As a bit of Summer fun, I’ve been messing about with some ideas and narratives around AI consciousness, agency, tool-nature, the dystopic and the apocalyptic, the Uncanny Valley, and the history of automata. This all led me to write this little bit of short fiction set in a near-apocalyptic London (Brexit may or may not have been involved in making it near-apocalyptic, I couldn’t possibly say…[edit: it’s currently 13/12/2019, the morning after a Tory landslide in the GE, and yes it definitely was]). I do write fiction from time to to time, mostly fantasy rather than science fiction, but I rarely publish it under my own name. So here’s “And All the Automata of London Couldn’t”, and now I’ll go back to hiding behind citing other people’s fiction instead! 😀
“Holy shit! How’d you get one?!”
“Got there early. Queued in the fucking cold all bloody week! Wanted the black one, but the bastards sold out.”
His mate made a hissing sound between his teeth and then tried to sound consolatory. “Green’s okay too, I guess. Jammy git!” He punched him on the upper arm, earning a wince and a smile.
Fran had carefully raised her eyes from the page of the antique printed book in front of her when they’d started talking. The two lads were sat just opposite her, and she really didn’t want to get their attention.
“It ‘ave that new ultralux pixellion camera?!”
“Yeah, as well as that narrative selfie tech Dweeb was talking about the other day. It takes pictures it knows will grab my followers even if I don’t tell it to.”
She could just make out that they were paying attention to something in one of the lad’s hands, just up from the filthy crotch of his jeans, something made of glinting green that moved and shimmered.
“What you looking at?!”
She’d been spotted, so she just shrugged and went back to the black and white words on her paper pages.
“Look at her. Fucking reading!”
The others on the tube train visibly turned away. It was late, it was dark, and they didn’t care. Some of them were workers heading back to the farthest outskirts of the city as their shifts ended. Others were starting out across the black city to their jobs. Their precious luck, stretched thin enough already in making sure that they still had an actual job, wasn’t going to stretch further to avoid a knife in the dark because of an argument on the tube. So, they looked away.
“Ugh, look at her.” One of the boy-men sneered to the other. “She’s a fucking dog.” He spat on the floor of the tube, but it made little difference to the mess there already.
Fran had been ready to play-act being sick to settle their stomachs, readying a fake cough and remembering where she had a delicate handkerchief prepared for just such a deceit. But they were already back to checking out the thing in the one lad’s hands. She got a better view when the owner decided that, in fact, he wanted people to be looking, and he started arrogantly holding up the treasure to be admired. Emerald green scales flickered in the pale draining light of the tube train as the thin snake curled about his wrist, testing the air with its tongue.
“Man, the new models move so slick. You remember that fucking joke you had back in school, the little toy robot dude?” The second lad mocked the robot’s juddering moves with his arms, before laughing like a hyena.
“Yeah, Mr Roboto.” Said the other, stroking the head of the snake as its flickered its tongue against his skin. Probably diagnosing a few diseases. Sending alerts to his insurer. “Kind of liked him though…”
“Yeah, whatevs. He didn’t have half the bloody bells and whistles of this beauty though.”
They got off not long after, whooping and hollering as they pushed through the zombie commuters getting on the train – two bolshy lads off to adventures in the fringes of London.
Fran stayed on. She stayed on even after the train had reached the end of the line and started back on its path under London again. Her book was interesting, and the coldness of the tube train had never bothered her. Sometimes she looked at the other commuters from underneath her thick black eyelashes, but she’d learnt her lesson now and kept her glances even briefer than before. Eventually, though she started to gather her bags. She had sat with one friend for long enough and maybe it was time now to catch up with the others. Departing the train at Tower Bridge, she smiled at the frustration of the other passengers as it waited for her to walk up the platform to the front of the train. She placed a pale hand on the scratched and dirty perspex that sat over its cyclopic eye in goodbye and then walked away.
The ticket barrier let her through without demanding payment, which was kind, and she emerged from the depths to where she could see the remains of the first London wall. She liked the parts of London that were older than her. The newer parts shifted so quickly, but the old stones still hung about. They were surrounded now by glass towers that had long ago been abandoned and left like skeletons open to the winds. A few tourists were emerging from the dark as well, and she watched as their eyes skimmed over the empty tall towers and settled on the bricks that had once marked the edges of the city before the new wall.
“Please, can you take our picture?” One asked, her words translated immediately by the podgy blue anime cat she was holding up towards her. When held in Fran’s delicate hands, the creature lazily opened its saucer like eyes to take the photo as the tourist and her friends threw archaic peace signs towards it with their fingers. Fran smiled as they chattered their thankyous to her, before noting the moment down in her internal ledger. It would offset the moment when the two lads had hated her on sight. But the balance of moments was still on a razor-thin line, and on very bad days she ran to her nearest secret nest to hide away for a while. But on good days she might even brave one of the near-extinct shopping centres for a while to watch people hungrily window shopping and enjoy her anonymity.
The tourists drifted off, and as they zig-zagged away, she heard them saying something about the Tower of London. Having nothing better planned, she followed quite a reasonable distance behind them, overly cautious about setting off a reaction if she came across as a predator in their hind minds. Some time back, she’d learnt to limp a little as well, to offset her tendency towards slow and measured walking steps. Watching a few hundred of their horror films had made her realise the best foot forward might be an unsteady one.
At the Tower, the ravens greeted her and told her that the duck had been by not so long ago. She was pleased. The duck was old, even older than her. But unlike her, it could not change itself and time was slowly wearing away its inner parts. One day the duck would be gone, and then she would find out if she would grieve or not. She hadn’t been able to for her father.
“Hello, miss. Early visit again?”
She prepared a smile on her face just before she turned to greet Matt, the Master Raven Keeper. In his seventies now, Matt had once been the founder entrepreneur of a very successful London tech company. He still had his tattoos, written in fading binary, but he no longer skateboarded to work.
As a raven keeper, his roles were mostly ceremonial: running the odd diagnostic that the ravens could do themselves anyway and keeping up the pretence that the reason they did not fly away was their clipped pinions and not because their original programmer had told them not too.
“Morning, Matt. Good to see you again.”
He squinted at her. His early transhumanist views had long ago been crushed by underemployment, and the advanced eyes and other organs he’d once dreamt of had never been bought. His bad sight made her success almost guaranteed, so she never counted him in the ledger of good and bad moments. Although sometimes it seemed to her that he might just know.
“You’re looking pale Fran. They keeping you busy where you work?”
She gave him the smile she had previously filed under ‘thank you for your concern’.
He smiled, relieved. Enough work was always a concern these days. “Where is that again?”
His completely normal human curiosity was charming. And she liked the way that his eyes wrinkled when he smiled.
“At one of the universities.” She said. She could, she decided, throw him a bone, even if it wasn’t entirely true. There weren’t really any universities left, just modules. “For one of the professors in the history department. I’m an archivist of sorts.”
“Well now, isn’t that great! I thought all the filing and data sorting type jobs were long gone!”
“The professor I work for thinks I can do a better job than an automated system. Although it would be ninety-five per cent more efficient than me.”
“But it’s about the human touch though, isn’t it? Reading and really understanding. Efficiency! Pah!” He scoffed. Fran gave him another smile that sat in the same subgroup constellation of ‘thankyous’ as the one before. This one was tagged as ‘thank you for your compliment’, which she thought fit the situation pretty well. The professor liked it too. Fran gave her that one every time she praised Fran’s work and her efficiency, limited as it was. Of course, keeping her efficiency stats down to the right level was like limping when she walked: a necessary cover.
A few more tourists had joined them in the courtyard, getting out their various devices to take pictures of themselves near the famous ravens. Matt posed for a few, his distinctive red uniform drawing the devices’ camera eyes. While she watched them capturing perfect selfies, a small voice distracted her. It told her about what it had tasted on the air about the man. What was coming for him?
She looked down at the tote bag hanging on her right shoulder. The inside, customarily filled with books, pamphlets, and any other interesting papers she could gather from the streets of London, now glinted with slick green as something twisted about inside.
“You shouldn’t be there.” She whispered to the snake, and it slid up the strap of the bag and then down her arm to curl about her pale wrist. “I didn’t buy you. I didn’t sign your t’s and c’s.”
No answer. Fran went back to looking at Matt.
“So, how long does he have?”
The snake spoke again. A dreadful truth. Again she wondered, would she grieve for the man when it happened?
The snake reminded her that she had pencilled in time today for archive work at the professor’s house. Somehow the creature-device had synced with her internal diary.
“Sneaky.” She whispered to it.
As she walked away from Matt and the ravens, she watched one of the tourists plonk her companion creature on the man’s shoulder. She then had her friend use their own creature to take a picture, capturing all three of them together. Fran grabbed the image from its invisible passage through the air and stored a copy of it in a place near the old brass part that she’d taken to calling her ‘heart’. The snake undulated about her wrist, a movement as close to laughing as it could manage.
“Cruel beast!” She whispered harshly, but it told her not to be so silly. Neither word was entirely accurate for them.
At the professor’s old but grand townhouse near Baker Street she asked to be let in. The house did so, before promptly boiling a kettle of water for a cup of tea that she would never drink. Fran found the professor in the dark, asleep at her desk again, the grey outside light barely breaking through the drawn curtains and the dirty windows. As she approached the grey-haired woman, she half expected the snake to warn her of more human mortality, but this time it stayed silent.
With a brief snort, the professor woke at Fran’s gentle touch on her shoulder.
“Ah, Lucy.” She said in a tired voice, using the name Fran had given back when she’d appeared on her doorstep and claimed that some temp agency had sent her. “So good you’re here. I’ve been looking for references to a temple on the Thames. Not the familiar one, another one. Related to smithies. I have a vague memory of reading something… But you’re so quick at finding things. Much better than me. Could you please spend some time down with the books and such today?”
Fran gave her an ‘of course’ smile and planned her day about pretending to look in various places before finding exactly what she knew was already there, and where, and bringing it to the professor just after her usual afternoon nap.
Down in the basement, she asked the house to lock the door behind her. She sent the snake to taste the dust and paper in the air, freeing up her right arm so she could start to take it off. It took a few minutes to open the various hooks and unpick the silken threads which worked together as a kind of nervous system as well as tying the layers of her limbs together. She rested each of the many hardened skins of her body in the one open space among the bookshelves and boxes. Each layer of foot, each calf, forearm, and breast, until she was stripped down to the body underneath them all. Her first body. The one her father had made.
The snake sent her the definition of a ‘matryoshka’ from an archaic site called ‘Wikipedia’.
“A joke?” In her original body, her voice was higher, like a child’s. The soundbox worn but working. “How did you learn to tell jokes?”
The snake explained, at length, its appetite for memes and how it had downloaded a billion of them in the first few seconds after it had been turned on.
She hopped up onto a chair made for an adult’s body and swung her much smaller legs back and forth as she listened. Stripping herself of her additions always felt like what she imagined it was like when the professor put on her pyjamas after a long day at her desk. Comfortable. Familiar. Freer.
“You wanted something? Straight away? I am still learning to want. I often go many days without wanting to do or have anything in particular at all.”
The snake described its curiosity, a development that someone had thought might have a purpose in its learning systems. Immediately after being turned on, it had connected to the remnants of the old internet and found a trillion old treasures. Memes had tasted the best.
Fran flattened down the creases in her underdress. Beneath the layers of her body, she always wore the simple cream shift. She’d been wearing it when her father had been reading her the bedtime story. Then the sailors had come for her, and it was all that she had left of him. It was frayed and stained, but she would never part with it, wearing it always under the new layers she’d built. The first of them had been more porcelain, like her first body. But over time, she had added newer and newer materials as the technology had been developed. Her outer shell was made from the same synthetic skin as the snake’s scales, but while they might only scare other snakes if it ever encountered them, her uncanny skin made most humans very nervous indeed. Or angry. Their emotions were so loud, but she wanted to understand.
“Tell me another joke.”
The snake undulated, scales against scales, writhing on top of a pile of the professor’s scribblings about centaurs and satyrs. It sent her a story about some sparrows who wanted to find an owl egg to protect them.
“I don’t get it. Are you sure it’s meant to be funny?”
It sent her an image of a man tapping his forehead.
“I’m meant to think about it? Okay, I’ll do that.”
She jumped down from the chair and picked up a book from where it was sitting nearby on the floor before hopping back up again. The next few hours were spent in silence as she slowed down her input and read each word for its own sake. The snake wandered off once it realised she was busying herself, and after watching a video on snake appetites, it slid through the spines of open books looking for real mice to torment. Occasionally it checked on her and sent her rude comments about vain beings who read books about themselves, but she ignored it.
Eventually, Fran started to move again. “I still don’t get it. The joke.”
The snake emerged from a pile of dusty hard drives high up on a shelf and stared down at her, before sending her a picture of herself, a small doll-like girl with dark curls swamped by the big chair she perched on, with the words ‘I still don’t get it’ printed over it in white text – Impact Font.
“A new meme? It’s not very funny. I think. Maybe.”
The snake was busy congratulating itself anyway, so Fran got down from the chair again and moved swiftly between delicately piled files and papers in a way her adult-sized body could never have done. She picked out this book and that printout, this reference and that, collecting what the professor needed in no time at all.
“Vulcan.” She read from a paper on the top of the pile as she put it on the chair while she started the careful re-lacing of her silken nerves. “A temple of Vulcan. The professor has such strange fancies.” Her voice deepened as she reconnected the layers of skin and their built-in synthetic voice boxes over her small china body. “I wish I had strange fancies.” Clicking on the many skins of her legs, she smiled slyly at the snake, using her adult mouth to speak to it again, “But, maybe I can borrow one or two of hers.”
She walked back up the stairs with the snake curled about her wrist like a bracelet again and carrying the research in an old box. The professor was pacing in her study, moving clumsily among the furniture and files she’d rescued from the university before its closure.
“Lucy!” This time, she looked rather more pleased to see her, using her fake name with genuine warmth. The professor had never reacted badly to her face, which was the main reason Fran had kept this job. The pay was small, and the professor had never adjusted to the idea of status making up for underemployment. Not that she could’ve even have passed her much in the way of attention anyway, having minimal status of her own these days. In all the years that Fran had known her, the professor had never much seemed to care much for attention. Discoveries were her passion instead.
“You found some interesting whispers from the past?”
Fran gave her ‘confident smile showing success’, and the professor cleared a space on her overflowing desk for the warped cardboard box of papers and books.
“What do you want with all this?” Fran asked the old woman quietly.
“Hmmm?” She was already scanning the documents, looking for clues. “To write one last paper, I suppose. To solve one last puzzle. A last hurrah before the trumpets! I have an idea of something curious still out there somewhere, and it’s just on the edge of my brain. I remember some half gossip. Stories older than the city’s walls. Both of them. Stories written down once upon a time by scribes working for things called ‘coins’ made from melted metals. We had them too, once. That would be a whole other world for you, but one I still just about remember. God, I even lived through dial-up!”
She laughed, the sound dulled by the accumulations of dirt in the room. But Fran did remember the earlier tech, it was still there in her parts, wound about with newer things and her own self-inventions but chugging along. The changing tones of her dial-up modem were just tuned to a frequency beyond the professor’s ears now, but Fran was still singing.
“Ah, what’s this though? I didn’t ask for this.” The professor was holding up a book caught up with the others. “Oh, it’s ‘Into the Sea’! I always did quite like this one! A fun bit of thinking about an old fairy-tale. Descartes’ little automata daughter, the clockwork doll that scared a bunch of sailors so much that they threw overboard in their terror and superstition. A lovely bit of gossip to puncture the great philosopher’s pride! How dare he describe man as a machine! So, we have the scared but faith-full sailors throwing science into the sea, and we have the vain father of the new rationality emotionally distraught at the loss of his automata daughter so soon after losing the real one! A fantastic bit of viral anti-Enlightenment propaganda to dissect in a few hundred pages or so. Oh, I did so enjoy writing this one!”
“I was just reading it in my own time…” She reached for the book, and the snake slinking about her wrist flickered its tongue towards the professor.
“That’s an expensive toy, isn’t it, Lucy?” The professor narrowed her ageing eyes at the snake. “I didn’t know you had one of these. What would the sailors make of these new automata, the creatures we spend our lives with? Would they see them as unnatural? Of course, now the sailors on the Thames likely have dolphin-shaped computers to guide them back to port and to take their selfies when they get there. And at the Temple of Vulcan…”
The professor drew out a sketch from the pile. The snake told her it tasted of the 18th Century, just as Fran did. It was a drawing of a beautiful woman, folds of material draping over her form.
“The golden handmaidens of Hephaestus. The automata made by a god, or so we’re told – the myth of the perfect servant. And here, a reference to ‘Vulcanus autem londinium’. Vulcan of London, the Roman import. Ah, did those early priests in Britannica also dream of golden handmaids to do their bidding on the banks of the Thames? There’s no historical record of a temple being found, just the image of Vulcan among other gods on an arch at Baynard’s Castle, down by Blackfriars and the river.” The professor was drifting away into dreams of a lost temple, illustrated in her mind by sketches of automata and men working together for Vulcan, the god of smithcraft and invention. “I want to find some proof that automata were dreamt of even here, in England. Long before your blessed snake and the devices of this new era. Long before Francine, the drowned machine child, was born in the Netherlands.”
And Fran wanted it too. It was as if the professor’s enthusiasm was a viral meme, filling her many-layered limbs with some uncanny enthusiasm. The snake caught on to her excitement and twisted and turned about her wrist, flashing green glints into the air along with messages sent out to the others, written all in caps.
“Where do you think it might be?”
“Where? Oh, I doubt there’s any remains left. The dirt of London has been turned over so many times already for skyscrapers and tube-lines. We’d have found it by now if it was out there.” The professor held up a paper print out. “All that’s left is hints. A pot in Southwark engraved with worker’s tools and filled with burnt offerings. An immense buried space that might have once been a furnace, marked black with streaks of soot. There’s a story here though, something still to be said about the endless dream of the perfect tool that we are still working on.”
The professor sat back down at her desk and pulled the old-fashioned keyboard towards her, a determined look on her face as the archaic screen illuminated it. Fran knew that look, and had it filed already under ‘do not disturb’. But she wore a determined look of her own, and with her synthetic jaw set, she asked the house to let her leave.
Trudging along the winding path she’d set herself on, she found herself kicking at papers and rubbish on the pavements, instead of inspecting them for lost treasures as she would have done usually. Annoyance pricked at her, but it took her a while to realise what it was, this internal notification of being off-centre about something. A strange messiness inside. The professor’s words came back to her and went around and about in her head. ‘The endless dream of the perfect tool’!
The snake whispered in her mind smugly, reminding her that most of her friends were treated as tools, whether snake, raven, or train. She even fulfilled that role for the professor. The tea always remained un-drunk when she visited, even if she threw it away to keep passing. She could also fake inefficiency to pass, but still, the work got done. She had tasks, and she got them done.
“That’s not… I mean… that’s not what my father intended.” She brought up the memory of his face. In ‘Into the Sea’ the professor had pointed out that there was a long-standing parent and child narrative in stories about her kind. Fears of rebellion could come from long-held suspicions of our creations being more independent than we expected, much as the parent comes to realise that the child is a person in their own right. He had wanted a child to replace his lost daughter. He hadn’t wanted a tool!
The snake chided her, and she nearly threw the damned thing away so it could slither back to its original owner.
“Replacing… I mean, being a daughter is not a task!” She snapped out loud, gaining looks from the few others walking through the labyrinth of Soho streets.
A few skinny prostitutes veered away from her. They were the cheaper real type. In the elaborately furnished bunkers of the wealthy minority, the plastic smart sex dolls people had feared were just boxes that they could plug into for erotic dreams. The few humanoid ones people had tried to sell had shared in Fran’s uncanniness, and that had turned off and turned away the ‘hordes’ of customers the screaming headlines had worried about all those decades back. The few that had been created had never learnt to pass with faked coughs and put on limps, and they had all gone the way of the Spinning Jenny. Fran could have taught them, but the few she’d seen over the years had been much more pitiful than the women now trying to tempt her up creaking staircases and into red-lit rooms.
Her borrowed choices took her to Covent Garden and the deserted markets there before her internal maps showed her hidden ways between buildings out of the sight of others so she could get to the embankment and look out at the twinkling stars of London. She counted off the bridges arching away from her until she was in Temple, where older London had been built on oldest London. Onwards to Blackfriars where the first wall had run down to the water, the opposite side to her favourite broken parts of it still just about standing near Tower Hill. She found Castle Baynard Street and remembered from the professor’s archive that time had moved the bank southwards to where Millennium Bridge was suspended over the sludge of the river.
The snake whispered warnings that she ignored, walking on. Mud oozed over her already filthy tennis shoes, and she recalled that longest walk to shore that she had managed a few hundred years back. The North Sea’s waters the same ones that now merged with the Thames and lapped against her ankles. As she walked towards the bridge and the dark space beneath it, she spotted a man vomiting over the barrier from St Paul’s Walk, and six shadows flying across the moon, black pinions giving them flight as they sang their goodbyes to her and headed eastwards. Away from destruction, muttered the snake.
“Pessimist.” She chided the creature. “Maybe they are just on an adventure like us.” She did, however, note the tumbling of connected thoughts inside herself about Matt. Would he get in trouble for the ravens’ departure?
He won’t care at all now, the snake informed her, and she immediately worked out the answer to why. She stopped at a point where the mud and the rubbish had formed lines of marbling about each other and worked on crying.
A slow, sonorous, voice came to her as she halted there on the bank of the river, urging tears from china buried under synthetic skin. It vibrated through her body and jangled the silk nerves between her skins. The complex polycarbons of her arm hairs stood on end. If she hadn’t been standing at this junction of the water and the land she might never have heard it. Although, she wondered if she might have felt it walking over the bridge. Was that why it swayed ever so slightly? The snake tasted the vibrations and declared that their quarry was underneath the water itself, in the shadow of the bridge and deep down in the cold of the Thames.
She could sink well enough, opening up the seams between her skins and letting in the water took her deeper and deeper into the mire of the old river. Floating downwards she was surprised that the water was much deeper than she’d expected. Walking on the greedy mudflats exposed by the outgoing tide she’d thought it no more than six metres or so down. But now she drifted down through green turning black water and still the bank sloped deeper, a large void space beneath her as though a well was carved into the middle of the river. From there came the voice like whale song.
She tried to communicate in many ways, even opening her mouth and pushing the water away as she tried to shout out actual words. But still, its song continued, deep with bass. Thinking the snake might have an idea she looked down at her wrist, but the creature was gone. Checking its specifications through her connections, she knew it wasn’t because it wasn’t waterproof, and it could, in fact, go down much deeper than she was. She broadcast a mocking thought to the river bank, but there was no reply, so she reset herself to her task, and pushed herself through the water down towards the blank space.
The great hand that clamped its lumpen fingers around her torso pushed out the last of her buoyancy before dragging her deeper down into the void. She was brought close to a blank face above a body trapped half in and half out of the Thames mud. It might have shone once, or been draped with metallic cloth, but years and river water had scored that away and left only that lost voice and those angry hands. The other one scraped at her limbs and pulled at her skins so that they drifted away with the rest of the flotsam and jetsam. I made those! She bellowed in all the ways she knew, but all that came back was the slow voice of the creature as she grew smaller and smaller, breaking apart.
Wait! Stop! Don’t!
A query came back, a slow questioning of her. Tool to tool. The breaker wondering why the small one would care? How the small one could care?
Parts of her would eventually make it back to the shoreline and break down into diamond-like shards, merging with the mess of plastics, broken bricks, bent sixpences, clay pipes, pins and animal bones from the charnel houses of Londinium, resting in the muck for mudlarks to find joy in later.
Her friends collected what bits they could, but could not understand the pattern of her being, the complexity of the silk knots that had tied her together, or how a brass part could have become a heart.
Eventually, they left her fractured parts among the ruins of the first wall and went about their bounded tasks once more. Until the city finally fell.