Airship Ambassador: Hi Kim, thanks for joining us!.
Kim Fielding: Thanks so much for letting me visit!
AA: In your other works, you take readers anywhere from 15th century Bosnia to modern-day Oregon, where they meet werewolves, wizards, and more. Those books include Venetian Masks, Good Bones, and Stasis. Now, they have a chance to read your short story The Clockwork Heart. What is it about?
KF: This one has a roughly late-Victorian setting, and it’s about a socially isolated man who scavenges broken bits of things and repairs them for resale. His creativity has never been truly appreciated by anyone else. Then one day he finds a golem—a mechanical man—who’s been badly damaged and discarded.
AA: I found it to be an engaging story, partly for how the two characters interact. Why choose steampunk as the aesthetic and feel?
KF: Well, once you have a mechanical man as a character, steampunk seems like an obvious choice. Besides that, I’ve always loved the genre and was eager to dive into it. I’d touched on steampunk a bit in my dark fantasy series (the Ennek trilogy, which includes Stasis), but The Clockwork Heart is a much more robust journey into the genre.
AA: What was the seed which led to writing The Clockwork Heart?
KF: A few related lines of thought converged. On the one hand, I was thinking about how difficult life can be for people who are socially awkward and whose talents are unappreciated. Some of those people desperately want human connections but they have a hard time making them, and many others fail to see their true potential. On the other hand, I was also thinking about what makes us human—what makes us people. Of course, this has been a relevant question for some time, especially as artificial intelligence has advanced. And it’s not just a philosophical question but a moral one as well. If the machines we create become sentient, how should we treat them? How would we treat them? And on the third hand, I was also contemplating how in fiction, sentient machines often seem to want to dominate humans. But what if these machines had some of the more positive motives such as compassion and love?
AA: Those are all great questions, and I’ve found that science fictions stories over the decades have been a helpful platform to explore potential answers. What can you share with us about the personality traits, motivations, and inner qualities of the main characters, Dante and Talon?
KF: As I’ve said, Dante is socially awkward and really alone in life. Because nobody has appreciated him, he thinks poorly of himself. He thinks of himself as almost inhuman—more of a machine than a man. But he’s also wonderfully creative and, although he hasn’t had the opportunity yet to exercise this quality, he’s kind. Talon has enormous capacity for love, but he’s never had the chance to show it because, until Dante, he’s been treated as a toy rather than a person. He’s somehow an optimist at heart. His dearest wish is to be valued. Oh, and he’s also more than a little stubborn.
AA: They both have a need, to give and to receive, and until meeting, neither had, or was given, the opportunity for either. How do they change throughout the story?
KF: Each of them changes as he sees himself through the other’s eyes, and in a way, they both reach the same conclusion. They both realize that they are capable of human emotions and that they can accomplish much more than they’ve been given credit for.
AA: The world of The Clockwork Heart has some interesting details for the story. What can you tell us about them?
KF: Magic and alchemy exist in this world, although it’s mainly the wealthy who benefit from them. Poorer people drudge through factory jobs and the like. Also, there’s no hint within the story that homosexuality is looked down upon by the society at large. Dante has a lot of problems, but being gay isn’t one of them.
AA: What passage, paragraph, or scene was really memorable to write?
KF: I like this early scene:
“Ah, but such a clever machine!” As Dante cleansed away the mud and grime, he marveled at the workmanship. The automaton’s skeleton was of some alloy that was both light and strong. Ingenious pumps worked fluids through a mechanical vascular system. Where a man’s heart would be, the golem had a compact engine. Dante made an incision in the skin and was delighted to discover that the engine still functioned, beating as steadily as his own, but he couldn’t work out what fueled it.
He knew the golem possessed a mechanical brain as well, some kind of device that permitted it to learn simple commands and perform certain tasks. He was tempted to take a peek inside its head, but he suspected he wouldn’t understand what he saw. Alchemy and magics, according to the rumors. Those were the things that made golems work.
“Damn,” he said after more inspection simply turned up more mysteries. He rubbed his eyes wearily. He wasn’t going to be able to repair the golem—its workings were beyond him. His dreams of prepaid rent and warm coats faded away. He consoled himself with the thought that maybe he could at least use some of the golem parts in another project.
He’d work on the mermaid instead, he decided. He reached for the golem, intending to store it on one of his shelves with the other broken bits and pieces. But when he touched it, the golem made another sound—a tiny whimper. It turned its head slightly and looked at him.
And gods help him, but Dante saw emotion in that single lavender eye. Fear. Pain. Despair.
Golems were machines, and machines did not possess feelings. In fact, sometimes Dante fancied himself a machine as well, cold and unemotional, incapable of love or joy. More than once he’d dreamt of splitting open his own skin and finding nothing but clockwork.
“Can you understand me?” Dante asked quietly.
The golem tried to answer, but its jaw was broken and the sounds it made were too garbled to be words. It nodded twice, very slightly.
It was horrible. Nothing so mangled should be capable of movement, let alone… thought. Consciousness of a sort. Dante felt as if he might be sick. He grabbed a dusty sheet of canvas from the nearby shelf and quickly draped it over the golem. He’d work on the mermaid. At least he might earn a bit of money from that.
What I like about it is in those brief moments, we can see glimpses of humanity—both Dante’s and Talon’s. They’re like a promise of what’s to come.
We’ll pause here in chatting with Kim. Join us for part two when Kim talks about back story, and lessons learned.
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