My Favorite Bit: Laura Lam talks about PANTOMIME
There is a fascinating element to Laura Lam’s new book Pantomime that I can’t tell you about. So instead, I’m just going to show you the official blurb.
R.H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic is the greatest circus of Ellada. Nestled among the glowing blue Penglass – remnants of a mysterious civilisation long gone – are wonders beyond the wildest imagination. It’s a place where anything seems possible, where if you close your eyes you can believe that the magic and knowledge of the vanished Chimeras is still there. It’s a place where anyone can hide.
Iphigenia Laurus, or Gene, the daughter of a noble family, is uncomfortable in corsets and crinoline, and prefers climbing trees to debutante balls. Micah Grey, a runaway living on the streets, joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice and soon becomes the circus’s rising star. But Gene and Micah have balancing acts of their own to perform, and a secret in their blood that could unlock the mysteries of Ellada.
So what is Laura’s Favorite Bit?
One of my favourite aspects of the world-building of Pantomime is Vestige. Long ago, a race called the Alder ruled the world, and they created beings called Chimaera. Now, in Ellada and the Archipelago, the Alder and their Chimaera are gone, and all they have left behind is Vestige: advanced technology that might be magical. Societies rely on practical Vestige such as weapons and industry tools, but many artefacts serve no “useful” purpose and are instead curiosities collected by the rich.
I had the idea for a certain bit of Vestige when I went back to San Francisco for a visit. I grew up in the East Bay and now live in Scotland. When I went back, I started doing some of the touristy things I’d never done before. My friend recommended the Musée Mechanique at Pier 45 in Fisherman’s Wharf (warning: if you click on the link there’s an automatic recording of “Laughing Sal” which sounds like it’s straight from a nightmare). We wandered around over 300 arcade games, orchestrions, antique slot machines, and animations. I found them fun, and also a little sinister.
So I sent two characters in Pantomime to the Museum of Mechanical Antiquities, full of Vestige curiosities. Micah Grey, my protagonist, had been there has a child and had fond memories. There, the visitors look at technology more advanced than they could ever hope to create, such as the clockwork woman:
“This one is my favorite,” I whispered into her ear.
It was a clockwork woman’s head. She was life-sized, and her proportions were Alder – large eyes, high cheekbones and eyebrows, long neck. Even at rest, a muffled ticking could be heard through the glass. Her face had a strange skin, realistic in every way but for the fact it was transparent. The gears and pulleys of her face visible underneath looked to be made of brass. Her eyes were uncannily real, the irises a strange mixture of blue, green, hazel, and topaz, the eyelashes copper. The eyelids blinked occasionally. The father put the coins into the slot. Everyone else who had been following the noble couple gathered around again.
The clockwork head awoke. She shook her head, blinked rapidly, and twitched her pale pink lips. She yawned, and her tongue was as mechanical as the rest of her, the teeth impossibly even and white. Her face settled into a pleasant smile and she stared straight ahead, almost expectant.
This piece of Vestige has levers connected to pressure points at the base of her neck. When someone pulls the lever, she shows a different emotion. Micah and the other visitors are amazed by the sight of a mechanical object uncannily mimicking a human. There’s also the undercurrent of eeriness, because they do not know where she came from or how she was made.
That is a feeling that pervades Pantomime and its world, riven with technology that is winding down. When an artifact breaks, they lack the knowledge to fix it. Only the Alder and the Chimaera know how, and they’re long gone.
Or are they?
Laura Lam was raised near San Francisco, California, by two former Haight-Ashbury hippies. Both of them encouraged her to finger-paint to her heart’s desire, colour outside of the lines, and consider the library a second home. This led to an overabundance of daydreams.
She relocated to Scotland to be with her husband, whom she met on the internet when he insulted her taste in books. She almost blocked him but is glad she didn’t. At times she misses the sunshine.