Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Rhonda Eikamp

Your story not only pays homage to the Sherlock Holmes mythos, but to the style of Doctor Watson recounting each tale. Are you a fan of Sherlock Holmes stories? What sort of research did you do for this tale?

I’d read all the original stories, although I’m not a big fan of the modern versions. When I set out to write a steampunk-robot tale, I wanted to say something about Victorian class attitudes, how they might thoughtlessly use something as marvellous as artificial intelligence as soldiers or household servants. The Holmes icon popped into my head. I knew right away I wanted to parallel the original stories. I re-read several of the stories for structure and to get a feel for Watson’s voice. Watson worked for me as the narrator, as it turned out, because I could put those unquestioning pompous attitudes into him. He’s trapped in them without even realizing it. In spite of talking about his friendship with Gearlock, in the end we see that Watson views him the same way the rest of society does, as a machine created to serve humans, something the good doctor can switch off with impunity if it stops working right. I didn’t do much research otherwise. Except for bees. The honey-extraction centrifuge is a real invention of the time, and we find out here that it was actually thought up by Gearlock.

Early on in the story, you make mention of the prohibition against the amalgamated altering the programming of another of their kind. This hints at a depth of worldbuilding that lends itself well to the story. How important is it to you to create a complete world for your stories, even if the reader only experiences a small taste of your creation?

Every work of fiction creates a world, or should—that suspension of disbelief that means the reader accepts, for the duration of the story at least, that this happened somewhere, somewhen. Genre writing is a special case, because the reader knows from the start that the world of the story may not be the one he knows, so a telling detail here and there to build up that world is essential. It’s easier in short fiction to drop these hints that may never get fleshed out, as long as they’re consistent. But I let myself discover them as needed while I’m writing. It’s more fun that way. In the story, Germany is beginning to use the amalgamated as soldiers. I didn’t know that at first. I didn’t know our modern term “standby” comes from the Victorians having parked their amalgamated in closets all night.

Gearlock has much in common with his fleshly counterpart, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock. If you could, what classic Sherlock Holmes case would you like to see Gearlock tackle? How do you think he would fare?

None of the original cases. Sherlock solved those to everyone’s content. I’d like to see Gearlock take a stab at some of our modern mysteries, and I think he’d do well. I’d set him on the Kennedy assassination or have him decipher the Voynich manuscript.

Gearlock also shares certain traits with the BBC’s modern interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, in particular the remarks of “You do not know what it is like, here within the closes of my head, Watson. This incessant . . . insipid buzzing of my thoughts. The ennui.” How do you feel these similarities to both versions of Sherlock Holmes will impact the reader? Is Gearlock more accessible because of them?

I’m fascinated by the concept of AI and—if we ever do create sentient machines—where the line will be drawn between human and machine. I don’t think it will be human goodness that will set us apart from computer brains, but rather the dark side of human nature: our neuroses, our crimes of passion. The Turing test to prove you’re truly human wouldn’t be to do the right thing, but to do the wrong thing. Even if it’s not crime or a beastly act, but just doing the absurd, the unexpected. You can see this in the anti-computer tactics game players use to win against machines, especially in chess, strategically wrong moves to shake the computer up, get it “out of its book.”

Gearlock wants to “get out of his book”; he feels the despair of a sentience that is locked out of being human, is baffled by their urges, even while being surrounded by them. We seem to tell this story a lot, characters that long to be human and imitate what they consider to be human, whether they’re from the inferior- or superior-to-human-intellect side of it, from Kafka’s ape in “A Report to an Academy” to HAL 9000 asking, “Will I dream?” Maybe because we’re fascinated by this dichotomy. It’s something we all understand—to err is to be human, but computers by definition should never err, so how could they ever achieve humanity? Maybe it’s comforting to think these failings of ours mean we can never be replaced by them. We’re attracted to the original Holmes, I think, not just because of his computer-like abilities, but because of his human failings: his moodiness, the drugs he turns to when his intellect makes him feel isolated. I wanted to show that ambiguity in Gearlock. If he can be this tormented, is he already human or not?

As to the modern interpretations of Holmes, I’ve managed to avoid most of them, especially the Downey movies. Haven’t seen one yet. I caught a couple of episodes of the BBC resurrection here on German TV, but dubbed in German. I love the visual method they use to bring Holmes’s thoughts to life. He’s always been a sort of black box otherwise. Benedict Cumberbatch is awesome in any language.

What projects are in store for Rhonda Eikamp?

More stories! I’ve yet to embrace the novel length (or be swallowed up by it, as the case may be). I have another steampunk story that takes a very different direction from this one in the upcoming Emby Press anthology Steampunk Monster Hunter: The Dark Monocle, and a story in the anthology Fae from World Weaver Press. I’m also very proud to be a part of The Journal of Unlikely Cartography put out by Unlikely Story.

Sandra Odell

Sandra Odell

Sandra Odell is a 47-year old, happily married mother of two, an avid reader, compulsive writer, and rabid chocoholic. Her work has appeared in such venues as Jim Baen’s UNIVERSE, Daily Science Fiction, Crosssed Genres, Pseudopod, and The Drabblecast. She is hard at work plotting her second novel or world domination. Whichever comes first.