Saturday, September 18, 2010

Automata and steam men

I had prints made of a few more paintings I did over the past couple of years -- including this one above, "Clockwork Witch." With a tiny dash of Tik-Tok from the Oz books, and a few clockwork gears scattered throughout to give it an industrial fairytale feel, I was thinking about this image recently and wanted to share it. Although it doesn't have any obvious Halloween elements, I remember painting it a couple days before Halloween while watching a marathon of one of those shows about the world's most haunted places.

I'm not quite sure how my train of thought brought me to this place but I have thinking about 19th century automata and steam-powered creations lately -- independently of the whole interest that has arisen around the concept of 'steampunk' these past few years/decades. Early science fiction, adventure novels and speculative fiction that project future technology are an interest for me, particularly the stranger bits, like the mid-1800s stories of "The Steam Man of the Prairies". (see below) That image, along with Tik Tok, inspired my little robot guy above.

One of my personal favorite tales of the automata variety is Villier de l'Isle-Adam's "L'Eve Future" (The Future Eve) (1886) which posits a world in which Thomas Edison creates a bejeweled female android, who develops emotions and sentience -- but I won't give away anything else, it's quite a beautifully written story and now fairly easily accessible in an English translation. I read the version in "The Decadent Reader" but there's a translation under the title "Tomorrow's Eve" as well. (I receive no benefit whatsoever from linking to Amazon, by all means seek out copies wherever you choose, etexts are likely available as well! But yes that's my review from 2001 on the Decadent Reader page, ha!)

This also brings to mind the apocryphal tale of 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes, whom legend would have you believe created a clockwork girl to replace his daughter who died at the age of 5 of scarlet fever (or so various internet sources tell me). This site has some interesting quoted passages on the legend -- basically, the unlikely story goes, that he created a mechanical doll in her image which traveled everywhere with him -- and which was ultimately thrown overboard by a sea captain horrified by the strange robot. A book that I have not read but which sounds interesting, "Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life" by Gaby Wood, includes a long sample passage about that very legend. Funny how I got through a minor in Philosophy in school without ever coming across that most interesting little bit of fancy!

Since my literary interests are mostly gathered in the pre-1930s era (with a few exceptions being made for 1960s and 70s speculative fiction and a few other odds and ends) I'll also mention a familiar name, Jules Verne, for his "Steam House" novel (1880) which I was drawn to for its steam-powered mechanical elephant as a mode of transportation. How about that, huh?

So the year now is 2010....where's my robot?


  1. In Japan! Check out the video ~

  2. Hi Sarada! I'm still following your blog :D Love this post- very cool!