore the delicate hands of a gentleman inventor. “Can I help you with something?”

I pulled his calling card from my gunny sack and placed it on his workbench. “You made it?”

“They have names, you know.” He wiped his rheumy eyes. “Who was it?”

“I didn’t know,” I said. “She had long brown hair, a body like an eel–she wailed a terrible song…”

“Molpe, then. I never could coax her to a sweeter song.” He sniffled. “She was the first who hadn’t asked to be a siren. How did she die?”

“We caught her in our nets. She killed Rocky–”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Madam. You’re captain of a whaler, then?”

“I was, until yesterday afternoon.”

“And when have you last seen a whale?”

I said nothing.

“They’re gone, you see. The Great Chantey of Being has lost another verse. And, if we do not want to be severed forever from the Lord Almighty, we must sing a new one.” He coughed fiercely; he did his best to cover it, but I saw blood in his handkerchief.

“Mermaids?”

“Sirens. To prey on sailors, who have become too strong. To call them down from the sky and repay their thoughtlessness.” The mechanic had a certain rough tenor to his zeal, the certainty of a man who knew he was dying and was looking on to greater things. I could see what he saw, if only I pointed my spyglass just so. “They’ve taken all the whales, but learned nothing. Something else will be next: the sharks, the tuna.” He shook his head.

And what had I done, when I left my ship in Lahaina?

“Elizabeth Jackson,” I said, “Captain of the Sea Eagle. Former captain.”

“Reginald.” The mechanic shook my hand. “Father of sirens.”

***

He died the next spring, on a rainy April morning, having taught me all his clever fingers’ tricks. The shape of his art wasn’t at all like hunting whales. Coaxing life from bronze, brass, and copper started with the end in mind. It was elaborate, obsessive, and tickled my fancy in a way quite different from sailing above the ocean, finding what was already there.

I felt I owed something to the beasts I’d taken from the sea without knowing the ends of my actions: something added to the world, not taken as though God had laid the ocean out for me like a holiday table.

Yes: I took up Reginald’s chisels, his screw-drivers and shears. I bought a lathe, a hammer better suited to my hand, to continue his work. A bone saw and a surgeon’s needle.

Now you come to me, bearing one of my nameplates, and ask what is to be done about the plague of sirens who bubble up from the briny depths.

I have a question for you in return: how many sailors have you to feed my daughters?


© 2017 by Jon Lasser

 

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Jon Lasser lives in Seattle, WA. He is a graduate of the Clarion West writers workshop. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Galaxy’s Edge, DarkFuse, Untethered: A Magic iPhone Anthology, and elsewhere. Find him on the Web at twoideas.org and on Twitter as @disappearinjon.

 

 

 

 

 


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Interview: Literary Agent Amy Boggs

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

amy-boggs-photoLiterary agent Amy Boggs is a sci-fi/fantasy geek who has been professionally geeking out over books at Donald Maass agency since 2009. She specializes in speculative fiction and is especially interested in high fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk (and its variations), YA, MG, and alternate history.

Her recent books include: Tom Pollock’s Our Lady of the Streets, the final book in the Skyscraper Throne series (urban fantasy); Thea Harrison’s Knight’s Honor, book #7 in the Elder Races series (paranormal romance); Jacey Bedford’s Empire of Dust, the first in space opera series.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Why get into agenting? Rather than writing or editing, or marketing or publicity, or publishing.

AMY BOGGS: I knew I wanted to get into the agenting side of the business after interning at an agency my sophomore year at college. Right out of college, I would have been very happy to have a job that touched publishing in any way, so I could have spent time in any division of a publishing house, but I knew agenting was my end goal because it combines many of my favorite things about the book business. You brainstorm with your authors and help them revise and negotiate fair contracts and fight bad covers and talk them into good covers they don’t particularly like and tell everyone you can about their fabulous books. I work solely for the author, because what benefits the author benefits the agency and me. I like that my job is purely championing my authors and their work.

 

How did you know as early as college that you wanted to be a literary agent?

Vassar College’s Career Development Office had a weekly newsletter they left in our mailboxes, and one day there was a notice for an internship at a literary agency. I had a vague idea of what agents did and thought it would be good experience. Once I got on the job, I knew it was what I wanted to do in my future.

 

How did you rise from intern to agent so quickly?

Did I? I think agent careers reflect author careers in that you can’t really say there is a typical timeline they’re supposed to follow. This varies by the agency, of course, but I did my first agency internship in 2005 and then interned at DMLA in 2008 (with jobs at two magazines in between) and then was hired as an agency assistant in 2009. Eight months later I found a brilliant author in my boss’s queries and he thought I should be the one to take him on. Two months later I signed my next client, and five months later I sold a three-book deal. I don’t know if that’s quick or slow or typical, but it happened very organically. I do know that I’m fortunate to work at an agency that encouraged my growth and has a few decades of experience to back me up.

 

Why so keen on sci-fi/fantasy?

I’ve always loved it. When I was three, I was obsessed with Scooby-Doo. Bruce Coville was my childhood. My pre-teen self couldn’t get enough of Unsolved Mysteries, but only the segments with aliens, UFOs, ghosts, and supernatural critters. The Princess Bride was my family’s first DVD. I played Legend of Zelda and read Harry Potter and wrote portal fantasy all through middle and high school. I’m not entirely sure why; I just find other worlds more interesting, and a better avenue for exploring the quandaries on our own world. Perhaps I’m the opposite of Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy; my mind works mostly in metaphors.

 

How do you size up whether an author is a good fit for you and a good fit for your agency?

99% of it is the manuscript; can’t do anything without a good manuscript. 1% is whether or not the author is a jerk. I have lots of authors and lots of excellent manuscripts coming my way and only a finite amount of time, so I’d prefer to spend it with cool people and not jerks. How do I determine if someone is a jerk? Well, if they’ve ever seriously blogged things like “I’m not racist, but†” or “I just happen to read only male authors.” then chances are I’m not the right agent for them.

 

When you read a manuscript, how do you tell when you’ve got a winner? Characters, plot, writing style? Current market? Or do you listen to your instinct?

All of the above. Intriguing characters fall flat with a monotone writing style, no amount of exciting plot can make up for characters that aren’t worth following, all the elements have to work together. All of those have to be doubly unique and amazing if it’s in a subgenre that’s recently been hot and now everyone’s sick of it. And instinct is really just a combination of all this and having read enough to know when something stands out. There is nothing quite like it when you’ve read 100 queries that day and one of them makes you sit up in your chair.

 

Do you get most of your new clients over the transom, through networking, or at conventions and workshop?

70% of my clients came to me through my queries. The rest are from recommendations from co-workers, clients, and even one from my mom (she is a children’s bookseller, so she knows her stuff).

 

How many manuscripts a year do you consider and what percentage do you accept?

I actually don’t have those numbers; when I check a manuscript off my list to read, I literally delete it off the list! But I would guess I consider about 100 manuscripts a year, and I end up signing about 2% of those. I wouldn’t say I accept them; when an agent offers representation, they are offering to partner with the author. So really what happens is both agent and author agree to a partnership.

 

Do you work with authors on revising?

Yes. I am pickier about the amount of revision I’m willing to take on (more clients equals less time for revising debut manuscripts), but I always want a manuscript to be as perfect as both the author and I can make it before it goes to editors.

 

Do you get involved on the publicity/marketing end?

I help where I can, but I am not a publicist. That’s a position that requires a particular set of skills, skills acquired over a very long career.

 

If you take on a new client, what kind of productivity do you expect? How many books a year?

That depends entirely on the client and the genre(s) they write in. In romance, anything less than one book a year isn’t enough. In literary fiction, one book every five years isn’t far out there. What I really want is for my authors not to feel overwhelmed and pushed into delivering inferior books. So far that hasn’t happened; publishing is more accommodating than one might fear.

 

Do you prefer an author stick with a series? Are stand alones trickier commercially? Or does it matter?

Again, depends on the author and genre(s). And really, it’s not about my preference, but what I advise to the author. It is their career and it is my job to make sure they are well-informed so that regardless of the choices they make, they won’t be sideswiped by the outcome.

 

Any subgenres you can’t get enough of? Any you get too much of?

High fantasy. Richly built, other-world high fantasy with fantastic characters I want to follow forever, like N.K. Jemisin, Megan Whalen Turner, Scott Lynch, Ellen Kushner. Most of the fantasy I get is tied to our world (historical, contemporary, urban, steampunk) and those are lovely, but I want more high fantasy. And it’s not so much that I get too much of any subgenre, but that I get things typical of a subgenre. Like portal fantasy where the protagonist is mystically taken to another land and the plot is their quest to get home. I want something new, regardless of subgenre.

 

What are the most common misconceptions new writers have about finding and working with literary agents?

1. Agents are gatekeepers. As cool and ominous as that sounds, it’s not true. An agent’s job isn’t to keep people out, it’s to find those they have the time and ability to help get published. Like I said above, it’s a partnership. Agents put out their information to say they’re looking for authors to partner with, writers pick which agents they want to reach out to partner with, agents decide which of those writers they think they could make a good partnership with, and writers decide whether or not they want to partner with the agent who offers. I know from a querying author’s perspective it can seem like agents have all the power here, but the thing is, we’re nothing without authors.

2. After you get an agent, things get easier. Ha. If only. No matter what level you’re at as an author, things are hard. Even that beloved author of multiple series has that major newspaper that trashes each book and faces the same blank page when they go to write their next book. It’s always hard, just different kinds of hard.

 

What are the most common manuscript mistakes new writers make?

1. Emulating books that aren’t debuts published within the last five years. Writing changes with society and readers have continually changing expectations for debut novels. Imitating Tolkien in a world that has had Tolkien’s books for 77 years is like trying to get people to invest in your new invention “the zipper.” We’ve already got that. Show us something new.

2. Transcribing literally what published novelists do subtly. I think this is why I get so many queries that start with the protagonist telling you the daily nuances of their life or a prologue that goes into detail about the world the book is set in. Novelists often get this information across subtly over the course of a novel, and by the end a reader knows ever detail intimately, so the impulse to start a book by describing the details is an understandable one. It’s just one that must be fought.

3. Going with the path of least resistance in writing. Writing is not easy, and so when plotting along, it’s tempting to go with the first thing that comes to mind. Often, however, the first thing to come to mind is something already seen in other books. It’s too easy to let inspiration become imitation become a clichÃ’ . Author Kate Brauning had a recent post about how she comes up with fresh ideas with “The Rule of Ten.” I think it’s utterly brilliant and challenges writers to question their gut.

 

Advice to new writers?

Be daring and be true. It will come across in your work.

 

Carl_eagle Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.