When I heard that D.L. King was putting together a steam punk anthology, I knew that I'd have to submit something. Never mind that I had a bunch of other deadlines. Forget about the fact that I'd never written steam punk before. Every anthology she's edited has been exceptional. I just had to be part of this one.
When I started turning over story ideas, though, I found myself floundering. I understood the signature elements of steam punk: complex, elegant gadgets fashioned of brass, leather, or crystal; eccentric scientists, secret societies, extravagant intrigues and evil schemes; layer upon layer of constraining garments; lasciviousness hiding behind the facade of propriety. I just couldn't get a handle on a premise that felt exciting and original enough to pursue.
As often happens in my writing, I turned to the question of setting to unlock the doors of my imagination. Steam punk borrows heavily from Victorian or Edwardian history, technology and aesthetics. Thus it is often set in England. As an alternative, I considered using Victorian San Francisco as my background - the Great Fire might have figured in the climax - but America seemed too much of a frontier, insufficiently subtle for the type of story I wanted to write.
Then I remembered that Victoria's empire stretched far beyond the British Isles. What about a steam punk tale set in Hong Kong? Even now you can see remnants of the imperial period in the city's architecture. All I had to do was shut my eyes and I could imagine what Hong Kong might have been like a hundred and fifty years ago: hot, damp, crowded and smelly; a colonial society full of power struggles and hidden scandals.
That notion opened the creative floodgates. My characters practically stepped out and introduced themselves (though even I was surprised by who they really turned out to be). The plot unrolled as I wrote. My whole story came to me, inspired by Asia.
I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed discovering it.
Her Own Devices by Lisabet Sarai
Lin Xiao Chung, lovely slave of Hong Kong whoremaster Fang Wu, pays a midnight visit to the infamous Christopher Burton, legendary entrepreneur, explorer, inventor and rake. Since fleeing England in disgrace, Burton has set himself up in the brothel business, using his engineering genius to create sex machines that threaten Fang Fu's financial empire. Lin's mission is to thwart Burton - any way she can. But Christopher Burton has more than one trick up his sleeve and Lin soon finds that the foreign devil has salacious secrets she never expected.
Lin sat silent, twisting her hands in her lap. Burton wondered what Wu would do to her, if she failed in her mission. "Show me," she said, finally. "Show me your machines."
"Would you like a demonstration? That can be arranged."
"Not - not now," she answered coolly. Her poise was remarkable. "I merely want to be able to explain to my master why your house is so popular. Surely you must have models on the premises."
"I can do better than exhibit models, my dear. I can show you the devices in action."
Burton rose and drew open the curtains that draped the south wall. Lin's gasp was more than sufficient reward for revealing a few secrets.
"What - how?" The comely visitor stepped closer to the wall, staring at the round panels of glass embedded in the surface, rather like the port-holes on a steamship. Each port displayed some lascivious scene.
In one window, a cloud of feathers pulsed around several naked forms writhing on a divan. With each thrust, the downy plumes caressed and tickled the bare skin of the two - or was it three? - participants. The feathers seemed alive, their motions triggered by cunning sensors in the divan itself.
Another port displayed a lean mandarin, wearing only the hat that signified his office. A nude woman knelt at his feet. Each time she bent her head to swallow the man's erection, a machine behind him lashed him with leather thongs, raining fierce blows down on his shoulders and back. His mouth twisted in a grimace that could have signified pain or pleasure.
"She controls the beating by squeezing her thighs together," Burton murmured in Lin's ear. "Pneumatics. Works nicely during copulation as well." The girl's breath came faster. Clearly Burton's creations had an arousing effect even at a distance.
In a window in the center rank, a delicate Chinese woman was bound naked on a wrought iron frame. Beside her, a corpulent, bewhiskered Englishman ran his hands over a keyboard. As he played, phallus-shaped rods plunged into or emerged from the prisoner's mouth, quim, and bum, apparently in time to some unheard music. Pincers on jointed arms plucked at the girl's nipples and little animated needles pricked the swell of her breasts.
"There's a plug up the Major's arse, too," Burton commented. "And a sleeve on his cock. He's always fancied himself a musician..."
"How is this possible?" Lin tore her gaze away from the silent tableaux of lust to confront their creator. "The House of the White Tiger is two miles from here."
Burton shrugged. "Lenses. Mirrors. Conduits lined with glass." Her musky scent wafted up from under her skirts and petticoats. She must be extremely aroused. "I've installed some ports in the house itself, of course. As you might expect, many of my clients enjoy watching the games being played in other chambers."
Lin's eyes blazed with green fire. "This is outrageous! Obscene!"
"I take that as a compliment, Miss Lin." Burton grinned. What a savory morsel she was!
"I must have these things. My master must have them." Her earnestness only made her more desirable. "If money does not sway you, then I offer you my person. You are known to be a lustful man, highly susceptible to the charms of female flesh. You may perpetrate any sort of carnal act that pleases you upon my body. I will not resist."
You can win a copy of Carnal Machines. Just comment on this post and I'll enter you in a drawing, to take place on May 15th!