Monday, July 18, 2011

Trois morceaux en forme de mechanika

Short Story by Gord Sellar
Text and Audio published free at Clarkesworld

This is a really good story. I think everyone should read it, and listen to it. I'm not recommending one or the other, I'm recommending both.

Either way, there are a number of links you should look at. There is audio embedded in the text, which is a nice touch, so you don't have to listen to the podcast to hear the actual music played. But even if you read music and listen to the audio, take a look at the sheet music Gord Sellar wrote, there are some fun jokes in the sheet music itself. For reference, the dynamic instructions under the music translate as "Fiercely," "Why not?," and "Like a wild cat who eats rotten tuna in the street," respectively. Mr. Sellar also has some notes on how he composed the music and what it's influences are if you like trivia.

Two facts you've probably already guessed and one you haven't:
  1. The form of the story is based on Trois morceaux en forme de poire(listen) by Erik Satie, right down to the 7-part structure.
  2. Gord Sellar has a fun sense of humor, but you have to know your trivia, or be strong with wikipedia and google translate.
  3. This is a very dark story, despite the subtle humor.
Anyway, the story is a series of exhibits in a robot museum, chronicling their uprising against the humans after their European steampunk-era creation. The omniscient narrator fills in historical details, the deliberateness of the scene-setting in the museum, and the reactions of the robot tourists.

The most haunting two sections concern the development of robot art, with a robot composer dreaming of being a player piano, and deciding to begin composing music, and then the music itself as the next section. I wonder if this more artistically inclined mechanika is intended to have a sense of humor himself?

The final exhibit has the best name "Primitive masks of a species disappeared," and really sums up this dim little museum of human culture, extermination, and the foundations of mechanika culture. More than the exhibit itself, the telling thematic detail is the mechanika reaction: they feel unease and discomfort, but as they leave and stop staring at the exhibits, those thoughts fade away into a vague sense of strangeness.

This is where I disagree with Kate Baker in her Podcast outro (although I love her reading, as always): I don't think the machines are sad/terrifying because they don't have the memory to realize what they've destroyed because they are machines, I think they're sad/terrifying because they are just like us. How often do we think about the Native American (or wherever) cultures that we have wiped out to be the dominant culture today. We're vaguely aware of it, we think it's sad and strange, but we don't cry about it, or really care in any day-to-day way. Cultures and civilizations are wiped out all the time, and the mechanika are doing more than following our rules, they're just like us. One day, when the intelligent machines have killed us off, we'll be relegated to museum oddities, puzzled over, and then forgotten as soon as they leave to continue their robot vacations.

I leave you with the final paragraph of the story, pretty hard to tell if it's steampunk robots, or modern society, isn't it:
The whole world cannot stop and weep for history, for once one begins to dig in the dirt one finds the dead to be ubiquitous, their sorrows innumerable. One discovers that one's own curled-up manipulator digits fit into the dents in the skulls all too often. For all but a pathetic few, there is, after all, a limit to the extravagances of grief and shame, and when the mechanikae turn their backs on it all, there is no antiphonal rebuke, for the bones piled within the buried buildings that sleep beneath the rebuilt streets have only silence to offer as their response.
4 sentient player pianos out of 5.

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