Monday, November 5, 2012

Guest Author: Heather McDougal

Hadley Rille Books has some great titles coming out this month, and today we'd like to feature one of HRB's new novelists, Heather McDougal, author of Songs for a Machine Age.
Heather was born in Northern California and grew up in a rural summer crafts school, where people from all over the world came to make things. As a result she received in-depth training in pottery, weaving, cooking, construction, and how to grow things. She has a degree in fashion design and eventually achieved an MFA in sculpture, where she learned to blow glass and weld. She has a long-standing fascination with automata and clockwork, particularly those of the 18th century.
After many international travels, she now lives in the same countryside where she was raised, along with her two daughters and her husband, and works as an educator and a writer. She won a Writers of the Future award in 2009 and has had work published in anthologies and magazines since then. Songs for a Machine Age is her first published novel.
Heather has provided an excerpt from the novel, so please keep reading after her guest post.
Welcome, Heather!

The idea for Songs for a Machine Age evolved from a robotics course I took for teachers. They were running the robotics course in the traditional way, meaning a problem-solving situation: you create the parts of the robot based on an assigned task, and then tried to do the task. So, if the task was to move an object from one side of a maze to another, people came up with, for example, an arm that picked the object up, or a flat blade that pushed the object ahead of it like a bulldozer.

I went along for awhile, but in the end the thing that struck me was how prosaic, how mundane the challenges had been. And, when it came to building our own robots, everyone came up with machines that spoke of industry, of tasks. They all did something useful.

I, on the other hand, wanted to experiment. I built a little 4-wheeled vehicle that had large and small tires kitty-corner to each other, so that when it changed direction it would also shift its center of gravity, making it waggle from side to side. It was a silly, floppy, dancing machine.

The others were interested in this machine of mine, its patently un-useful being. "What does it do?" they asked me, and I said, "It dances." And they all commented on how unusual it was. They scratched their heads and smiled.

I couldn't get this experience out of my head. I went home and kept thinking about it. I began to think about how much the Industrial Revolution has shaped the way our society approaches machinery -- how, in fact, it was the needs of industry that created machines, and we don't -- we often can't -- think of machines except as framed in terms of their usefulness.

This view is actually changing these days. Burning Man, the Maker movement, indie music and even playlist technology have had a huge effect on why and how machines are created and used -- the making of fun machines has increasingly gone from industry to the home, to the individual. And more and more, they are being made for art, for fun, and for creativity. But what would have happened if, somewhere along the way in the very beginnings of the industrial revolution, the whole industrial paradigm was subverted into one of art and creativity? What if some culture had rejected the industrial model -- if the Sabots in France had been successful -- and that mechanical knowledge had been rerouted into some different direction? What kind of culture would we have then?

In its origins, Songs was my attempt to answer that question.


Songs for a Machine Age

There is a place where fabulous clockwork Devices fill Festival streets with color and sound.

Where the Gear Tourniers, in their places of high learning, keep alive the memory of the cruel horrors of an industrial past, now overthrown.

Where the skill of the hand and grace of the body are markers of true belief...

Elena alkeson has been on the run for six years.  Wanted by the fanatical Duke of Melifax for witchcraft, nowhere in Devien is safe, as her gift for sensing impending disaster comes with a price: she can't keep her mouth shut.
...Until she meets Fen, who shares a similar gift: the gift of seeing inside mechanisms and knowing what they do.  Elena and Fen must flee for their lives, going to the capital City of Helseve to seek asylum, and, perhaps, a life in which their gifts can be used for good.  Amidst the machinery and the brilliance of the Autumn Festival, Fen and Elena find friencship, danger, and some powerful allise.
But Melifax and his sect, the dour Browns, are determined to bring the people of Devien into a new age, an age of moralism, conformity and mass production, ensuring that the beauty and pageantry of Devien and its Devices will be lost forever.
Excerpt from Songs for a Machine Age
Elena sat on a rock around which the vines flowed, looking out at the curving slopes, staring at the distant winking light that represented her enemy. The knowledge that they might be so close caught her in an old terror, making her shiver in the darkness; and yet, the light of their fire kept them distant. As long as the light remained, she felt she knew where they were.
Come midnight, she was still staring out at the blankness of the night and listening to the myriad scratchings and squeakings of the night creatures. The hours wore dully, and she blinked away sleep, aching with tiredness. The distant fire had long since dwindled to a dull mutter of light, and she had to pee. Rising and stretching her stiff limbs, she moved off among the vines to squat before she went back to wake Fen.
She had barely put her thumbs into the waistband of her leggings when she heard a sound: a faint, rhythmic susurration coming from downhill, somewhere among the many vines. Not the sound of horses or men walking, but rather, a smooth, mechanical sound, like a Device on Festival day. Curious, Elena squinted into the darkness, trying to see what could be approaching in the thin moonlight.
The thing passed ahead of her, a few rows along, only visible by a few silvery glints. Elena shifted, peering. It stopped. She held her breath. Then, above the shoulders of the vines, she saw something dark silhouetted against the starlit sky: something curved and many-pointed.
Antlers. Antlers made of brass.
She had seen those antlers before, had thought of them often over the years. They dropped down again, and the mechanical sound returned, shifted to a longer interval, and was gone.
Elena stood in the dark for a long time, listening, but the thing did not come back.
Percival? Here?
Why would Zander Alloway’s stag be here, passing where she sat? Was it a sign from the Gods, from Ula of the Grove, or perhaps Pomath, God of Hands and Making? What could it mean?
Memories rushed in, of days long ago, of another night like this one, another sighting of the stag.
She remembered the center of the meadow: the shape of a stag, alert and cautious, shining eerily in the moonlight. She had tiptoed closer, her pain forgotten as she watched his many-pointed antlers swing first this way, then that; the pale light ran across his shoulders with a watery gleam, as if he were made of ice, standing in that great lake of moonlight.
He had leapt off, bounding through the shadows with a movement like liquid silver, and she heard something odd: the sound of machinery, quiet and regular, a metallic slithering. The stag itself was a Device, a Created thing. The beauty and precision of it amazed her.
In the small cottage later, after her collapse, the tall, knotted-looking man with red hair and stern eyes whose hands had nevertheless been very gentle with her wounds, had drawn up a chair and gazed at her with his queer, unsmiling face pulled down in thought.
“What’s your name, and where did you get those wounds?” he wondered aloud. She was sipping broth and, as too tired and grateful for caution, her mouth gave her away.
“My name is Elena Alkeson, and I—” Elena’s mouth snapped shut. His grim countenance cracked into a grin.
“Cautious, eh? Not surprised, with those welts on your back.” His grin disappeared as he observed her curiously. “Seems as if you came across Percival last night, doing his nightly rounds. Gave me quite a start, it did, when he came back.”
She had to stop herself leaning forward. “Oh, was that your stag? He’s wonderful! Did you Create him?”
It was his turn to snap his mouth shut. She felt a perverse urge to laugh, but it quickly turned into a wince, and he leapt up to help her get comfortable before excusing himself while he fetched the water.
She had lain in bed, watching the sun move across the beautiful quilt and wondered who this man was. The broth tasted delicious, the bread crusty and fresh. On sleepy impulse, she reached up to a shelf just alongside her bed and carefully took down one of the little wooden boxes that were stacked there, higgledy piggledy. It was about the size of her palm and made of some pale wood, with reddish corners where the sides had been carefully box-combed together. The number two had been carved delicately on the lid that opened beautifully on tiny hinges.
Inside, on the clean wooden surface, rested two dozen or more tiny machine-parts, gears or cogs of some sort, glistening as they rolled unevenly around on their pegs. She reached in with a finger and pushed them around: they were hard, sharply-cut little things, that stuck to her finger like the tiny beads her mother used to sew onto collar-edges…
The sense of warmth and security that came with this memory nearly undid her. As she squatted, she felt tears begin to drip down her cheeks and off her nose, to water the grapes along with the water from her body. Lifting her leggings, she wiped her eyes and, after a few more minutes of staring into the dark, went back to Fen, who lay rigid under his blanket.
“Fen,” she whispered, “Wake up.”
He sat up immediately, letting out a long breath. His face was shadowed in the wan light, but his shoulders sagged with relief.
“There you are! I’ve been awake for a half-hour or more, wondering where you’d gone.”
“Fen, listen, I just saw something. Something wonderful! It may have been an accident, but I think it was a sign we are going in the right direction.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The stag, Zander Alloway’s stag! I saw it, out among the vines.”
“Zander Alloway’s…what?”
“When I was escaping the Duke, it was Zander Alloway who helped me. Yes, the Zander Alloway. He had a Device, a beautiful stag, who appeared in a field and led me to his house. I wouldn’t have found him otherwise.”
“And you just saw this Device again?” Fen shook his head. “Are you certain you didn’t fall asleep and dream about it?”
“No! I had just got down from where I was sitting to relieve myself, so I wasn’t even sitting. It was Percival, I’m certain of it. I’d know that sound anywhere.”
Fen shook his head again, as if to clear it. “But that’s just so…”
“Strange, I know. Fen, it’s not the first time I’ve seen him, in the distance, at night or early in the morning. I don’t know, maybe he’s checking up on me.”
“A Device, checking up on you?”
Elena stared off into the darkness. “Never mind.” She sighed. “I suppose it’s hard to believe if you’ve not seen it for yourself. Listen, their fire’s gotten bigger again, down there. Can you take the watch, please? I think I need some sleep.”
Fen nodded and went off into the vines a ways, disappearing from view. Elena lay down gratefully, taking refuge in her blanket as she settled into the grass at the end of a row of vines, the dry leaves tickling her face.
Percival! Here!
She smiled in the darkness.
Hail Pomath, hail Ula. The Gods are watching.


Terri-Lynne said...

Heather--I had only a very small idea of the origins of your story. I knew it had to do with a robotics class, but the rest??? Now I see so much more of your story! Thanks for sharing, love.

I'm so proud!

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Heather, I'd love to see your dancing robot. I don't suppose you've done a youtube video? ;)

Your novel sounds awesome, and I look forward to reading it. Congratulations!

Terri-Lynne said...

Oooh, Karin! What a good idea! A youtube vid of the original "clown engine."

Do it, Heather!

Heather McDougal said...

Hmm, that's an interesting idea. I could do it, but actually I think I'll post the little sculptures I made for the Indiegogo contributors instead. They're windup! And they dance!