A steampunk story starring Friedrich Engels. Nope, I haven’t seen that one before.
It’s another 1890s. Karl Marx is dead, and Friedrich Engels is making a big display of publicly burning all his correspondence between them, to forestall the need for the police to raid him. In fact, the papers he’s burning are blank or of schoolboy juvenilia. Engels is a sewing thread factory owner, employing many Difference Engines to spin high-quality fabric. But for the past few weeks no thread has been touched, and an army of engineers is retrofitting the machinery. What Engels is bidding them build is a more advanced Dialectical Engine, one capable to simulating a human brain; and he’s feeding all of his letters into it to bring his old friend back from the grave.
This, surprisingly, is not the main plot. That’s reserved for a trio of match-girls he meets. People working in match factories frequently had their faces ruined by the constant phosphorous exposure, and at first glance these girls seem to be fitted with prosthetic jaws. But after Engels tries to talk to them, he finds they struggle to speak anything other than “Buy Bryant and May matchsticks, Sir”. Nor do they need to eat, drinking only electricity from generators.
It’s the plight of these women that Engels becomes concerned with, especially when he learns that the factory owners who transformed them were members of the Fabian Society: pretend-Marxists whose plans for evolving society rather than revolutionizing it deserve Engels’ contempt. No, he conceives of a far better idea:
The little match girls must strike! Put their prostheses on display for the public via flying pickets. Challenge the bourgeoisie on their own moral terms—are these the daughters of Albion? Girls who are ever-starving, who can never be loved, forced to skulk in the shadows, living Frankenstein’s monsters? The dailies will eat it up, the working-class will be roused, first by economic and moral issues, but then soon by their own collective interest as a class. Behind me, the whir and chatter of loom shuttles kicked up. The Dialectical Engine was being fed the medium on which the raw knowledge of my friend’s old letters and missives were to be etched. Steam, was all I could think. What can you not do?
Things, naturally, do not go to plan.
Something that frustrates me about some steampunk stories is the sense that the world it’s set in is a theme park version of Victoriana, rather than feeling like a genuine functioning society. While my understanding of Marx and Engels is lacking and – for all I know – this story may be a theme park version of Communism, it doesn’t give that impression. It feels like a steampunk extrapolation of an aspect of late 19th century British society that I haven’t seen often in steampunk.
And as for that ending… any hint would be a spoiler. I’ll just resort to this: the story ends by moving into a very different subgenre of SF while remaining distinctly steampunk. (I hope that’s suitably tantalizing and unhelpful.)
Arbeitskraft by Nick Mamatas
Availability: free online, print, e-book
Word count: 8,300
First published: The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, edited by Sean Wallace, 2012, Robinson
Where else to find it: It is available for free download at Mamatas’ own site here
Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution, edited by Ann VanderMeer, 2012, Tachyon Publications (e-book available from Weightless Books here)