Fiction: Wondrous machines

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A multilayered tale centred on a nineteenth-century automaton grips Minsoo Kang.

The Chemistry of Tears

Faber and Faber/Knopf: 2012. 288 pp. £17.99/$26 9780571279975 | ISBN: 978-0-5712-7997-5

Artificial beings throng myth and literature. Science fiction, for instance, has specialized in robots, androids and cyborgs — creatures often associated with a kind of high-tech utility. (The word 'robot', coined by the Czech writer and artist Josef Čapek, stems from the word for 'drudgery' in several Slavic languages.) Literary writers from Herman Melville to Thomas Pynchon, however, have been drawn more to automata, mechanical simulacra of living beings that proliferated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, before electric and digital technology. Designed as devices of wonder and beauty, automata lend themselves to the aesthetic and symbolic.

Now, in his wonderful The Chemistry of Tears, Australian writer Peter Carey ponders the automaton through the eyes and thoughts of human characters. This multilayered novel follows the lives of two people separated in time but involved with one mechanical being — based on Jacques de Vaucanson's Defecating Duck, a famous eighteenth-century automaton. The book is dominated by the alternating narratives of the protagonists, a modern museum specialist and a Victorian father on a fraught personal quest, but the cast also includes an inventor with echoes of Charles Babbage — a nineteenth-century mathematician and engineer who restored automata as well as designing a proto-computer, the difference engine.

Credit: DUCK: GETTY; ILLUSTRATION: MARTIN O'NEILL

The Chemistry of Tears follows the Western tradition of using the automaton as a conceptual object for pondering the nature of humanity — a tradition now surfacing in debates about biological determinism and free will, the nature of 'digitized' humans and bioengineered 'DNA robots'. Are we essentially organic automata constructed by some creator? Can we engineer self-aware artificial beings capable of experiencing emotions and making moral decisions? What part of our humanity lies beyond the material world and can never be replicated artificially? Rather than providing easy answers to such questions, Carey presents a narrative that demonstrates their complexity.

First, we meet Catherine Gehrig, a restorer of clocks at a London museum. While mourning the sudden death of her married lover, she is given the task of reassembling an automaton, a nineteenth-century replica of Vaucanson's duck. The parts are presented to her along with the notebooks of Henry Brandling, who commissioned the device. Through Catherine's reading of Brandling's story we follow the second narrative, of his attempt to cheer his ailing son by travelling to Germany and finding a mechanic to recreate Vaucanson's automaton.

The real Defecating Duck was an astonishingly lifelike device with hundreds of moving parts. It could flap its wings, eat and, as its name implies, even produce droppings. Vaucanson first presented it to the Parisian public in 1738, along with two mechanical human figures: the Flute Player and another playing a fife and drum. They were such a financial and intellectual success — praised by luminaries including Voltaire and Denis Diderot — that they set off a century-long automaton craze. The duck itself passed through the hands of multiple owners and toured Europe, until it ended up, dilapidated, in the German town of Helmstadt, where writer and physicist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe saw it in 1805.

Throughout the beautifully told stories of Catherine's grief and Henry's quest, Carey plays with the concept of the automaton metaphorically and symbolically. Catherine, in her distress, describes herself as a “whirring, mad machine”, and later remembers how she and her lover had thought of themselves as “intricate chemical machines”. The desperation of Henry's search stems from his hope that the recreation of Vaucanson's animate duck could somehow heal his beloved son's ill body.

Catherine follows Henry's misadventures in Germany in her increasingly obsessive reading of his notebooks. His story takes a fairy-tale turn as he is led to Furtwagen, a small town in the Black Forest, by a mysterious man named Sumper, who claims to possess the skills to recreate the avian automaton. With a trio of eccentrics — a collector of fairy tales, a preternaturally gifted child and his superstitious mother — Henry listens sceptically to his host's fantastic story of his own travels to England.

In a brilliant narrative turn, Carey uses this third storyline — Sumper's time in England as assistant to Albert Cruickshank, the inventor based on Babbage — to meditate on the automaton as a concept that lies at the heart of modernity. Whereas Enlightenment devices were aesthetic objects demonstrating the wonders of mechanical craft, the technology of the Industrial Revolution was deployed pragmatically to create ever more powerful engines and productive factories, and to expand empires. The process of modernization took what was useful from the beautiful automata and created the world of steam, smoke and industrial machines.

Catherine's efforts to rebuild Sumper's automaton (which turns out to be a swan, in a possible nod to Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling), and Henry's desire to present a marvel from the previous century to his son, represent a wish to return to untroubled pasts, and to bring the dead and dying back to life, that mirrors the automaton-maker's role in breathing 'life' into inert materials. This deeply moving, intellectually profound novel on the heartbreaking grief of 'living machines' tells the story of the essential human desire to return to the individual Edens that we inhabited before we knew about the unavoidable pain of our mechanical lives.

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Correspondence to Minsoo Kang.

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Kang, M. Fiction: Wondrous machines. Nature 484, 451–452 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/484451a

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