Friday, May 6, 2016

Do Machines Have Souls?

by Jean Roberta

"Tools" seems to define relatively simple objects. Machines seem like more elaborate versions of tools. Back in the day, girls like me were discouraged from touching any tool or machine more complicated than a broom. (And if we talked back, we were told to fly away on it.)

Had I grown up in a different cultural milieu, could I have learned to fly away in an abandoned vehicle like the Millennium Falcon in the latest Star Wars movie? Who knows?

My introduction to machines was not due to my inherently rebellious nature, but my interest in activities that didn't, on the surface, seem to require mechanical knowledge.

As a child, I liked to make doll clothing and even little embroidered squares by hand. When I was thirteen, my grandparents brought me their old sewing machine, circa 1916, because they had replaced it with a newer model, and they thought I could use their old one. It was one of the first electric models ever made, still based on the nineteenth-century design of Isaac Merritt Singer. (And to add an appliqué to this explanation, my mother had cousins whose mother was a Singer, related to the inventor, so my mother’s parents – the ones who gave me their sewing machine – were related to him by marriage.)

For more on the history of the sewing machine and how it works, see this:

That machine was the equivalent of the magic wand that Cinderella’s fairy godmother used to create a ball gown out of spiderwebs and moonlight. (Luckily, I had parents who would give me money to buy fabric and patterns.) For the next two years, the rattle of the sewing machine, reminiscent of the sound of machine-gun fire from the era when it was made, could be heard coming from my room.

On several occasions, I stayed awake all night to make myself an outfit to wear to a special event the next day. My parents came to my door in shifts to tell me to go to sleep until they couldn’t keep their eyes open any more. I had the advantage of youth and determination, and by morning, I had my own version of a new gown hanging in my closet.

The first dress I made to wear to a school dance was a girlish thing with a princess shape (slightly-fitted, with no waist seam). It had long sleeves with ruffles at the wrists, but they were made from completely sheer fabric that exposed the skin of my arms. The body of the dress was made from a polished-cotton print of big black roses, in an impressionist style, on a white background. The fabric floated over my young curves, and its slight sheen caught the light.

I had figured out the basic principle of burlesque: the sexiest look is not the one that exposes the most skin or clings closest to the body, but the one that gives the viewer an unexpected peak at something that at first glance seems to be hidden.

Between sewing projects, I lubricated all the moving parts of my sewing machine with three-in-one oil, following the instructions in the manual. I silently thanked it for being my personal assistant, and it served me well.

My mother had her own sewing machine, which she rarely used even though it was newer than mine. When I tried it out at my mother’s suggestion, it gave me an electric shock. I couldn’t help suspecting that machines are like pets: they prefer their owners, and vice versa.

Later, when I earned my living as a clerk-typist-receptionist for various branches of local government in the 1970s, I noticed that the electric typewriters assigned to me didn’t always co-operate. I still remember a big black Olivetti that scared me a little, because sometimes when I turned it on in the morning, it would emit a growl like an angry lion, but its keys seemed to be jammed until I had turned it off and on again.

In honour of the various typewriters that worked with me (or not), I wrote “A Striking Dilemma, or Deus Ex Machina,” a steampunk-era threesome story featuring a manual typewriter, newly invented in 1873.

Here is the opening scene, told by Ruth, lover of Lizzie (and later of Henry, who rounds out the triangle):

I must admit that the new type-writing machine did not make a favorable impression on me at our first meeting. It sat on Lizzie’s parlor table like a vase of flowers, and she expected all her visitors to admire it.

At her urging, I walked clockwise round the table to observe the new machine from all angles. I didn’t find it any handsomer from the back than from the front. “It’s new and clever, Liz,” I remarked diplomatically, “and I know you like to keep up with the times, but unless you are planning to start printing your own newspaper, I don’t see the use of it. Your handwriting is perfectly clear.”

I’m sure many writers felt this way about typewriters at the time.

However, Lizzie and Henry are both more intrigued by the new invention. Unfortunately, they discover that the thing is cursed, or enchanted, to stop typing at the thirteenth word unless Lizzie (whose evil uncle/guardian gave her the machine) uses it to type out a wedding announcement for her own wedding to a man she doesn’t love. She refuses, and the typewriter jams.

The three friends debate whether the “curse” is real, or simply a scare tactic. Henry weighs in.

“Consider the alchemists of old,” Henry began, pacing like a college lecturer. “Their goal was to transmute the properties of various metals, and who is to say that they never succeeded? In our more prosaic age, we are all meant to believe that machines are soulless objects for men’s use—and women’s use—but they are formed from the same materials that had wills and personal traits for the thinkers of centuries past.”

Henry stood still, and looked at us intently. “Ruth and Liz, I know that Lord Bentley had a hand in the manufacture of this type-writing machine. His intentions are embodied in its very structure. Perhaps some secret words were even spoken as the hot metal was formed into the shapes it has now.”

Lizzie guffawed in a most unladylike way. “Henry, you ought to go into business selling worthless remedies for imaginary illnesses. Secret words!”

“Liz,” he begged her. “Please refrain from pouring scorn on me until I have thoroughly explained myself. In a less mechanical age, spells were used to change the forms of things. Consider this rhyme: ‘I shall go into a hare, with sorrow, and sighing, and muckle care.’”

Lizzie laughed a little too heartily. I guessed that she was trying to hide her unease. “Do you think it worked?” she asked.

“How would we know?” he retorted. “Our modern spells are advertisements. Consider this: ‘Make any meal into a feast when you use McMurray’s yeast.’”

“That’s hardly a spell,” she demurred.

“It’s a cantrip intended to entice customers. Lizzie, if you keep control of your inheritance, I would strongly advise you to buy stock in McMurray’s company. Its profits have been rising faster than bread.”

The three friends decide to outwit the typewriter by lubricating it with love-juice from all three. Henry considers the mechanism of the typewriter as a prototype for a kind of BDSM device:

“Think of the mechanism of the type-writer,” he advised us. “It cruelly strikes the paper to make a permanent mark, which carries meaning. It wouldn’t be hard to devise a much longer metal rod, attached to a foot-pedal. At the end of the rod would be a letter, or brand, which could be heated by fire. The person to be so marked would present his or her bottom, uncovered of course, and one press of the pedal would speed the rod to its target. The impact would eliminate the need to press the brand into the flesh of the victim, which is presently done with cattle. There would be a moment’s pain, of course, but then the mark would be permanent.”

“Henry,” said Lizzie, “I am not a cow, and I don’t consent to be branded.”

“But I propose that we take turns,” he explained. “All three of us would be marked alike.”

I was afraid of pain, but the thought of such an intimate sign of belonging appealed to me. “None of us would be able to sit down for several days. We would be a standing committee.” I snickered at my own wit.

The three friends put off finding a way to produce a branding device, at least for the meanwhile. After sex in the parlor, they retire to the bedroom to sleep. The typewriter seems to have been deprogrammed, but it still has something to say.

As I lay awake in the dark, I thought I heard a faint tapping from the parlor. I felt slightly apprehensive, but not seriously frightened.

In the morning, curiosity prompted me to investigate, although caution prompted me to don my night-gown first. I left my companions in bed, and entered the parlor. As I approached the table, I could see faint letters on the sheet of paper that had been left in the type-writer. They spelt: “whores.”

Strangely enough, I didn’t take offense. The word struck me as an invitation to a verbal game of badminton. I said aloud: “You’re in no position to judge. You probably need more lubrication.” I brushed my fingertips across the keyboard, and I felt that the machine was ready for service.

This story has been rejected for a sci-fi antho and a steampunk antho, so it is still unpublished. It probably needs to find the right genre (fantasy?). My suspicion that machines have personalities probably can’t be verified, but I’ve known many people who feel the same way. (Cars with names, anyone?)


  1. My comment keeps getting eaten for some reason. :( Apologies if I wind up with some sort of hideous multiple post.

    Anyway, I have always been jealous of people who could sew their own clothing the way you describe. Your dress sounds amazing. I could never get along this well with any of my sewing machines.

    I do love this story, and I hope it finds a home!

  2. I was given my grandmother's portable electric Singer sewing machine in my late teens, and made some of my own clothes, but I was never very good at it, in spite of 4H Club lessons. I did make costumes for my two kids, a red-lined black vampire cloak with raised collar for one, a sliver-lined hooded wizards cloak for the other, but any close inspection would show uneven seams and various other faults. I still do occasional mending on the machine, but we are at best grudging friends.

    As to unsold stories, it's always nice to have something "new" to include in collections, or it would be if there were any market for collections these days.

  3. Jean, I love the bits you've posted from this story. Why don't you self-publish it? I'd be happy to help.

    And yes, mechanical machines, at least, do seem to have souls. Now that everything is computerized, however (not to mention disposable, and intended that way), I'm not so sure.

  4. Thanks for commenting, all. Actually, I made a lot of mistakes when I was a teenager trying to make my own wardrobe, but I would rip out seams and sew them again. Each time, the mistakes were less noticeable. Lisabet, that would be great if you could help. And you're right about computerized machines. I've noticed that no one seems to name their computer, not to mention their cell-phone. :)

    1. No, but I named my first car. Isadora, after the dancer. She (the car was definitely a she) was an important part of my identity in my midtwenties, symbolizing freedom and independence. I think I even wrote a poem or two about her!

  5. Heh- When Momma X and I first got married, the first thing we ever bought on credit was a sewing machine. After all, every housewife back then was expected to have the required tools for domestic chores. What a fucking waste of money. I think she made a dress or two before realizing she'd never be that kind of wife.


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