The Curious Case of the Clockwork Doll: Bonus Content
I was in a writers group in 2014, working on a first draft of what would become The Adulteries of Rachel, and one of my fellow writers mentioned a Sherlock Holmes contest 18th Wall Productions. While brainstorming with her, I got the germ of an idea and then couldn’t let it go. The idea was to pit Holmes, the rationalist, against an artificial intelligence.
There is a line in The Sign of Four that haunts me, when Holmes and Watson discover the footprint in the attic and Watson says, “"Holmes," I said, in a whisper, "a child has done the horrid thing." I’m fascinated by depictions of artificial intelligence in movies and books, and one of the things it seems to me that almost always gets done wrong is that they behave like adults (HAL 9000 may arguably be an exception, but even so), and it seems to me like if you had something that became conscious not long ago, it might behave more like a child. The 2015 movie “Chappie” has elements of this.
I wanted an AI that behaved like a child that experienced possessiveness, sibling rivalry, pettiness, that would seek revenge, and it would be in Holmes’ blindspot - because he would assume a rational creature was beyond primal emotions. The AI would also be a woman, and a servant - two of Holmes’ other blindspots. So it started with the idea of The Mysterious Veiled Woman coming to 221B Baker Street for help (which feels very typical of what one might expect in a Conon Doyle story), and then in the course of presenting her case, she takes off her hat and veil, except that it’s not just her hat and veil, but also the top of her head, revealing her brain. And, of course, I loved the idea that this ‘doll’ had a windup doll of her own—one she was willing to kill over.
I took the challenging of writing in the style of Conon Doyle very seriously, possibly too seriously. I reread the canon, taking notes every time Conon Doyle mentions something I was going to use, a study, a bicycle, ciphers, train travel, and at the end I had this massive pile of lego bricks, and I rebuilt my story using them, which means Clockwork Doll is full of Easter eggs:
“It was a small chamber, scantily furnished, with a blue-and-gold striped wallpaper. A writing-table with a fixed bureau stood beneath a casement window. Opposite was a bookcase with a marble bust of Athene on the top. The carpet was a small square drugget in the centre of the room, surrounded by a broad expanse of wood flooring in square blocks, highly polished.”
If you are a savvy Sherlock Holmes reader, you might recognize that the marble bust of Athene comes from The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, the writing-table with a fixed bureau from The Adventure of the Golden Pince-nez, and the carpet surrounded by wood-flooring in square blocks (highly polished) came from The Adventure of the Second Stain. There are a few settings, the kitchen, for example, about which Conon Doyle says very little, and in these cases I relied primarily on Trevor Yorke’s The Victorian House Explained to fill out the period detail I needed.
The climax is my fusion on Jane Eyre and Terminator 2, but the significant moment for me is near the end, where Holmes realizes he’s blundered, possibly with deadly consequences, and he turns to Watson and addresses him by his first name (which in Conan Doyle Holmes never does): "I have been a fool, John, an absolute fool." For me, that’s the most emotional he gets. But then, of course, there’s the inevitable ‘epilogue,’ back in Baker Street over tea, when civilization and rationality have again prevailed and all the loose threads are explained. He’s returned to his previous self-confidence, as if, unlike Watson, he’s learned very little at all, although there is a hint of self-reflection as he looks in the mirror.