How to Write Steampunk; Today at SteamU, SteamU Professor Nathan L. Yocum Presents: The Art of Anachronism—Research Tips for Authors & Steampunk Enthusiasts

Dr. Nathan L. Yocum Presents: The Art of Anachronism—Research Tips for Authors & Steampunk Enthusiasts

“Getting it right” is always an issue. Is your story true steampunk? Is your depiction of Victorian sensibilities accurate? Are genre fans (i.e. your clients and customers) happy with your level of steam engagement?

I don’t have the all answers to these questions, but what I can do is give advice to set you in the right direction. If you are a budding steampunk author, there are certain resources you can rely on to give yourself an edge. Credibility lies not just in the small details but in the explanation of small details. For example, in my novel Automatic Woman I had characters using penicillin. The novel takes place in 1888; penicillin was discovered in 1875 but its medicinal value was not realized until 1928. To me this fit within the confines of steampunk in that I was presenting future technology at a time when it did not exist. The error I made was in having characters use it frequently with no explanation of how it got there. I thought it unnecessary to give an explanation of the premature discovery of medicinal penicillin in what is essentially a detective story. Many of my readers disagreed. Though my reviews have been largely positive, one of the most consistent criticisms I received was that the characters should not have been using penicillin in 1888; this in a story featuring a murderous artificially intelligent clockwork ballerina—please take a moment to let the irony set.

Wait a minute…where is the coal burning micro-processor!!!

The thing is, my critics were not wrong. One of the central plots of the story is the protagonist’s attempt to figure out how the automatic woman came to life and murdered her creator. The investigation is ruled by details…and violence…and just a little bit of sex (you know; to balance things out). The penicillin goes unexplained, making its frequent use look like an oversight. An easy solution would have been to give an attending physician one or two lines hailing penicillin as some new miracle drug.

Hark, ladies and gentlemen of ill-repute!! Syphilis is now but a minor inconvenience!

Research is vital. Communicating your research skills is vital. To be a steampunk writer you must do your due diligence in research. I have found the following sources invaluable:

1.      The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Volume 2B—The Victorian Age

Oh look…answers.

The Longman Anthology’s forward contains super useful charts and facts on currency, income, customs, and populations. It also provides a “cliffs notes” overview of notable Victorian artists and art movements. Did you know that a soldier’s average income was twenty-five pound per year? Did you know that a pint of ale cost three pennies? Did you know that William Gladstone served as Queen Victoria’s Prime Minister on four separate occasions? Do you know why Lord Tennyson was such a big deal? Should your protagonist have an opinion regarding Pre-Raphaelite art? It’s all in there.

2.       A Decent List of Victorian Slang

There are plenty of websites to find period accurate slang. For example a complete scan of the 1909 Dictionary ofVictorian Slang can be found here: Victorian Slang

Or if you want an easier reference tool, you can check out the no-frills listing on this site: Victorian Slang II

Always keep in mind that extensive slang use is for the lower classes; Queen’s English for the genteel and educated upper-middle class. If in doubt just ask “would Sherlock Holmes say this?”

‘E was a right bloody blagger…eh, Watson?

3.      The Complete Sherlock Holmes

Speaking of Sherlock, no steampunk research kit is complete without Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Complete Sherlock Holmes. Pacing, language, description, action, intrigue, and an abundance of historically accurate references (i.e. Dr. Watson’s war record); Doyle created a snapshot of London that represents the gold standard for fictionalized Victorian cities. I read at least two Sherlock Holmes stories before engaging in any steampunk writing. It sets the mood, so to speak.

This concludes today’s lecture. Your homework options are as follows:

1.      Suggest your own resources (i.e. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, A biography of Charles Babbage, etc.). Draft a five paragraph essay—why are your recommendations better than my recommendations?

2.      Paint or sketch a beautiful steampunk-themed picture. Scan it, post it, then send it to me: P.O. Box 232, Hilo, HI 96721. I love steampunk art. 

3.      Choose any indie steampunk author. Read their book and write a review with useful (non-hyperbolic) praise or criticism. If you enjoyed it, share or recommend it to a friend.

Post your responses in the comment board. Top students will receive an electronic copy of Automatic Woman. Thanks for attending my lecture, please enjoy the weekend.  
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Feature Excerpt: Automatic Woman by Nathan Yocum

Dear Steam U students, today we are posting an excerpt feature of Nathan Yocum's Automatic Woman. Consider this your in-class reading for today!
Statement of Jacob Fellows aka Jolly to Whitechapel Metropolitan Police. Transcribed from audio-cylinder, August 17, 1888.


I am a jolly fellow. My name is actually Jacob Fellows. The gentlemen in my office refer to me, literally, as Jolly Fellow, which is their euphemism for my rotund figure. There’s a long precedence of fat men also being funny men. I don’t regard myself as a man of mirth or good humor. In truth, I’m more apt to crack skulls than I am to make silly gestures, but the assumption stands and it’s easiest for my mates to pigeon-hole me in what they already hold true.

I’ve often looked for a solution to my roundness. I’m physically active at work and in leisure. I love football and am bloody hell on gears in the goalie box. Never the less, my cheeks are round and my jowls hang.

Whenever blokes find out that I’m a thief-catcher by trade, that I’m an operative for the Bow Street Firm, their eyes light up and I am forced to tolerate the inevitable comments.

“Oy, what kind of man are you going to run down?”

Or, “business must be good, my friend!”

Or my personal favorite, “your wife must be a jolly good cook, mate.” I’m not married, never had much luck with the female folk, and any reminder of this is liable to put me in an ugly disposition. An ugly mood means ugly deeds and I’ve hurt fellows over the odd comment. I’m not proud of that, just stating the truth.

My size does give some advantages. In the firm I’m generally referred to as a Front Doors Man. Sometimes we have to burst in on thieves or break into unsavory dens to retrieve that which belongs to our good paying clients. A man like me gets through the door first so I can throw in a little rough-and-tumble in case any bloke has a problem. I also do leg work and one-man investigations, but my services are best rendered in the grapple.

So they call me Jolly Fellow, or just Jolly. You can call me Jolly. I’ll call you officer, or guv’nor, or boss, or whatever you prefer. I know how authority likes titles; been round that bend myself. I know the value of a good dose of respect. It was working for authoritarian blokes like you that got me into this quandary. I’ll lay it out, and you can tell me what might or might not stick with the magistrate, savvy?

It all starts with the doctor. Dr. James Saxon, my client, a man of strange habits and stranger reputation. He telegraphed my office a report of theft, as all our clients are wont to do. One of our machines clerk filed the initial proceeding through Central Bureaucracy and I was in rotation for the assignment. The doctor’s credit punch card showed limited means, so it was me and only me who took the house call. Keep in mind, the good doctor wasn’t a bone saw or a physician; he was a doctor of science. I imagine him useless with a scalpel or any of the other trade tools of what I’d consider a legitimate doctor. Also, he was clearly beneath the financial and social standing of a regular doctor. Regardless of trade or social standing, his pound notes, though limited, were real and I took to the investigation with my usual enthusiasm. 

I hired a hansom cab to his home address, a penny theater in one of the lesser neighborhoods of London. I imagined he kept house in an apartment in the upper floors, but made no confirmation of that assumption.

“Come into my home, lad,” the doctor said with an offered hand.

I don’t like being called “lad,” but he was really quite distressed and I gave him a pass. Besides, this sire was an old one, and by old I mean venerable. His pate was bald and pink and his eyebrows bushed out like humming bird nests. I figured by that age, he’d earned the right to call anyone lad or lass. In respective age I can’t imagine many who’d be his equal. 

I shook his hand and shuffled into his homestead. I waited for him to give me his story, but he was distraught and at an obvious loss for words.

“Please Mr. Fellows, you must find her!” he spat out, and gripped my wrist with more strength than I would have credited him for.  “I’ve poured so many years of my life into her, I must have her back.”

“Look granddad, I’ll get the job done, don’t you worry, but you have to set me on the right path. Who are you talking about?  Who got snatched?”

“Better I show you.” 

The doctor beckoned me to sit in the front row of the playhouse. I claimed a squat and he left me by my lonesome. The gas lamps dimmed; curtains drew back and dancers leapt and pirouetted onto the stage. An orchestra started into the second act of Swan Lake and the dancers followed suit. I was shocked at first, having neither seen nor heard any musicians tuning in the pit. I’d been to Swan before and these blokes were giving a spot on performance. Normally I know better than to stand and meander during a performance, but given I was an audience of one, I figured convention did not apply. The pit was lifeless; not a single musician sat or played and yet still there emitted Pytor Tchaikovsky’s pounding notes in all their liquid fury. The crafty doctor had rigged a cylinder phonograph to a dozen brass amplifying tubes. The contraption boomed gloriously and it was no wonder the quality was so good. The old doctor had committed the original Bolshoy score to wax. His tubes arched and formed a line of mouths along the outer edge of the orchestral pit. The great contraption amplified sound in all directions at once. Every horn’s blow and timpani’s pound resounded off of the theater walls. I’d never seen nor heard anything quite like it and my high opinion of the doctor was solidified in that moment.

I looked up to the dancers. Their arms and legs moved fluidly, but their eyes remained cold and expressionless. They gazed forward into the empty audience seats without response or reaction. None of them noticed me and continued through their stances. Suddenly, a right handsome bloke, the prince as it were, spun onto the stage. He took to the center stage and lifted his arms, as though to catch the beautiful Swan Princess, only he held his arms to empty air. The prince swung about, without lady accompaniment, and performed what I credit as a perfect, though partner less, completion of the first dance. The house lights came back on and the music stopped suddenly, as did every dancer.  They froze in place; arms in hold, legs extended, not a shiver or groan of discomfort.

“Do you know anything about gear ratios, Mr. Fellows?” The doctor called from backstage.

“I’ve heard the term,” I called out. The doctor gave no response.

I ascended the stage stairs and had my first close-up of the doctor’s dancers. Words fail me in describing them. They were man-sized statues with fully articulated arms, legs, fingers, necks, and probably toes, though I did not get the chance to inspect. Instead of skin, they were encased in stained white pine, which gave the hue of human dermis from a distance. Their eyes were custom glass orbs, of the type ordered for soldiers or sailors who’ve lost an eye and are too vain for the patch. 

The doctor strode to center stage; he was now wearing the leather gloves, tool belt, and apron of a mechanic.

“Gear ratios, Mr. Fellows. Smaller gears link with larger gears, all connected with belts. A little power turns to a lot of movement and with enough gears, anything is possible.”

“What do you mean, then?” I was still taken aback by his dancers. I wasn’t sure what he was getting at. 

The doctor lifted the tunic of the frozen prince. His torso was smooth and sculpted. The doctor had obviously studied anatomy. Muscle outlines formed in the wood to account for the mechanism’s chest and abdomen. It seemed the doctor had designed this thing with perfection in mind.

The doctor pulled a thin chisel from his belt and wedged it into the automaton’s skin. There was a distinct pop and then the creature’s left pectoral fell to the floor.

“Please, come closer, Mr. Fellows.”

The doctor beckoned me to his creation. Inside this fake man, this thing, laid an endless labyrinth of gears and belts and pendulums. Everything was still but the pendulums, which rocked in silence.

“I oil everything daily; otherwise you’d hear the ticking, like the beat of a thousand hearts.”

I reached out to touch the work. It seemed like a thing of madness, all those gears and belts. I couldn’t imagine such a work being constructed in a hundred years. Not by a single old man. Again I was speechless.

“They move according to my design. The vibrations of the music starts master gears, a set for each act.”

“But how...?”

“Gear ratios, Mr. Fellows. We are not so different creatures from these. We react to that which is before us based on what the mind has learned prior. If I were I to thrust a torch at you, you would jump back because you already have the knowledge of flame and the damage it may do. You have undoubtedly been burned, probably as a child. The recesses of your mind recall the threat and act accordingly. My dancers are no different. Every motion is pre-ordained by gears articulating in the interior frame. They are skeletal, but their skeleton is steel. They have skin, but it’s wood and lacquer. They are powered by a heart, but rather than one clumsy muscle I have granted them four-thousand two-hundred and eight micro pendulums and two full pendulums. The pendulums transfer motion to energy and wind four-thousand two-hundred and eight springs. The springs compress and grant power to three-hundred ninety-one thousand six-hundred and eleven gears. The gears are fitted with eighty-three thousand, four hundred thirty-one belts, ranging in size from one inch to one one-thousandth of an inch. The gears and belts give reactive motion to the limbs as I have preordained. Gear sets give way to specific, particular motions. I programmed them. They step because I programmed them to step. They dance because I programmed them to dance. I am the god of these creatures much like the being on high who wound the springs that run you and I and all of mankind.”

“I don’t know what to say, Doctor.”

“There’s nothing to say. I showed you this to make a point.”  The doctor retrieved the prince’s breastplate and snapped it back into place.

“These dancers are my life’s creation, and one of them was taken from me!” 

The doctor shoved the prince to ground. He struck the stage heavily. The noise was like a thousand tiny splinters of metal ringing out at once. The automaton jerked and twitched. 

“Someone stole my Swan Princess!”

Now, I see the incredulous look on your faces and I respond to that with a guarantee. When you telegraph my office, you’ll find I’m a man of impeccable reputation. I stake my reputation on the assertion that everything I witnessed in the doctor’s theater is true. He’d made statues dance to Swan Lake and someone had run off with his prize ballerina, the Swan Princess.

I felt fortunate to have been assigned the case. The doctor’s work fascinated me.

            The whole affair should have been an easy resolve. Some things are hard to track: pocket watches, silver spoons, China plates. Things get nicked and sold to fences and if they aren’t engraved or personalized I tell the owners to let them go.  London has a robust black market, and the retrieval of certain valued works are nearly impossible. However, an unusual and rare item, a life-sized automatic ballerina for instance, is impossible to move. Whoever nicked it did it for profit or pleasure. If the theft was for profit, then the pawnbrokers union would find it soon enough. If for pleasure, Bow Street or the Metropolitan Police would probably have files on art house wank-enthusiasts. Either way I expected a short investigation and voiced as much to the good doctor.

I have many friends in the pawn business, as comes with the trade. Thief-catching is really about understanding the ebb and flow of money. Thieves steal to survive, not necessarily to better themselves. Some have habits to feed. Some have families to feed, which is as costly as any opium hook. The point of their trade is to move items for cash quickly. Neither pocket-slasher nor lock-smasher gets into the trade for investments. They need cash-in-hand. That’s where the brokers come in.

Goods change hands, money changes hands. There are some brokers who don’t even sell to the public, just to other men in the pawn trade. The more times a hot parcel changes hands, the quicker it changes hands, the less likely anyone will be popped for the larceny. Lucky me, some of these quick traders owe me favors for not getting you fine gentlemen involved in their dodgy transactions.

“I’ll find her, good sir. She can’t have gone off far. Do you know anyone who had an interest?”

“No,” the doctor said.  “Aside from myself, you’re the only one who has ever seen my dancers. They were for my pleasure alone.”

I gave him a long stare on that admission. His face was sweaty and anxious. He nervously nibbled on the tip of his forefinger. It’s right to note the doctor was a boffin and a confirmed bachelor for reasons both complex and obvious.

I left the doctor in his theater with many assurances and took a stroll to Panzer’s warehouse. Panzer is one of the aforementioned quick brokers. I would use the cliché, “He had his ear to the ground,” if it weren’t for the fact that both his ears had been cut off during a spoiled transaction.

“Hello, Panzer,” I said and puffed up my chest, just so he knew I was present on business. 

“Jolly,” he replied and raised his hand for a shake. I always love a good shake. My hand completely engulfs most men’s hands. I’ve got a good tough guy squeeze, too.

“Seen any fancy statues? One about this tall? Moves about on her own?” I looked him square in the eye and kept my grip on his mitten. He gave a revealing smile.

“Haven’t seen anything like that, Jolly. Hearing is a different matter, though.”

“Alright, mate. I’ll bite. What have you heard?”

“Hold on, sound is money and all that, what’s it worth?”

I tightened my grip on his hand.

“It’s worth me not giving you a smack and tipping the Metros to your moody gold sales.”

His face showed a bit of the pain I was inflicting on his hand.

“Hey now, Jolly, no need for ugliness. Just give me a taste of the bounty when you collect.”

I had to laugh. Here I am, crackling the man’s bones and he’s still negotiating for quid. Bloody pawn brokers. I let him go.

“You’re my kind of criminal, Panzer. A deal’s a deal, so what do you know?”

“Jacques Nouveau’s got some kind of moving statue. There’s a lot of talk of it in the union.”


“He’s a gallery owner and art fence; he moves sculptures and the like. All the rotten heads are abuzz about it. I’d be careful about walking in if I were you. A man’s liable to make more enemies going where he isn’t wanted.”

I flipped Panzer a sovereign.

“Keep your worries, mate. Here’s your bounty. Cheers.” 

I telegraphed the main office and left an address for where I was headed. That’s standard procedure. In case I go missing the firm’s retrievers have a starting location. I left the telegraph office and took the tube train to Whitechapel. 

Nouveau’s gallery looked more like a butcher’s shed than an art shop. It was purposefully rustic and pretentious. The walls were made of more splinters then planks and no two pedestals were of the same height. Statues adorned the place, standing and staring from behind velvet rope lines. The ropes separated masterworks from gawkers, one group staring at the other. For all I know they were bloody genius works. The jade and porcelain statues looked marvelous in contrast to the dingy patrons. But I’m no art critic.

Nouveau immediately picked me out from the crowd of men and statues. I guess I don’t give the proper impression of wealth or interest on my fat face.

“Do I know you, sir?” he asked with open palm extended.

Bloody Frenchman! His accent rolled out of his mouth like a silk handkerchief.

“Are you looking for a piece in particular?” 

I’ve thought long and hard about the whole French/English animosity. It’s not the Hundred Years War, nor Napoleon, nor any of that shite. It’s that their men always sound like they want to kiss us right on the lips with all those soft cake-eating words. I turned to the Frenchman.

“Yeah, friend, I am looking for a particular piece. A woman, about your size, white skin, automatic, dances the Swan Princess.”  I flexed and puffed as I spoke. If you lean in close to a man, and he leans back, and you know he’s afraid. If he’s afraid, you own him. To his credit, Frenchy didn’t lean back.

“Perhaps we can talk. Please come with me.”

I followed his silky kimono arse to what I can only assume was a private dining room. Like the rest of the warehouse, the decor was rustic chic. The standing table was a converted barn door. Chairs were cut from apple barrels and lacquered into luminous hues. Servants lined the room, still as corpses.  Frenchy took a seat at one end of the barn door and motioned me to sit master at the other. He rang a bell. The servant nearest me shook off her robe. Underneath stood a glistening naked body, shimmering in the gaslight. My mouth fell open. As I told you gents, I’m not a fellow well loved by the fairer sex. I can count naked bodies that have graced my presence on one hand with fingers left for snapping. This woman made me hate the ugliness, the imperfection of those I had beheld. She was slim with muscular lines set to milk skin. Her breasts were pert and lifted, nipples stood as hard rubies. I couldn’t fathom what the Frenchman was saying, but his words rattled somewhere behind me.

“Careful not to touch her detective, she’s quite fragile.”

The naked figure strode towards me, legs shuffling in tiny lock steps. I looked from her breasts to her face. It was heart shaped and the same milky complexion as the rest of her. Her hair was spun glass; it reflected the flames of every lamp. 

Nouveau rang his bell again. The goddess lifted a pitcher from the table and poured me a cup of wine. In the close proximity I heard the tiny clicks on pendulums, the whir of gears.

“She’s an automaton!”

“Oh yes,” said Nouveau. “She’s my prize.”

He rang the bell and his naked statute brought the pitcher to his goblet. She poured him a drink.

“Is that the Swan Princess?”

Frenchy giggled as he sipped wine.

“No. This creature can serve wine, stand, sit, and look pretty. She’s a four-thousand quid serving wench with jeweled teats.”

I looked again and realized her nipples actually were rubies. So much for metaphor.

“So the good doctor lost his Swan Princess?”

“Yeah,” I said, “and smart fingers point to you.”

“You need to find smarter fingers, monsieur.”

“Cheaper ones too, I think,” I shot back.

“I didn’t take her...” Frenchy turned thoughtful, he downed his wine goblet.

“Can I make a proposition?” he asked.

I was interested. “Sure Jacques, discretion is my Christian name.”

“If you find her...if you find the Swan...bring her to me.”

“Why’s that?”

He wrung his little bell. Naked and beautiful filled his cup again. He didn’t give her a second glance.

“Saxon found something. I don’t know how he did it.”

“Be specific, and maybe this can help all parties,” I said.

“That man kept his lovelies under close watch. I know what he was doing, because men who make automatic women are a small community, and we buy our sprockets and ball bearings from the same marketers, yes?”

“Makes sense. Go on.”

“I heard he was in the business, but he never showed off his creations. He is a selfish old man, hoarding those pretty dancers. They dance for him alone and he lives to watch them. He did something, but I’m not sure what.”

“What do you mean?”

“Keep a secret, monsieur? Actually, I don’t care if you do.  The whole world can know. I broke into his theater. Hirelings watched his door for me, and when he took his morning constitutional I went through an alley window. I saw his dancers up close.”

“I did too.”

Frenchy leaned back and rang for another refill.

“Then that makes three of us.”

His gorgeous automaton poured more wine. 

“So I climbed through the doctor’s window. All his little creatures were placed on the stage just so. I inspected their bodies. His were no better than mine. Ivory on the women, pine on the men, glass and gems for all the parts that sparkle. I thought ‘this man is not superior to me’...but then.”

Nouveau took another sip of wine. He set his goblet down and stared at me in silence. The bastard knew he was in charge of this conversation. I needed to know what came next, he was testing my patience.

“Alright, I’ll bite. What happened?”

“I was inspecting the prince when the princess turned her head. I wasn’t expecting any movement. These things run on auditory commands...bells, whistles, tunes and the like. I was standing in a thief’s silence and yet she moved. She turned her body towards me, hands raised in the air like one of Mary Shelley’s creatures. I stood, awestruck. She bounded across the floor in a series of pirouettes and leaps. Her feet wouldn’t let her walk, but she was mobile in dance and she came to me.  She came to me, monsieur, and wrapped her arms around me.”

“And you?”

“I was stunned, and aroused. Never before have I been so aroused by man or woman or any other thing.”

Spoken like a true Frenchman.

“She looked at me with her crystal eyes and I swear to you right here, right now. She tried to speak!”

“What did she say?”

“Nothing, of course. Her mouth opened and I heard the whir and ticking of her parts. She shook her head, closed her mouth and opened it again, like a fish fighting for air. Her hand touched my cheek and her mouth opened wider. I noticed at this time that the doctor had lined her mouth with real human teeth.  Some were damaged, cracked, like a person who grinds their teeth in their sleep.

“It was the cold brush of her hand on my face that brought me back to reality. This thing should not be capable of what it was doing. I hate to admit, I fled the girl. I ran like a coward.”

Nouveau swallowed the rest of his wine and rang the bell.  Like clockwork, his serving woman refilled the glass, each movement identically to the last.

“My sweet wench employs over twenty thousand gears. She is the cutting edge in all circles that care about such things, but she does nothing but serve wine. She doesn’t move unless prompted, she doesn’t smile or bite or do anything but walk, and grip, and pour. Dr. Saxon has done something...unnatural. His automatic woman, the way she moved, the way she grabbed me. It was like she was curious. There is no way to make gears do that, Mr. Fellows.”

I looked to my goblet of wine. I was tempted to down it but resisted. Frenchy’s words had rubbed me wrong, unsettled me. I knew if I started to drink, I’d be tempted to leap down the rabbit hole.

“Look, Nouveau. You’re in the know, and I need to find this thing.”

“If I find her, monsieur thief catcher, I’ll let you know.  But I will look at her first. I will look inside of her. I have to see her parts.”

The Frenchman downed another goblet of wine. I noticed for the first time that he was absolutely pissed. Shite-faced. Eye-watering, slurry-speeched, imbalanced, pissed.

“I will look at her. I will take off her skin and see what makes her curious. And if you find her, bring her to me.”

I stood up.

“You keep the line open, Jacques, or you’ll have trouble from me.”

I left Nouveau’s gallery. It was coming upon the dinner hour, and yet Nouveau’s words kept scrolling through my mind. I hadn’t realized I’d been returning to Saxon’s theater until the hansom dropped me off. I honestly don’t remember giving the driver Saxon’s address, but there I was.

The door was ajar, strange for a man of solitary and secretive practices. I pulled the bell cord regardless. No one responded so I let myself in.

The lobby was unchanged from my last visit. I stood there feeling like a fool; maybe Nouveau was having a laugh and I’d got caught up in a spook story. I was about to leave when I heard a groan. It was soft, but somehow amplified by the silence of the lobby. I unsheathed my weapon, a collapsible baton issued to all of us in the Bow Street Firm. A telescoping steel rod some of my mates call “The Cobra,” though I’ve never asked why.

I crept into the theater. All was dark except for a lone spotlight centered on the stage. Dr. Saxon’s dancers were gone and replaced by a scene that will forever haunt me.

They were together on center stage, bathed in the spotlight. The doctor was laid out, limbs splayed. The automatic woman, Dr. Saxon’s Swan Princess, held his body against hers, like a mother cradling a child. He issued another low groan.

I crept closer. No one else moved, not the princess, not the doctor. Regardless, I snapped my cobra to full length, if for nothing but my own confidence. I crept onto the stage; blood pooled under the doctor and seeped into the hardwood. Thick red stains ran up the Swan Princess’ arms. 

“Doc?” I called out.

He let out another low groan. The princess squeezed him tighter in her arms. The doctor’s legs kicked in convulsion. It was then that I knew she was crushing him, that Dr. Saxon’s beautiful Swan Princess was squeezing the life and blood from his body.

This was my time to shine. I may not understand automatics or gear ratios or any of that rot, but I understand violence. Violence and I are old acquaintances.

I roared like a lion and struck the Swan Princess with my cobra. Her head rotated a one-eighty; her mouth opened, showing off teeth lacquered with the old man’s blood. He kicked and squirmed and I struck again. The tip of my rod whipped across her brow, shattering a crystal eye. I whipped the cobra again across her face, cracking the ivory of her forehead. A tuft of rendered silk hair flew to the back stage. I struck her arms and her shoulders. Bits of ivory littered the stage and yet she held. She held until the old man stopped convulsing, until he was still...and then she let him go.

I yelled again, a wordless animal yell of frustration. An ancestral call, if you will. I couldn’t stop her from finishing the doctor, but I was determined to finish her.

She rose to her feet through my barrage of strikes. Plates of her came loose, revealing gears and inner springs. She tottered for a moment like she was going to fall, like she’d had enough, like my strikes were not the impotent efforts of a man who knew no better than to lash out. A Front Doors Man they call me. Jolly they call me. Helpless is not a word I’m accustomed to.

The creature lolled back like she was going to pitch over and then sprang into a ballerina’s leap. In my mind she resembled a gazelle, all lines and form. She leapt to me with open arms, striking the center of me with all the weight of her artificial body. I imagine getting struck by a rail handcart is similar. My feet left mother Gaia and we flew together for a long moment, over the lip of the stage, into the darkness of the orchestral pit. We collapsed in the darkness, together. We rolled as one, but she separated from me, retreating to an unseen corner. Luckily, I still held the cobra and whipped it around in the empty darkness. I could not see her in the blackness, but my shifting feet caught debris. I knelt down and swept my hands over cogs and severed limbs of what I assume were her back-up dancers. The pit was a graveyard. I could not step nor shift without contacting the remains of some poor dismantled automaton. Something had happened here beyond my comprehension.

Growing up in Whitechapel, my father often told me that all men and women have a place on God’s green earth. He told me that it was the job and place of royalty to fuck up and look good, just as it was the job and place of Parliament to pretend not to fuck up and look regular enough to court votes. He told me his place was to make boots, to cut leather, to polish in browns and blacks and having realized this, he needed no church or greater philosophy. He had found his place on Earth as God had intended. He lived a bootmakers’ life, and died a bootmakers’ death. I took these teachings as truth and have always held that the only worthy men are those doing what they’re supposed to. Those outside the grain are ripe for correction and often times it’s my job to do the correcting.

To retrace my original point, I think the doctor made an automaton to love him, and she did. And I think it was her, or the doctor, who destroyed all those other dancers. Was it for jealousy? Was it for passion? Was it for some sense of purpose or some greater acknowledgment of purpose? I don’t know. I’m just a bloke who likes to put mashers in their place and swing a club at a crook now and again. I don’t reckon any greater meaning from this, but I’m sure there is one.

So there I was, in the darkness of the pit surrounded by parts of destroyed machines. I heard her shuffle and swung my cobra accordingly. I spun my club through empty air. It would have been embarrassing had any live creatures stood as witness. Suddenly, a great scratch rendered the heavens, and then all things were filled with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. She must have hit the switch to start the orchestral score; it resounded in the pit as though all things were consumed by horns and strings and powerful drums.

I screamed in frustration. I was already blinded by the lack of light, and now I was deafened and muted by the music. I swung the cobra through empty air, determined to strike something, anything. I was overwhelmed in the darkness, in the crashing music, consumed and lost like an ape dropped in the ocean. The automatic woman bit my shoulder with her horrid teeth, but when I turned to confront, she was already gone. I backpedaled to the pit wall, desperately feeling for a ladder or door, anything to escape from this nightmare. The automaton bit me again, this time on the stomach. I swung and made contact, but again she vanished in the darkness. I was desperate, a creature far out of his element.

My father’s words came into my head again: all things in their place, all things conforming to their nature and doing what comes natural. For me, destruction is natural. My meaty paws gripping and tearing comes naturally. My weight and stature, these things are my nature.

I dropped the cobra and sat cross-legged. I closed my eyes, which weren’t doing me any good anyway. I cracked my knuckles and flexed my fingers. I imagine competitive fighters do this, the limbering of the hands. I stretched each finger and popped the knuckles of my thumbs and there I sat. She came upon me again as before, with a bite on my left shoulder, only this time I was prepared. I grabbed the automaton with my hands, my God given tools of destruction. I gripped under her elbows and rolled her to the floor; her teeth were lodged in my shoulder and stung fiercely. I spread my weight on top of her and prevented her from escaping. She would not strike me in another sortie; this fight would end in the grapple, under my terms.

The Swan Princess must have understood this because her arms and legs wrapped around my body, much as they’d wrapped around the poor dead Dr. Saxon. She squeezed my corpulence and I suddenly knew the strength of this beast, that it was enough to crack bones and snap a spine. I wrapped my arms and legs around her and squeezed with all my might, if for no greater purpose than to give the same treatment I was receiving.

And there we lay, locked like a serpent and mongoose; she tried to squeeze the life out of me, but found me no weak candidate. Not like the poor doctor. I squeezed with all the strength in my arms and legs, but heard no crack over the orchestral consonance, the beautiful and at this time dreadful conclusion of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece. We must have spent a minute locked in embrace, though it stretched into an eternity. My thumb found a space on her back, a crack. I changed the strategy of our grapple, for if she’d found a crack in me, I’m sure she would have exploited it all the same. I wedged my hand into her innards and felt all those working parts, all those cogs and belts and pendulums, whirling about and giving life to this aberration. I made a fist, and let my meaty fingers pull apart what they contacted. Belts dislodged, gears flung themselves loose and fell into her inner sanctum. I gripped again and this time pulled from her back a fist full of vital shiny trinkets, all those solid pieces of brass that accounted for her life’s blood.

The creature’s teeth loosened from my shoulder. She slumped and shuddered, much like the poor dead Doctor had shuddered in his last moment. My eyes had grown accustomed to darkness, and in the haze of what I remember, I swear she gave me an accusatory glare with her one remaining eye. I dripped blood on her face from my wound, and yet, there it was...her eye shown angry and then the light faded, or rather, I passed out.

So you see officers, it was not I who took the life of poor Dr. Saxon, rather it was his creation. I cannot explain the why, but I have provided the how. Contact my office, the Bow Street Firm. There you’ll find I have an impeccable reputation. You must believe me. I have nothing to hide.

About SteamU Professor: Dr. Nathan Yocum

He is also the editor-in-chief of SpecLit Masters Magazine. SpecLit Masters Magazine is a fantastic journal which focuses on master writers in speculative fiction. Steampunk fans will enjoy the second issue which honors Jules Verne and Victorian Science Fiction. Included in the edition are works paying homage to this canonical writer.
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Curiosity Quills




Thanks to Nathan Yocum on the wonderful writing tips and an excerpt of Automatic Woman!

~Class Dismissed!