Prose Dive returns with a new intensive look at the best and brightest in speculative short fiction!
“Technarion” by Sean McMullen is the feature story this month, published in the December issue of Clarkesworld magazine. It grabbed me right away with its strong characterization, inventive premise, and tense plotting. It’s a smart, delightful step away from the dainty Victorian-era England setting we usually get with speculative fiction and into the soot-stained bootstraps of the Industrial Revolution. Technology and tension collide, sparking an interesting conflict that carries the reader all the way to the end.
Let’s dive in!
In 1875 England, a powerful tycoon suddenly buys out the telegraph equipment company Lewis Blackburn works for. Lewis’s skills with building electric components have been noticed, and he is hired by the aristocratic Mr. Kellard to help build a new technological device. The technarion, as it becomes called, is a calculation machine that can “see” into the future. It picks up signals that partly contain information for the next day’s stock exchange, which enables Lewis’s new employer to slowly amass a profit. The plot advances by following Lewis as he helps expand the technarion and its reach, and we are drawn into a world of intrigue where the cost of keeping the technarion’s secrets becomes too high.
Lewis is named Foreman of Engineers, and begins to help fulfill his employer’s vision, who begins to grow increasingly dependent on the technarion’s calculations. The calculations become so demanding that Lewis must hire a typist to feed instructions to the machine, and we are introduced to Elva Landers. He develops feelings for her, or rather the other way around, and she adds not only a romantic element but becomes a liability for Lewis in protecting the secretive work of Kellard, his employer. However, Elva is as uncommonly skilled as Lewis at her tasks, and together they work toward fulfilling Kellard’s vision while making a life for themselves with their new fortunes.
Eventually we learn the signals the technarion picks up are being sent from other calculation machines, presumably from other companies. A partnership is formed, and Lewis becomes increasingly wary of his employer’s ambitions. Things change when he gets an urgent telegram to return home but finds nothing out of the ordinary. Suspecting someone sent him there on purpose, Lewis hurries home to find the factory the site of a morbid battle, with the skeletons of his former coworkers (and Mr. Kellard) lying in pools of their own liquified flesh. The culprit? His dear Elva, who reveals she is not the person he thought she was.
At the intro of the story, Lewis makes the declaration that he is a monster, and not altogether human. We learn the reason for this at the story’s end.
The technarion Lewis helps build is the result of the machine worlds’ influence, a vast, far-reaching conglomerate of societies completely taken over by the allure of the calculation machines. Elva reveals all this as she implants Lewis with a device that functions much like a single nanomachine, which will keep him alive long enough to quell any rise in technology that may draw the attention of the machine worlds. She promises him that if humanity doesn’t stop heading in that direction, her people, who have made it their life’s work to thwart the machine worlds, will annihilate the planet Earth in 2020. She dies, leaving Lewis to begin what she started.
The story ends with Lewis telling us that humanity is doomed, for while he had spent years imprisoned in what had been the Soviet Union for having killed several inventors, technology had skyrocketed to the point of no return. With humanity’s fate revealed, Lewis works toward contacting Elva people, so he may escape Earth and move onto the next world.
Unlike the main characters in a far inferior time-related story, “Technarion” boasts well-realized men and women who fulfill the exact story function they’re supposed to. They’re archetypal, but without using the same tired, rehashed tropes you’re used to seeing. Each one, from the relatable Lewis to the power-hungry Kellard, are expertly crafted and written with purpose.
I can’t remember the last time I read an everyman archetype pulled off so well as McMullen does with protagonist Lewis Blackburn. Lewis is modest, comes from poverty, is awkward with Elva, yet clever enough to figure out answers to the really tough questions. He’s likeable for all these reasons; the combination of modesty yet extreme capability makes him an engaging and resonant main character. He’s as shocked as we are that Kellard is willing to resort to murder to keep his secrets. He acts as an extension of the audience, and even though he is technologically brilliant, the story chooses to focus on his relationships with others rather than his skills.
Elva is the beautiful, capable wonder girl who becomes attached to Lewis. It’s easy to tell that she will fall in love with Lewis, but it’s surprising when she proclaims she still loves him at the story’s end (after she’s murdered everyone in the factory). As the object of Lewis’s affection, she becomes the stakes Lewis holds in such the risky plot that is working on the technarion, and we as readers get a satisfying “dynamic duo” vibe when they accomplish stuff together and impress their higher-ups. You realize something about her seems too perfect, even expect treachery, but not on the epic scale at which she reveals her people’s planet-destroying potential.
As far as antagonists go, Kellard is easy to hate. Or at least dislike — he’s not a true antagonist because he doesn’t outright stop Lewis from getting what he wants, only adds difficulty in getting it. He’s ambitious, uncaring, and filthy rich. He isn’t above killing to protect his secrets, which he does with the three typists Lewis interviews before choosing Elva. Kellard shares his insecure side with Lewis as the work with the technarion continues, and his proclamations that “you can never have too much money” are almost laughable. However, this side of him makes us sympathize with Lewis, so I think his characterization is effective, if a little over-the-top. Then again, we’re dealing with a man who has larger-than-life power, both in finances and otherwise. It’s Kellard who deals Elva’s deathblow (it’s really five shots to the chest), even though he doesn’t live to see it.
Past Prose Dives have focused on finding how stories relate to our modern world, what they have to teach us. “Technarion” is no exception, the theme being to beware the allure of computers and technology for what they may lead to. What’s unique about this story compared to other ones I’ve looked at is that the rate at which we gain that understanding is much slower. It isn’t until the ending of the piece that you realize it treads cautionary tale territory. It’s a little sappy, but it makes a hell of a lot of sense in the rest of the story’s context. We’re too busy being drawn along the tension in the plot, and by the end realize that the story had been building toward this theme all along.
The piece begins and ends with Lewis declaring that he is a monster, that he is not quite human. At the intro this is unclear, perhaps even purposefully vague, so we don’t know what kind of story we’re getting into. The story being in first-person doesn’t help things, as an unreliable narrator can lead you to believe anything he or she wants you to. By the end of the piece we learn that “monster” is meant mostly figuratively. Yes, Lewis is practically immortal due to the machines implanted in him, but he’s also a killer of hundreds of innocent inventors and brilliant minds, making him a monster in both action and his non-humanity.
It’s a neat hook, if a little on the red herring side. I understand it’s important we understand how Lewis really feels about the murderous work he’s doing, but the beginning and end don’t really seem to follow the same narrative thought. Too much is made vague in favor of drawing reader interest, but it’s a minor complaint of mine. Had the story simply begun with the setting, the ending would not have provided as much closure in defining how monstrous Lewis has really become.
Obviously I’m not going to suggest you all tear your computer’s power cords from their sockets. I mean, I’m typing this article on my smartphone, which is pretty much an entire computer that fits in my pocket. The convenience of writing long-form NitWitty while lying down in bed is well worth the cost of planetary annihilation.
Choosing to end the story in 1992, and to have the doomsday date five years from the when this story was republished in 2015 (it was originally published in 2013), makes you see how frighteningly far technology has come. Reading Lewis’s statements that he has never seen a people as “becoming so absolutely besotted with using computers as humans” truly resonates with how dependent we are on them. We have the ability to store our entire lives in these things, or even create simulacrums of entirely new lives, and it seems like every day we’re coming closer to overloading. Wondering where we’ll go technologically as a species is something science fiction has gotten a lot of mileage out of, and it’s refreshing to read an outcome that explores one of the more dismal endings to our own story.