24 June 2009

In the Penny Arcade: August Eschenburg

In the Penny Arcade kicks off with the extended short story "August Eschenburg." (At 64 pages, the longest story by far.) This is the story of a 19th century German prodigy who becomes fascinated from a young age with clockwork automatons. The story kicks off with August's playing with a strange and cruel toy, a paper figure into which a small bird is placed. As the bird struggles to free itself, it gives the paper figure the illusion of being alive. It is a later encounter with a carnival magician's automaton that gets August interested in building his own.

He builds a few pretty good figures for the clock shop his father owns. He attracts the attention of a German industrialist looking to add some element of novelty to his new department store. August finds in the industrialist the opportunity to work on his clockwork figures with a focus he has not been privileged to before. The moving figures he creates are so striking that they make the department store a huge hit. But soon a competing department store opens, featuring its own automaton that are cruder but novel in a way that August finds distasteful. As the new department store begins to draw business away, August and the industrialist come to part ways. August returns to his hometown, where years later he receives a visit from a mysterious visitor with a new business proposition.

It's a delightful and fascinating look at creativity, at the tension between the artist and the public, but also just a very playful story about a manufacturer of clockwork wonders.

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