Cold metal hands; glassy, unseeing eyes; beings with an intelligence, but without reason. Automatons are another staple of the steampunk genre, and they are as varied and unique as the worlds their creators have brought into existence. These pieces of technology are often put into stories as adversaries, faceless enemies, or in some cases, they are put into stories as love interests.
Science Fiction and Steampunk have done their part to advance the notion of the automaton as an independently functioning device. Some have created automatons to be soulless beings whose sole purpose is to carry out the will of their creator or master. Gail Carriger created frightening examples of this type of automaton in her Parasol Protectorate series. In this series, Mindless automatons pursue Alexia Tarabotti as she attempts to solve a mystery while attempting to avoid the affections of a randy werewolf. These types of Automatons are good for a scare, or persisting sense of dread, as their motives are nonexistent; they exist only to serve another.
The downside to this type of automaton is that once the reason for their existence is explained, they are not quite as scary. We as the readers know that once we discover their purpose, the main characters in the story will also likely make this discovery, and solve the problem, thereby removing any of the threat that these creatures once posed.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the self-aware, feeling automatons. These automatons are usually in service to a human master, or are on the run from their former masters. Somehow, these automatons become complete characters, capable of independent thought and emotions. How they managed to break their programming is often left a mystery, as the interest is in what would happen to a subservient group, if they began to develop a desire for freedom. At what point does an object stop being just an object, and become a person in its own right?
This is a question that interests me. In much of Science Fiction and Steampunk, the automaton tends to fall into one group or the other: Mindless drone, or feeling, thinking individual. At what point does the object begin to become a person? In my current project, I am attempting to explore this gray area where the automatons are able to make decisions, and respond in a logical manner, but have not quite grasped the concept of emotion yet. Humans that see this are beginning to see both the promise of a brighter future with smarter automatons, as well as the danger of a future overrun with mechanical men that could overpower their masters with ease, even lead a revolution to liberate all mechanical people.
Of course, the reality of automatons is a bit more mundane. Simple automated devices have existed for hundreds of years. Mimicking human behaviors like writing and praying, the mechanical beings were often small in stature and fit to be a conversation piece at a party, rather than a viable tool to make society a better, safer place. Automatons like the Dulcimer Player, though a tad creepy in their near human appearance, is a neat little musical marvel – not something one would need worry about revolting against humanity.
In all seriousness, automatons are an interesting way for a steampunk/alternative history writer to explore notions such as inequalities between individuals, the development of consciousness, and even the ethical repurcussions that come from creating intelligent beings only to force them into servitude. For the writers: Have you ever written automata into your stories? If so, what purpose did they serve in the plot? Did you write mindless drones and workers? Or did you write emotional, rational beings that just happened to be mechanical, rather than biological. I am interested to hear your stories.