Cold Comfort and Clockwork – a steampunk short story

The elevator rattled to a stop. There was a hiss of escaping steam as it settled into position and a servant in the clan’s deep blue livery opened the door.

Mitry stepped out onto the thirty-seventh floor. Wind whistled through the girders and stirred the petals of clockwork flowers in the academy’s garden. The chiming of those petals brought back a rush of memories. Hearing that distant sound while he learnt the intricacies of contract and tort. The smell of oil on the days when the garden was being maintained. Stealing one of those flowers to give to Angelica Patby, and the crushing disappointment when her whole response was to look confused. The loneliness on returning to his room after mealtimes, with only his mechanical tutor for company.

“Can I help?” the grey-haired doorman asked.

“I’ve come to see my daughter.” Mitry presented his personal punch card. “I believe she may be struggling here.”

The doorman slid the card into a box by the door. Dials spun, clicked into place, and presented a row of digits.

“This way,” the doorman said, handing back the card and pushing open the door.

They walked down echoing corridors and up wide stairwells, past doors identical in every way except the numbers on their frames, from which the whir and hiss of machinery emerged. At last they stopped in front of one of the doors.

The doorman slid back a shutter and gestured for Mitry to peer in.

Carola had grown since he last saw her. Red hair tumbled in long curls down her back, bright and vivacious against the deep blue of her dress. She sat facing her mechanical tutor, a gleaming box taller than she was, covered in dials, keys, and levers. She was reading a row of dials presented at eye level, then responding using keys at waist height. Mitry could practically feel the smoothness of those well worn keys beneath his fingers, almost hear their clacking and the whir of the machine presenting a response.

A green flag shot up. Carola had got an answer right. A toffee fell from a brass tube into a dish by her hand. She smiled, put the toffee in her mouth, and pulled the lever for the next question.

Mitry remembered when they had brought her here at four years old, remembered the warmth of her tiny body as he held her one last time, the softness of her hair.

“Can I go in and speak with her?” he asked.

“It’s frowned upon,” the doorman said. “Clan rules require thorough immersion in mechanical learning. Your daughter’s education depends upon being left in peace.”

“I have concerns.” Mitry pulled out a single sheet of paper carrying a list of scores – Carola’s annual progress report. “These grades do not match what I expected.”

The doorman patted Mitry on the shoulder.

“We’ve been here before, haven’t we sir? And every time we tell you, she’s doing well enough.”

“My family does not do adequate, we do excellence. I strongly suspect that a private tutor-”

“Private tutors are a fad. The academy’s machines have been producing the finest lawyers for generations. Cold, calculating, sharp.”

The words could have described Angelica, even after years of marriage, or almost anyone else in Mitry’s social circle. They were the highest compliments a lawyer could hear.

Spoken around Carola, they broke his heart.

“I just want to be sure,” he said. “A brief conversation to make sure nothing is amiss, then I’ll go.”

The doorman sighed.

“Very well, sir.” He slid a key into complex clockwork, twisted it twice, and the door opened on hinges oiled into silence.

Carola turned as Mitry walked in. There was recognition in her eyes, but little interest.

“Can I help with something?” she asked.

“I’ve just come to check on you,” Mitry said. “Are you well?”

“I am in adequate health and proceeding at an acceptable rate with my studies.”

“Are you happy?”

She frowned as if presented with a conundrum.

“I receive sweetmeats when I succeed in a test. Success makes me happy.”

“Good, good.” Mitry felt cold despite his winter coat. He fought the urge to look away. This was all he would see of her for a long time and he had to take in every moment. “I brought you something.”

He held out a flower made of gold and glass, each edge shining as it caught the lamplight, and placed it in her hand.

“Thank you?” she said, her look of confusion so like her mother’s. But her mother had changed in the end, had agreed to a marital contract, just as Carola might one day accept a change of her own. “Is this a test? Should I know the response?”

Now he had to look away. His eyes fell on the other flowers, one for each year, sitting in a neat row on a shelf above her bed.

“It’s a gift,” he said. “For you. And a reminder – if you ever want to leave this place-”

“Why would I leave?” Carola looked shocked. She laid a hand on the keys of her mechanical tutor. “This is where I learn.”

“Of course.” Mitry’s eyes prickled. He forced his face to stay still. “But the offer is there.”

“Time to go,” the doorman said.

“Goodbye,” Carola said, turning back to her machine.

Mitry reached out an arm, but knew better than to wrap it around her.

“Goodbye,” he murmured.

The door closed behind him and he stood in the corridor, shoulders slumped.

“Here.” The doorman pulled a hip flask from his pocket and held it out. “I carried this special, thinking you’d be here today.”

“How did you know?”

Whiskey burned its way down Mitry’s throat.

The doorman pointed at the code above Carola’s door, which included her date of birth.

“Same day every year,” he said. “Now come along, you should be leaving before the warden finds us.”

They walked along echoing corridors and wide stairwells, past rows of identical doors.

“Do you think she’ll ever say yes?” Mitry asked, wiping his eyes with the back of his sleeve.

“I think she’ll make a fine lawyer,” the doorman replied.

Outside, clockwork petals chimed in the wind.


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Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

Writing facial expressions – three different reasons to smile

Body language, and in particular facial expressions, are a vital part of getting across characters and emotions in a story. Lists of their common meanings such as this cheat sheet or the database compiled by the Center for Nonverbal Studies, can be invaluable for writers in getting this right. But as a teacher I saw first hand that there are exceptions to even the most obvious of rules.

To most of us, a smile is a smile. It’s a way of expressing our happiness. Sometimes we fake it, but people can often tell the difference. One small high school class I taught, consisting of only half a dozen kids considered ‘challenging’ in their ability to learn or behave, showed me how many other things it could mean.

Aiming to misbehave

O was your classic troubled pupil. I never found out what was going on at home, but he had the attention span of a fruit fly and the gleefully malevolent humour normally seen in cartoon devils. O could have been a capable student if he could just sit still for three minutes at a time. But O didn’t want to learn. There was only one thing O craved, and that was attention.

When O smiled it was because he knew that attention was coming, and he didn’t care why. As the quickest route to attention was normally to misbehave, 90% of O’s grins meant that he was acting up, or plotting to act up. In a sense, O’s smile was still a happy smile, but it was a dark sort of happiness.

This isn't how O smiled, but it's how most teachers saw his grin.
This isn’t how O smiled, but it’s how most teachers saw his grin.

These things that I have learned

M was an adorable, politely spoken lad with a smile like an angel. You could have sat him and O on someone’s shoulders and thought you were in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. M was also autistic, so far along the spectrum that he could only function in a mainstream school with full time support.

If you’ve watched Scandinavian police drama The Bridge you’ll have seen a detective who is apparently autistic. She doesn’t understand social rules and conventions. She doesn’t smile because she isn’t having the same emotional experience as everyone else. Her face is set to a default.

M was similar, except that his default was a smile. I think he was genuinely happy most of the time, but that smile only showed a surface learning of the emotion. He didn’t understand how it worked in others, or how to expand upon it for himself. He just knew that nice people smiled, and so he smiled.

Smile like you mean it

Q was the most heartbreaking person I have ever met. He and his family had fled Afghanistan at a time when that country was in horrifying turmoil.

Q smiled a lot. It was a huge, nervous grin that split his face in half. He smiled when he was happy. He smiled when he was nervous. He smiled when he didn’t understand what people were saying, which happened a lot because his English wasn’t great. He smiled when he was being told off, which led many teachers to conclude that he was a troublemaker who they needed to deal with strictly. But punishing Q led to more inappropriate grinning, led to more frustration from teachers who thought their message wasn’t getting through, led to more trouble, led to more grinning, led to… You get the idea.

A couple of months after I first met him we found out what had happened to Q and his family in Afghanistan. He had seen horrifying things that had traumatised him for life, brutal crimes committed against people he loved. Somewhere in all of that physical and emotional violence he had learned to suppress his feelings beneath an uneasy smile. For all I know that smile kept people off his back for a while, maybe saved his life. But it made it almost impossible for him to function in the ways we’re used to. Our universal signifier of happiness had become, for Q, a signifier of fear. If he smiled on happy occasions it was just because he feared that the happiness would be snatched away. Most of the time, he was smiling because he was confused and afraid and had no idea what else to do.

Whatever makes you smile

Years later, thinking of those kids brings a tear to my eye, but it also makes me smile. I miss them more than anyone else I ever taught. I miss that whole class – O, M and Q, the sweetly gormless smile of P, the ever-changing expressions of the wannabe-rebel G. They were amazing kids, and ones our education system has almost certainly failed by now.

As a writer it’s incredibly useful to be able to use a single expression as a signifier of a standard emotion – smile means happy. It cuts through the clutter to convey emotion to the audience. But reality isn’t that simple, and if you can find ways to use other forms of smiling, other reasons to smile, then you can show your readers unexpected depth of characters, like I found with the real life characters in that class.

One day I’ll write a story about those smiles.


Picture by Randy Robertson via Flickr creative commons

Disagreeing with both sides – Mockingbird, Gove and the literary cannon

I have to make a confession, and I fear that my British readers are going to judge me harshly for it. It’s a stance that makes me wretchedly uncomfortable, but that I feel I must make. So here goes.

I don’t agree with a criticism of Michael Gove.

I'm as surprised as you are Michael.
I’m as surprised as you are Michael.


There. I’ve said it. Happy now? People are throwing stones at our much-maligned education secretary and I don’t agree with them.

But why?

The enemy of my enemy is not my friend

Lets be clear, I’m not saying that I agree with Gove. If we were to meet face to face we might just about agree on the benefits of breathing oxygen and not getting caught in bear traps. Except that we’d each wish that the other one was silenced by the trapper’s steel jaws.

When Gove says that the English curriculum should be about Shakespeare and Dickens I don’t agree, for the same reason that I don’t agree with his emphasis on dates and facts and British events in the history curriculum. I think it’s an old-fashioned, small-minded approach that limits pupils’ perspective, causes problems for teachers and misses many of the benefits of education.


The wrong fuss

Many people I respect, including the Interesting Literature blog, have leapt up to defend the books being abandoned under Gove’s reforms. They point out the merits of books like To Kill A Mockingbird, which are being lost to the generation of pupils about to be taught under the Gove curriculum. They want them to stay on the curriculum.

I don’t doubt for a minute that the books they’re defending are greats, and that many pupils would benefit from reading them, but I think that misses the point.

Like Gove, these critics are defending a literary cannon. They are implicitly saying ‘these books mattered to me, so everybody should read them’.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, I think that’s crap. That’s the same thinking that got Gove to where he is, and that got their beloved books taken off the curriculum.

Skills and emotions

Education isn’t about cramming kids’ heads full of facts. They don’t need that. They have the internet.

Nor is it any longer about access to the classics. You can get them from a library, a charity shop, an online e-book store. In the UK, even those without my privileged access to technology can get hold of these books cheaply and easily.

Education is about teaching skills and building passions. Lessons in literature should teach pupils how to engage with books in an excited, critical way. They should build their passion for reading. And both of those things will be better achieved by letting the teachers pick the books. That way they can find books that they and their pupils will get excited about.

A pupil who is given a story they like, who develops a passion for literature, may discover countless excellent books in life. One who has books that mean nothing to them crammed down their throat will be put off.

Everybody’s tastes are different. Not everyone is going to love Macbeth or Grapes Of Wrath. Yes, some pupils will be surprised to find they enjoy them. But many will be unsurprised to find that they don’t. The person who can best make that call, who understands the pupils in each class, is the trained expert in literature and education who’s in there with them. Not a politician, not a literary critic, not a blogger or an outraged reader signing a petition, but an individual teacher living at the chalkface.

By all means criticise Gove’s narrow curriculum, but don’t try to replace it with one of your own. Instead give teachers the freedom to do their jobs.

Think of the children – e-reading’s messy future

Have you thought about where e-readers are taking us? I don’t just mean emptier shelves round the house and less weight to pack for holidays. I mean the bigger changes that they’ll bring, as change ripples out through the institutions built on old technology.

Yesterday’s post provoked some interesting responses about publishing, and I’ve written before about why kids will still want old style books. But there’s so much more to it than that. Because our default concept of reading is based on privately owned paperbacks, but the reality of books is far more complicated.

Mike Licht


Glenatron mentioned textbooks in response to yesterday’s post. And he’s quite right – they could be vastly improved by using the benefits of an electronic medium. They could be repeatedly revised and updated, colleges and schools buying into the updates instead of whole new books. No more battered, out of date books with notes in the margin and penises crudely scribbled onto the photos.

But getting there is very complicated. Because for schools to use e-books in classrooms they first need e-readers, but to justify the e-readers they first need the textbooks to go on them, so there’s a tricky circle to be broken. Not to mention the risk of e-readers going missing – schools will probably need them cheap and sturdy.

Then there’s a bigger academic issue, because part of how we legitimise knowledge as correct and of value is by publishing it through established academic houses and then keeping that edition of the book set, unmoving and easily referenced for years. That’s an approach that doesn’t work so well with the changes going on.

E-readers have the potential to radically change both education and the knowledge economy around it. But it’s going to be a tricky thing to do.


This was another point raised in response to my post yesterday, this time from Sheila. Our model of publicly shared books – which is to say the library system – is built around books that are trapped on the physical page. New lending models and legal frameworks will be needed to cope with lending e-books. Those new models could make books more accessible than ever, or shackle the electronic age with assumptions from the paper one.

And what about libraries as public spaces? If we start borrowing and referencing by download from library webpages, how will those centres of communal activity be supported, never mind the experience and wisdom of the librarians?


When a book’s published electronically it’s much harder to stop people copying it, just like with music. And that has huge implications.

I could go on for hours about this one. Suffice to say that old models of intellectual property are poorly designed for the modern age, but big companies insist on wielding them to hold back their profits against the inexorable tide of change. It’s not just copyright – look at the pharmaceutical companies getting outraged about life-saving knock-off medicines, or King’s battles to protect its dubious gaming trademarks.

The best companies will respond by innovating to appeal to customers and by finding ways to profit in an age when you can’t realistically stop low level copying. Others will continue on the defensive, keeping the lawyers busy as they go down fighting. The end results should be innovation and a richer culture, but the journey there may be messy.

What have I missed?

What are the other implications to the shift to electronic books? What angles have I missed? Leave comments, share your wisdom.

Just don’t try to stop people copying your opinions – that one’s a losing battle.


Picture by Mike Licht via Flickr creative commons

Some of my other writing – sf+f in education

I have to confess, this is not the only place where I blog. It’s the place where I blog about my favourite things – books, writing, science fiction and fantasy. But in my attempts to get paid for words, I also post elsewhere.

One of those places is, where I contribute to a blog about education. And being the nerd that I am, I let my sf+f interests enter into that from time to time. So, here are a few of the other nerdly things that I’ve written, in an attempt to indoctrinate young minds and their teachers into all things sf+f: