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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #120, May 2, 2013

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Beneath Ceaseless Skies #120, May 2, 2013

“The Clockwork Trollop” by Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald
“The Drowned Man” by Laura E. Price

Reviewed by Matthew Nadelhaft
Fresh on the heels of Nightmare I review another new (to me) market, the atypical fantasy publication Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I was impressed, with one caveat: with two relatively long stories per issue, it seemed a bit much for them both to be steampunk creations. But a perusal of BCS’s rather stringent editorial guidelines – no science fiction, only fantasy; but no urban fantasy, and heroic fantasy is discouraged – makes it seem inevitable these electronic pages will be dominated by alchemy and gear-boxes. Best steal yourself for an at-least semi-regular dose of steampunk, then, and judge the stories on their own merits.

“The Clockwork Trollop,” by Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald, is an accomplished piece of work. Written in a style that self-consciously hearkens back to the likes of Conan Doyle and Wells, this quasi-steampunk story begins with the unveiling of a great invention (don’t they all?). Of course, the invention, being the robot prostitute of the title, is hardly the time machine one might have expected from another story, or indeed the chess-playing automaton the narrator thought his friend Professor Haversham might have perfected.

No, Haversham, a very moral man concerned with the problem of prostitution, has conceived an automaton-of-the-night to free living girls from servitude and combat unwholesome diseases. He and his friend Archy (sic) observe as test-model Janet sets off on her first night’s work with a limited vocabulary of come-ons but (we are told) an almost inexhaustible repertoire of sexual positions. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong: if it didn’t, there wouldn’t be much of a story.

While the resolution of “The Clockwork Trollop” isn’t as strong as it could be, the story has plenty going for it, including a satisfying sense of humour ranging from the dry to the bawdy. My biggest complaint about the story would probably be its rather parochial gender politics, exemplified by the moralistic upper-class gentleman perceiving prostitution as a great social ill that can be addressed by replacing women with machines. On the other hand, if the story’s gender politics were more current it would have been unrealistic.

Hand-in-hand with its depiction of gender relations, though, is the story’s greatest strength – a wry, unsentimental critique of the kind of scientific naivety that seeks technological remedies to social and cultural problems. Although the failing of the clockwork trollop herself may have been purely a matter of mechanics, it is far from a failing on the part of the story to have exposed the false promise of the technological panacea to social ills.

Laura E. Price’s “The Drowned Man,” ironically enough, is partly populated by the clockwork sailors one might expect to find queuing up for the attentions of a clockwork trollop. Fortunately, these mechanical sailors aren’t the focus of the story, which follows daring sisters Corwyn and Gwen as they sail home from an adventure that has netted them a mysterious music box destined for a museum. Whatever trials they faced on the expedition to find the box are mostly unreported, as the voyage home is eventful enough to make even Odysseus think again about sea travel.

Price’s prose is competent and well-crafted but not extraordinary: she isn’t going to be mistaken for Jay Lake, but she won’t put you off her story, either. Which is fine, because the tale itself is a rich enough creation. In fact, it’s a deft balancing act of detail and omission. The world in which the action of “The Drowned Man” takes place is well-thought-out but not over-explained. The clockwork sailors, for example, mark the setting as somewhat steampunk, but no elaboration is given. Likewise, the sisters share a tangled and colourful past, similarly unexplored. If Gwen and Corwyn aren’t the heroines of a series they could – and, I hope, will – be.
Their past left largely to the imagination of the reader, what the sisters do demonstrate is an enjoyable, fast-talking rapport that reminded me of the camaraderie sometimes displayed by The Doctor and companion – minus the sexual power imbalance. It makes for entertaining reading, showcasing both an ear for snappy dialogue and a gift for understated characterization. Gwen and Corwyn seem to breathe and, if they don’t exactly grow in the confines of a short story, they exhibit the potential to do so, and I would definitely like to see more of them.

If one thing is lacking in this story it is explanation. There is no sense of why-this-is-happening. Whether or not there should be is debatable. It’s a world of adventure and mystery these sisters inhabit and explore. Do we need explanations for a fantastical adventure? Some might. I wouldn’t have minded a bit more exposition, but I don’t feel overly let down because it wasn’t there. If I see the name Laura E. Price on future periodicals I will be sure to read them, and I may only be slightly disappointed if the stories do not feature Corwyn and Gwen.