Mechanical Animals: Tales at the Crux of Creatures and Tech, Edited by Selena Chambers and Jason Heller – Book Review by Fred Patten
by Pup Matthias
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Mechanical Animals: Tales at the Crux of Creatures and Tech, edited by Selena Chambers and Jason Heller.
Erie, CO, Hex Publishers, November 2018, trade paperback, $19.99 (417 pages), Kindle $5.99.
This is not a furry book, but an anthology of 22 stories and articles about mechanical animals, including a cyborg. Most of them are about mindless clockwork robots. There are a few that feature self-aware AIs in the form of animals. These are close enough to furries to warrant Mechanical Animals to be reviewed here.
Mike Libby, in his Introduction, talks about being fascinated by mechanical animals from his childhood. “When I was ten I wanted one of those battery-powered motorized dogs you would see outside Radio Shack, that was leashed to its battery-powered remote control, and after a couple of high-pitched barks, would flip backwards, landing perfectly, ready to repeat his mechanical trick.” (p. 9) Jess Nevins, in his 13-page “Mechanical Animals”, summarizes them in literature from Homer in The Iliad to real examples in history (“The German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Müller von Königsberg, aka Regiomontanus (1436-1476), was reliably reported to have constructed a flying mechanical eagle for the Emperor Maximilian in 1470.” – p. 29), to the present.
“Two Bees Dancing” by Tessa Kum is the first story:
“Focus. This pain is old and familiar. It is not important. Focus on what is important.
‘We aren’t going to hurt you.’
It is on the table before you. Small. Antennae relaxed, wings spread, legs locked and unmoving.
‘We need your help.’ (p. 33)
A nameless government drone pilot on permanent disability is kidnapped and forced to fly a reprogrammed bee for criminal purposes. Instead, the reprogramming puts him into mental contact with the HiveAI and into a whole new world.
“Brass Monkey” by Delia Sherman is set in a clockwork late Victorian London. The characters in Jenny Wren’s Doll and Mechanical Emporium are elderly, crippled Mrs. Wren, the shop assistant Miss Edwige, and Mrs. Wren’s adopted daughter Lizzie. “If Mrs. Wren was the heart of the emporium and Miss Edwige its back and legs, then Lizzie was its inventive mind.” (p. 53). When the emporium becomes especially busy at Christmastime, “The door opened and out came Lizzie in her leather apron, her magnifying spectacles pushed into her cloudy hair, and on her shoulder a small capuchin monkey, such as commonly accompany organ-grinders, wearing a little scarlet vest.” (p. 54). The monkey is Annabella, Lizzie’s clockwork invention, made to help sort out the beads and ribbons and coins of the business day. When Annabella proves skilled enough to tell real coins from counterfeits, the three women set out to find the counterfeiter – but it’s Annabella who solves the case.
“The Rebel” by Maurice Broaddus and Sarah Hans takes place in modern America. “Garrika Sharp hunched over a tray of gears, scrounging through pieces like a scattered metal jigsaw puzzle.” (p. 74)
“Her critics dismissed her first forays as steampunk taxidermy. All about recycling and repurposing, she once sourced roadkill for skeletons, combining preserved remains with machinery. Like stuffed pets with bionic parts. Her favorite from back then was a squirrel whose spine had been replaced by a series of gears and winches so that it looked like its vertebrae had unzipped. Its head dangled at an odd angle from a broken neck. Her mother, fearing her a necromancer, waited until Garrika was at one of her treatments, gathered the mechanized corpses, and threw the desecrations away.” (p. 76)
Garrika’s friend Phonse is a street artist whose taggings include rune magic. His magic and the weed she smokes bring her constructs – Eagle, Elephant, Rabbit, Lion, Unicorn, Giraffe, and more – to life.
“Exhibitionist” by Lauren Beukes, a story about an art gallery featuring a meat art exhibit, is the first story that’s not furry at all. It’s good; it’s just not furry.
The protagonist in “Stray Frog” by Jesse Bullington is Schiller, a truant officer of the future. He’s also the villain, a doped-up sadist who uses his pipa to over-narcotize (to death?) the prep-schoolers that he thinks may be playing hooky from school. His pipa gun is the mechanical animal here:
“‘There, there,’ Schuller murmured to his pipa, the veiny grip pulsing in his palm as he dipped the fingers of his free hand into its slimy holster, smearing it with hydrating ichor. The weapon croaked its appreciation. He made sure to work the goo into the freshly emptied divots in its back, and applied a far lighter touch to the live pockets that were still bulging with narcotic eggs. His little shootout with these thugs had used up half his ammunition. He’d have to feed it as soon as he got back to his desk to make sure it laid new rounds before their next shift.” (pgs. 113-114)
There is much more detail on just what a pipa is. It’s not intelligent, so this isn’t a furry story, but it is fascinating.
In “The Hard Spot in the Glacier” by An Owomoyela, Ayo is part of a research expedition on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. She is looking for Parker, another explorer who may have been injured in a moonquake, when a series of quakes endangers her and her mechanical centipede. She must decide whether to continue the search for Parker, or give him up for lost and return to base. The centipedes are programmed to offer balanced advice, but Ayo thinks that her centipede sounds scared. Is it, or is she reading her own emotions and desires into its speech?
“‘What do I do?’ she muttered, mostly to herself.
She was surprised when the centipede answered.
((I don’t like this. I think we should go home.))
Irrationally – because she’d had the same thought, after all – Ayo felt a surge of anger. She was out here, and she wasn’t complaining. What right did this idiot piece of equipment have?
But it wasn’t programmed to complain. It was programmed to make a threat assessment and deliver it in an emotionally-relatable way.” (pgs. 127-128)
“Every Single Wonderful Detail” by Stephen Graham Jones begins: “Because he knew he wasn’t going to be there for her teenage years, Grace’s dad built a German Shepherd to be there in his stead.” Grace’s dad, dying of cancer, builds the best German Shepherd he could to guard Grace. But sometimes a teen girl doesn’t want a big dog who can be counted upon to get between her and the boys who ask her out; who is more efficient at that than any live dog.
“The Nightingale” by Hans Christian Andersen is the first classic reprint, from 1843. The Emperor of China is delighted by the singing of the dowdy nightingale until a clever inventor makes a clockwork bird that can sing just as prettily and is made of gold and jewels besides. But the clockwork bird breaks down, which the real nightingale doesn’t. This is the first story in which the mechanical animal is clearly inferior to the natural animal. Also, the real nightingale converses with the Emperor, making this an undeniably furry story.
It’s unclear whether “Le Cygne Baiseur” by Molly Tanzer is an Adult erotic story or a horror story. Emily is the moderator of a museum film program on “Erotic Parodies” showing a seldom-seen Le Cygne Baiseur, based on the legend of Leda and the Swan. In it, “Mr. Hubert, the celebrated toymaker”, makes a mechanical swan that ravishes a maiden. The museum also has on display the prop model of the mechanical swan with an erect human phallus that was used in the old film. At night when everyone is gone, the mechanical swan comes to life and ravishes Emily. Or is it Zeus inhabiting the mechanical swan?
“Among the Water Buffaloes, a Tiger’s Steps” by Aliette de Bodard is set in the far future, when:
“After the sun goes down, the girls huddle together in the remnants of a house by the sea – every screen, every scrap of metal since long scavenged to keep their own bodies going – and tell each other stories. Of animals, and plants, and of the world before and after the Catastrophe. Thuy is outrageously good at this. Her sight allows her to read the other girls’ microscopic cues from heartbeat to temperature of skin, and adapt her tales of spirits and ghosts for maximum effects. Ngoc He stutters, barely hiding the tremors in her hands – nerve-wires that broke down and that she hasn’t yet scavenged replacements for – but she has the largest range of tales of any of them. Ai Hong speaks almost absent-mindedly, playing with those few crab-bots that aren’t frightened by so much light and noise – they skitter away when she puts down her hand, and draw back again when she frowns in thought, trying to recall a particular plot point.” (p. 190)
The story follows Kim Trang, a repair construct (or the distant descendant of a repair construct), as she brings a “tiger” into their midst; the girl Mei who may destroy them all. The mechanical animals are the girls themselves, who have raided this post-Catastrophe society for metal parts and electronics to keep themselves alive. I consider the story less interesting than its background.
“The Twin Dragons of Sentimentality and Didacticism” by Nick Mamatas has a colorful view of the near future:
“Things had changed. First had come mechanimals: robotic elephants, and safaris that allowed tourists to hunt them down and keep them wound via the gigantic if purely decorative keys on their backs. As the animals died off, they were replaced, but not in the order in which the ecosystem was collapsing. The big ones were rolled out first, like cars used to be. Tigers and orangutans and wildebeests and great golden bears, those last beloved of Silicon Valley. Every seven-year-old scion of a techie family rode one to school. The bulletproof golden bears could eat rampage shooters, it was believed, though this feature was never widely tested in the field.
Only later came microdrones in the shape of perfect dragonflies and hummingbirds, then deer ticks. […]” (pgs. 214-215) Sorry, but this goes on and on and on. It’s a really stunning description of how society is changed, but it’s not at all furry.
“The Artist of the Beautiful” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1844) is the next reprint. Peter Hovenden, a retired master watchmaker, becomes jealous about the secret project that his young successor and former apprentice Owen Warland is working on. Warland, “the Artist of the Beautiful”, becomes despondent that he will never make anything more delicate and intricate than Hovenden has. Warland gets the idea of trying to infuse a spirit into machinery. This story being in Mechanical Animals, you can guess that he succeeds. What happens then?
There are eight more stories. Two are excerpts from 19th-century novels; Electric Bob’s Big Black Ostrich: or, Lost on the Desert by Robert T. Toombs (1893), and The Steam House; Chapter V: The Iron Giant by Jules Verne (1880). Both feature huge clockwork marvels, the Ostrich and an Elephant. “The Clockwork Penguin Dreamed of Stars” by Caroline Yoachim is definitely furry; its main character is Gwin, one of the penguins abandoned on Earth when mankind emigrated to the stars:
“It was one of those rare nights when the smog thinned out enough for stars to be visible in the sky above the penguin enclosure. Gwin adjusted her synthetic feathers with her beak, arranging them neatly and plucking out any that were broken or bent. She didn’t want to groom, but her programming said it was preening time, so she had no choice.
Gwin was a dreamer. The other animals judged this to be a flaw, but she saw nothing wrong with snapping at fish that were beyond the reach of her beak. She was tired of being confined, tired of the constant noise of the automated educational recordings, tired of acting out the same routines day in and day out.” (pgs. 361-362)
“Closer to the Sky” by Carrie Vaughn is a traditional Western, except that Copper, one of the horses, is a cyborg:
“Now, instead of flesh and blood for legs this singular cowpony had steel and pistons, rubber tendons, and brass flywheels, slicked with oil and faster than bees’ wings. He had interchangeable shoes: broad plates for sand, spikes for ice, rubberized points like a billy goat’s hooves, and regular polished-for-parades horse’s feet. Mostly, though, this cowpony could now run fast. And he still loved his girl. (You can tell a horse loves his girl by the way he rests his nose on her shoulder, whuffing softly, like he has come home. You can tell a girl loves her pony by the way her arms exactly fit around his head when he lowers it to greet her.” (pgs. 380-381)
Mechanical Animals (cover by Aaron Lovett) isn’t a furry anthology, but it doesn’t pretend to be. These are stories of automata built to exhibit biomimicry. It’s close enough to furry fiction that you should enjoy it.
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