Automatic Woman by Nathan L. Yocum
Automatic Woman by Nathan L. Yocum (Curiosity Quills Press, 2012) forces me to ask the ultimately paradoxical question. To what extent should a fantasy be realistic? Obviously if the action is set in Fairyland with an attack upon Titania by some vampires passing through on their way to an urban setting, there’s no need for anyone to speak in a particular way or for Elvish Magic Johnson to be able to hit more home runs after his retirement from basketball. Everything can be the product of an imagination allowed free rein. But suppose the fantasy is set in a real place and features historically verified individuals? Well this is where the paradox comes in. In theory, fantasy is the polar opposite of realism. It sets out to describe events which are or were impossible in our version of reality. A trope now establishing itself as routine introduces anachronistic technology to history. Set in Victorian England, we’re assailed by steampunk stories of clockwork and steam-powered robots and computers. Indeed, even with the assistance of modern technology, much of what we see described is impossible. Perhaps that’s actually the point of these stories: to introduce the impossible and so challenge our view of history. Perhaps Babbage could have succeeded in 1822 if the people in power had funded him. Sorry, Babbage did build his machine which was a state secret. It was later updated to become Colossus, used at Bletchley Park to win World War II. Except isn’t that science fiction? Ah it’s so difficult to get a precise grasp of this slippery question. Anyway, the point of all this is to decide whether a story claiming to be set in London in 1888 should be even remotely realistic.
In this book, we have a steampunk version of Pygmalion. You remember him, a sculptor who fell in love with a statue. Venus then granted the man’s wish and allowed the statue to come to life. They married and had a son — the perfect proof that she’d become a real woman. We should also note Hephaestus made automata to help out in his workshops, but he was semi-divine so that’s just fantasy. Back to the current book. A lonely scientist makes a troop of ballet dancers but he invests such creativity and love in the prima ballerina that she becomes something more than just gears and drive shafts. While this is not canonical Pygmalion because the machine does not become flesh, it does begin to exhibit symptoms of independent thought. It’s the AI gaining sentience trope borrowed from science fiction. In the cinema, it’s potentially the dance scene from Metropolis (1927) where the artificial Maria captivates the most important men of the city in their lust. In this work, the engineer was secretly supported by Charles Darwin who believed the creation of artificial intelligence was the first step towards achieving immortality. Needless to say, there’s an evil nemesis lurking in the background who will stop at nothing to obtain the secret of the “automatic woman” and it’s for our hero to run interference so that those working for Darwin can repair the “woman” and enable her to achieve her potential. Except, of course, the nemesis takes hostages and requires our hero to acquire the secrets of the “woman”. Ah how awkward it is to be caught in the middle. Perhaps that signals the need to meet Rasputin and Bram Stoker, and take a whistle-stop tour through the laws of King Hammurabi of Babylonia and a trip round Europe by train and dirigible.
The strength and weakness of this book is the open-ended approach to the plot. As a first-person narrative, we’re pitched into our hero describing how he came to be lying unconscious next to the body of the scientist who made the prima ballerina. Thereafter events just follow on. I could say it’s all great fun as if that’s a way of forgiving potential lapses. There are two fairly serious problems for me as a reader. The first is that what’s presented as a first-person narrative in British English is anything but. This is clearly a book written by an American. Is this a fatal problem? Not a bit. I find much of it amusing. Since almost all the readers for this book will be Americans, they will not appreciate how far from the mark the arrow falls. They will almost certainly find the language accessible to their modern sensibilities. The second problem is the almost total lack of realism in the descriptions of London and Oxford. Having just read a meticulously recreated Victorian London adventure by James P Blaylock, I’m only too aware of how threadbare this is. But, again, the point of books like this is not to produce historical accuracy. We’re here for the steampunk adventure with a few facts everyone will recognize as pegs on which to hang the plot. Never let a few facts stand in the way of a good story, these authors cry as they ride roughshod over the facts, hopefully remembering Mark Twain was a damn fine author.
I can’t help but notice anachronisms — it’s in my blood — so when Arthur Conan Doyle appears on the scene, takes out a syringe and pumps our hero full of penicillin, I tend to think, “Hmmm. This book is set in 1888 and the antibiotic was not discovered until 1928. What a pleasing coincidence of 8s.” There’s also some interesting discussion on evolution that certainly would not have been rehearsed in Victorian times. None of these things need concern us. Automatic Woman has its moments and rides quickly to an ending that would permit further adventures. There are fights, exchanges of gunfire and explosions. As far as it goes, it’s good of its type.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.