The Siren’s Call: Fragile wiring


Most consumer reviews of the iPad mention, among other things, its sleek design — and just what does sleekness mean? To our friend, Merriam-Webster, sleekness refers to being “smooth and shiny …glossy, as a highly polished surface.”

In the case of the iPad, though, I’d suggest adding “not made by human hands” — for isn’t that what it seems like? Its smooth surface, no exposed screws or fastenings — it just doesn’t feel like it was built: Instead, it seems like the clouds opened and this gadget arrived on the back of a dove.

This is an attitude to technology that completely opposes the Steampunk ethos.

One of the reasons why the Steampunk genre of fantasy appeals is that it gives us a vision of the future where the connection between technology and its makers is more obvious. The technology might seem primitive — the copper wiring sticks out, the gears rattle and creak, glass lenses seem hopelessly fragile — but the machines often prove just as effective, just as powerful as our own.


There’s also an element of the miraculous to this machinery. What, for instance, did the people of Lyons think when a real-life Steampunk-like invention of Da Vinci’s — an automaton built to resemble a lion — entered a banquet honoring the king of France in 1515?

It was said to have “walked a few steps,” writes Stefan Klein in “Leonardo’s Legacy: How Da Vinci Reimagined the World” (Da Capo Press: 292 pp., $26), “then risen on its hind legs and opened its breast, revealing a bouquet of lilies, the coat of arms of the French royal family.”

Miraculous, indeed. I’m sure a Steampunk author wishes he’d thought of this.

And if a mechanical lion could be so marvelous, what is one to make of clockwork machinery used to keep a child’s defective heart beating?

That’s the situation in Mathias Malzieu’s highly inventive novel “The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart” (Alfred A. Knopf: 180 pp., $22.95). The boy is Jack, born to a prostitute in Edinburgh on a freezing night in April 1874. The person who delivers him, Dr. Madeleine, is a witch/inventor who lives in a house atop the tallest hill in the area, Arthur’s Seat. Upon his delivery, Madeleine senses something is wrong:

“She keeps palpating my tiny torso. The smile disappears from her face.

‘His heart is very hard. I think it’s frozen.’

‘Mine too. There’s no need to make a fuss.’

‘But his heart really is frozen!’

She shakes me from top to bottom, and I make the same noise as someone rummaging in a toolbox.”

Madeleine remedies the defective heart by slipping a tiny cuckoo clock under the skin of Jack’s chest and connecting it to help his heart beat. The clock must be wound, every day, with a key. His early life in Madeleine’s workshop — for his mother abandons him — is appropriately filled with wonder. The workshop seems like the French annex of the magical realism movement: There, Jack finds jars full of tears, eggs containing memories and a variety of castoff characters in need of Madeleine’s strange curative powers.


When Jack encounters a street singer, a young girl called Miss Acacia, he falls in love, in spite of the threats made by Joe, a schoolyard rival for the girl’s affection. As if this didn’t create enough dramatic tension, Madeleine, who is concerned about Jack’s passion for Miss Acacia, hangs a slate etched with three rules in the workshop:

“Firstly: don’t touch the hands of your cuckoo-clock heart. Secondly: master your anger. Thirdly: never, ever fall in love. For if you do, the hour hand will poke through your skin, your bones will shatter, and your heart will break once more.”

Further complications follow: Jack turns fugitive after an encounter with Joe — poor Joe underestimates the violence Jack is capable of — and the pursuit of the police causes Jack to leave the workshop for the larger world. What awaits him there are fascinating, sometimes horrifying, figures, including Jack the Ripper, the pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès and, of course, Miss Acacia.

Jack also learns what love really is — as well as a surprising secret about the clock in his chest — not from Miss Acacia, however, but from the person who has watched over him all along, Dr. Madeleine.

The strange, dream-like elements of the novel are nothing new for Mathieu: As part of the French rock band Dionysos, he and his bandmates frequently dabble in fantastic imagery. Check for yourself.

I wouldn’t put “The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart” on the same shelf with, say, Jay Lake’s books — his latest story of Clockwork Earth is the superb “Pinion” (Tor: 348 pp., $26.99) — or, for that matter, next to “Steampunk,” Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s very fine anthology, which I’d probably grab (along with baby pictures and our marriage certificate) if our house caught fire in the middle of the night (Jeff is an occasional contributor to our book section).


And yet Malthieu’s book does seem to belong somewhere on the Steampunk family tree, probably on the same branch where you’ll find ETA Hoffman’s automatons, Pinocchio, Da Vinci’s robots and the small bird that Yeats said kept a sleepy emperor awake. That’s because, in using his metaphor of gear-work in a child’s chest to probe the mysteries of love, Malthieu reminds us, via a most unexpected route, what it means to be human.

Just like all those wires sticking out of Steampunk machines.


UNREAL BRADBURY: You’ve damaged your lungs with too much smoking, or a valve in your heart blows out — what do you do? If you’re living in the United States in the year 2071, rather than turn to a strange inventor like Dr. Madeleine, you simply take the organ that you need from a clone living in a government-controlled zone in the Midwest.

That’s the scenario confronting Ray, the narrator of Steven Polansky’s novel “The Bradbury Report” (Weinstein Books: 326 pp., $24.95). Yeah, I know, interesting choice of names, isn’t it? Polansky’s story feels familiar and new all at the same time, and perhaps it should go, like the Steampunks, on a shelf of its own. There you’ll also find “Brave New World” and Eric Garcia’s “The Repossession Mambo” (made this year into the film “Repomen”). All of these books treat the human body as a cheap commodity in the future — something easily fixed with drugs and interchangeable parts. Today we call this fantasy, but some future generation of readers may of course call them prescient.

Owchar is deputy book editor of The Times. The Siren’s Call appears at