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Beatrice, or, The Mechanical Yule Goat

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”BABBAGE!”, screamed Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, down a speaking tube. “WHAT IS THIS ABOMINATION?”

“Which abomination in particular do you mean?” came Babbage’s voice, rendered a bit tinny by its return passage through the same tube.

“The four legged steam-driven analytical-engine-controlled[1] monstrosity covered in…”

Lovelace paused, briefly, to examine the material in question.

“…covered in stitched animal pelts. With a pair of horns affixed to its head.”

“Oh!” replied the distant tinny voice. ”That one. That’s the new prototype Yule Goat![2] Do you like it?”

She did not.

“Come here!” Lovelace shouted down the tube. “At once!”

It was not, as such, the fact that Babbage was clearly experimenting with new forms of self-contained and self-propelled calculating engines that had angered her.

It was not even that he had not informed her of this latest exercise in exploratory engineering, interested as she might have been in participating in its design, although she did indeed resent that she had been engaged in fighting crime, as their patron, the Queen herself, had insisted, while Babbage had obviously ignored their primary responsibilities and created this… thing.

No, it was the automaton’s behavior that was so enraging.

As she waited, Lovelace warily surveyed the peculiar device. It was the size of a Shire horse. Smoke and sometimes steam slowly curled from its nostrils, betraying that the motive force clearly came from a compact steam engine, possibly one of Brunel’s manufacture, though how the boiler remained stoked and what fueled it was not obvious. It possessed four articulated legs, apparently capable of conveying the whole, eyes with some sort of weird internal illumination source that gave them a look of eerie intelligence, and an apparent insatiable hunger for expensive mathematics texts.

It was this last characteristic that was so infuriating. The device was currently eating its way through a treatise on quaternions that William Rowan Hamilton had personally presented her with.[3]

“Ah, Lovelace!” said Babbage, at last entering the room. “I see you’ve discovered Beatrice.”

“Beatrice? This thing is called…”

“Beatrice, yes!”

“If by ‘discovered’ you mean, ‘found in my private office chewing its way through my library,’ yes, you might say I ‘discovered’ it.”

“’Her,’ dear Lovelace, not ‘it,’ and she most certainly was not intended for that purpose. You really shouldn’t be feeding her non-fiction at all. She’s really only meant to ingest novels, you know. Giving her mathematics texts is terribly irresponsible of you; I don’t know what the results might be.”

“Irresponsible of me, Babbage? I neither requested nor consented to the company of ‘Beatrice.’”

At that moment, “Beatrice” began to buck, and staved in one of Lovelace’s file cabinets with her rear legs.

“Yes, yes, be that as it may,” said Babbage, “the question is, will that input constipate her mechanism?”

“What, Babbage,” asked Lovelace with more than a little acid in her voice, “is the precise function of this mechanism?”

Beatrice then, well — and we regret that there is no better way to describe it, dear reader, in spite of the inherent repugnance of the action — released a brand new bound manuscript from her hindquarters, though not entirely in perfect condition, partially due to the great force with which it was expelled.

Lovelace picked it up off the floor, with a mixture of disgust and fascination.

“Octonions”, read Lovelace aloud from the inside cover, “Being a Pastiche by ‘Beatrice’ in the Style of W.R. Hamilton. For ‘Lovelace’, Yuletide, 1844.”

“Octonions?” said Lovelace, who began to read the contents, initially with some skepticism, but then quickly with great enthusiasm.

“Why Babbage, this is extraordinary! It is an extension of Hamilton’s work on Quaternions from four dimensions into eight, though it appears the property of associativity as well as commutativity is lost by the construction…”[4]

Sadly, at that moment, Minion appeared, with a pot of coffee and the morning newspapers. Sadly because, immediately upon spying printed pages, Beatrice the Mechanical Yule Goat sprang forth with astonishing enthusiasm, knocked Minion over, and began to eat the newsprint.

“Oh,” said Babbage, “this will not do at all. You mustn’t feed her current events either, Lovelace, that is entirely outside of the design! Who knows what—”

And at that moment, the steam-driven Yule Goat, motivated by the awesome Power of the Press, ejected a complete edition of a heretofore unknown periodical; leapt headlong through the nearest wall (leaving behind a giant mechanical Yule Goat-shaped hole); and raced forth into the streets of London.

Babbage picked up the printed matter. It proclaimed itself to be the afternoon edition of the London Lemming, and the front page was dominated by an article about a scandal involving a courtesan and industrial espionage now threatening to destroy the career of an M.P. from the Industrial Radical party[5], which seemed entirely plausible but for the fact that no such personages or party existed.

“Oh my. This is terrible. Lovelace, I explained, you one mustn’t do that. Imagine the damage if some Subjective Idealists[6] were to feed poor Beatrice an entire news-archive…”

“I did nothing, dear Babbage, though I do fear that I shall have to sweep up behind the mess left by this monstrosity of yours in spite of it!”

“Minion!” said Lovelace, “quickly, get me my tools and debugging apparatus,” though it must be added that the poor footman was still both disheveled and disabled from his misadventure.

“Babbage,” she added, “get changed; we are going to have to hunt through the streets for your Capering Caprine Yule-Horror.”

“But…” stuttered Babbage.

“No ‘buts’. Now, I say!” said Lovelace.

. . .

The path of destruction through the streets of London was not hard to follow, as it was far from subtle. Beatrice the Steam Driven Automatic Yule Goat smashed through any barrier whatsoever preventing her from consuming printed materials, and printed materials were to be found more or less everywhere imaginable.

“What,” asked Lovelace, as she and Babbage ran through the streets, “possessed you to produce this instrument of bibliophagic havoc?”

“Well you see,” began Babbage, “there’s this secretive annual exchange among some of the members of the literary set called ‘Yuletide’[7] in which hundreds of authors produce new stories in the style or setting of existing works. Each participant reveals a tale for which they would like to read a pastiche, and, in the spirit of the season, every participant both creates and receives at least one. The authorship of the stories is kept anonymous until after the New Year.”

“Regardless,” he continued, “having agreed to participate this year, I realized that it would be quite a chore to both write a story of sufficient length[8] and complete our planned upgrade to double the precision of the floating point arithmetic unit in the Mill.[9] It seemed to me that it would be altogether simpler to build an analytical-engine-driven automaton to perform the work on my behalf. I would construct a mechanism that would consume an existing work or several works in a particular style, and…”

“And then,” interrupted Lovelace, “produce a new work in the same style. The madness to your method is now apparent to me. But I must emphasize, it was madness. There was no plausible rationale for giving the device both independent mobility and a voracious appetite!”[10]

“But I was assigned to produce in the style of Bulwer-Lytton![11] Do you know how turgid and prolix he can get? It was attempting to read the novel I had agreed to pastiche that drove me to this extreme in the first place! Without an unlimited desire to consume all text, regardless of how poor or boring, poor Beatrice would have broken down without doubt! And besides, by making her fully autonomous and powered by the very publications she consumes…”

“Your rash act,” interrupted Lovelace, “has endangered the metropolis again. That’s the third time this month alone. Do you know how little work I’m getting done fighting crime?[12] And the Queen may become displeased at some point. Our funding might even become threatened, you know.”

“Oh, I think that quite unlikely,” said Babbage, gazing upon a row of tenement houses that had been knocked entirely to the ground by Beatrice. “I doubt anyone of importance will be inconvenienced, after all.”

“No one of importance?”

“Oh, my!” said Babbage. “I believe Beatrice has taken a turn, and it is certainly for the worse.”

“What do you mean?” asked Lovelace.

“She’s now heading for Bloomsbury.[13] What if she catches the scent of old ink on Great Russell Street?”

“The British Museum!? Oh no! She could eat the entire library![14] Babbage, this is entirely on your head. We have to destroy her before she gets to the reading room!”

“We can’t destroy her!” said Babbage. “At least not before she’s finished writing my Yuletide assignment. I need to deliver it by midnight tonight!”[15]

“And you didn’t already have her complete the story?” asked Lovelace. “You built an uncontrollable, erratic, steam-driven mechanical goat to do your work for you, and you still didn’t set her at the task well in advance? Your procrastination is endless, Babbage. What’s your excuse this time?”[16]

“Well, the assignment was very detailed, and I’m still not entirely clear on what ‘mpreg’ might be, so I couldn’t include that information in Beatrice’s instructions yet. We need to get her back, and in a condition where I can finish doing my research and writing the updates to her punch cards so she can finish working on the novel in time.”

“It’s ALWAYS SOMETHING,[17] isn’t it,” said Lovelace.

“And besides, before she escaped, Beatrice produced a new work of mathematics! Unlike writing hack fiction, that requires sentience![18] We can’t destroy a potentially conscious mathematical automaton! It would be immoral![19]

“And I suppose we could potentially employ her to do new research for us on algorithmic methods,” said Lovelace. “I’ve been neglecting our work on complexity theory[20]…”

“So we’re in agreement: we must recapture her somehow, repair her entirely minor quirks, and get her working on my Yuletide assignment.”

“Oh, very well, Babbage, but you owe me new copies of anything from my collection that she’s destroyed or that she eats in the future. I expect my library to remain entirely intact.”

“Yes, yes,” said Babbage, somewhat distractedly. “The key, I believe, is to find a way to disengage or block the operation of the mill[21] in order to temporarily halt the execution of Beatrice’s analytical engine, after which transporting her back to our workshops will require nothing more than a mobile gantry and a steam-carriage capable of transporting an eight ton automaton. We can then ameliorate some of her peccadilloes, research this ‘mpreg’ issue in my copy of the Encyclopedia Dramatica, add that into Beatrice’s directives, and we should be finished in time for a late supper.”

“You optimism, Babbage, knows no bounds,” said Lovelace. “But by what means do you imagine we will be able to halt Beatrice?”

“Well,” said Babbage, “I briefly contemplated calling on Faraday[22], but Beatrice’s mill is made entirely of non-ferrous metal…”

“…and an electromagnet might only serve to make the steam-engine seize up, and then the boiler could explode,” added Lovelace.

They had, by that time, finally caught up with the marauding mechanical menace, as it had reversed course and was rapidly approaching them from across a public square. The reason for this was almost immediately obvious, as Lovelace and Babbage were at that very moment standing before a book seller, the sign for which proclaimed that it specialized in poetry.

“I think,” said Lovelace, “that I may have a solution, however.”

“No!” said Babbage. “We mustn’t! It’s entirely untested! What if…”

“Damn you, Babbage. This entire mess is your fault, and no, we’re not doing this your way any longer.”

Lovelace marched into the shop, immediately spied several volumes likely to meet her needs, and ran back to the front, returning just as the Lexivoric Leviathan arrived.

“Here, see how you like the taste of this, Beatrice,” said Lovelace, throwing a volume before it, which the Yule Mechagoat snapped out of the air and began to eat with enthusiasm.

“What was that?” asked Babbage.

“’The Twelve Hours of the Night’ by William Ashbless.[23] The work is utterly without shame — completely self-indulgent, pretentious, morbidly dysthymic, and in fact nearly incomprehensible. I suspect it is wholly indigestible, even with mechanical assistance.”

“William Ashbless?” asked Babbage. “Where have I heard that name?”

“I understand,” said Lovelace, “that he was once a friend of my late father, but the details of that are obscure and I’ve never heard the full story. At any rate, his verse is a danger to any who read it. The book sellers had several copies of his most famous poems, and I retrieved them all.”

She continued to throw the texts, one by one, at Beatrice’s ever-ravenous maw.

“I’m not sure…” began Babbage.

“Patience, Babbage!” said Lovelace. “Attend to the all-consuming power of poetry!”

Beatrice began to look wistful, then confused. Suddenly, without warning, the automated terror fell to its knees, utterly bewildered and overcome with melancholy as it wept light machine oil.

“Yes! I was right! Quick, Babbage, disengage the main gear train before she recovers!” said Lovelace.

Beatrice looked at them with mournful eyes as Babbage approached her, a spanner in his hand. Mercifully, it was over quickly.

. . .

Some time later, in Engine Workroom #3, as they examined the punch cards that controlled the Engine of the Great Automated Yule Goat, a thought came to Babbage.

“You know,” he said, “I suspect I could fix some of her reaction to Ashbless’ poetry with a very slight modification to…”

“No,” said Lovelace.

“But, if we were just to…”

“No,” said Lovelace.

“But what could possibly go wrong if we…”

“Everything could. And no.”

—————

Notes:

[1] Although Sydney Padua often deliberately and inaccurately refers to Analytical Engines as Difference Engines, apparently because the term is catchier, we use the term “Analytical Engine” throughout this story. Then again, we’re the sort of people who use “we” even though the author is entirely singular (though not in the sense of “great” or “remarkable.”)

[2] In some traditional fannish cultures, a Yule Goat is said to bring fan fiction every year at Yuletide. The origins of the goat are lost in the mists of time, though it is believed to be entirely unrelated to the giant mutant stargoat that was once, inaccurately, thought to be in imminent danger of eating the planet Golgafrincham.

[3] Quaternions are an extension of the complex numbers from a space of two-vectors into a space of four-vectors. William Rowan Hamilton is said to have come up with the core equation describing them, i2 = j2 = k2 = ijk = −1, while walking along the Royal Canal in Dublin in 1843, after which he carved the equation into the Broom Bridge using a pen knife. Rather than resulting in an arrest for vandalism, this act was later commemorated by the Irish prime minister, Éamon de Valera, with the placement of a plaque. Hamilton is also well known for his reformulation of classical mechanics, using the Calculus of Variations, in terms of the so-called principle of least action. (It should be noted that Yuletide authors frequently obey the principle of least action.)

[4] The Octonions were first discovered in 1843 by John T. Graves, and then later re-discovered by Arthur Cayley prior to Graves’ first publication in 1845. The timing within the context of this story is entirely absurd and ahistoric, in keeping with the rest of the plot.

[5] This is an entirely deliberate reference to Gibson and Sterling’s 1990 alternate history SF novel, “The Difference Engine.” In it, Babbage completed his Difference and Analytical Engines, after which the Industrial Radical Party, lead by Lord Byron, took over Great Britain. Note that Gibson and Sterling also seem to have preferred to refer to “Difference” rather than “Analytical” engines for aesthetic reasons.

[6] A reference to George Berkeley, a.k.a. Bishop Berkeley, and his philosophical position that the material world is entirely an illusion of the mind, and that objects are real only so far as someone perceives them to be real. For an extreme and famous treatment of the potential results of this were it to be true and were some people to set about deliberately altering the beliefs of others about reality, see the short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges.

[7] “Yuletide” is an annual fannish celebration of indeterminate origin dating to antiquity. For example, it is widely believed that Virgil first penned “The Aeneid” as part of the annual Yuletide fanfic exchange, Homer’s epics then being a relatively rare fandom in spite of the widespread popularity of the canon.

[8] Length requirements for “Yuletide” stories during the Victorian period are poorly attested, but given the length of many novels of the era, and the prolific habits of many authors of the time, we may reasonably presume that they were substantially more brutal than the current quite modest 1000 word minimum.

[9] In the context of the present author’s headcanon, Charles Babbage doubtless constantly tinkered with the design of the realized Analytical Engine, even going so far as to alter quite fundamental components. The real Babbage was essentially incapable of ceasing to tinker, and may have been one of the earliest inspirations for the admirable modern practice of shooting the engineers on a long-delayed project in order to permit a product to finally be shipped.

[10] Note that there is, even in the context of the lame explanations that follow, still no real rationale for why the device need be mobile, beyond, of course, the necessities of plot. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

[11] Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, was the infamous creator of the opening words “It was a dark and stormy night,” and is the author after whom the infamous “Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest”, in which competitors attempt to write the worst possible opening for a novel that does not exist, is named. He was also a Member of Parliament. It is not clear if these characteristics were connected.

[12] It is notable that in canon (that is, Sydney Padua’s canon), Lovelace and Babbage never seem to have fought any crime at all, unless you count street musicians, which most people don’t, unless they’re Charles Babbage, but no one seems to be Charles Babbage any more.

[13] Not yet, at the time of our tale, the home of the Bloomsbury Group, but already the home of the British Museum, and indeed, since 1816, the home of the Elgin Marbles, none of which were in fact sculpted by Lord Elgin in spite of the deceptive name. The museum itself is located, as described, on Great Russell Street, though I have been unable to ascertain what was so great about Russell in the first place.

[14] The British Library was not established as a distinct institution until the early 1970s, and the book collection, as well as the famous main reading room, were housed at the museum at this time. It is to be assumed that the librarians would have looked upon the possibility of a steam-driven mechanical goat the size of a horse eating their collection with some dismay.

[15] In finishing his work only as the deadline is within moments of expiring, Babbage is not a terribly unusual Yuletide participant. (Not, of course, that the present author in any way could be said to have ever acted in such a manner.)

[16] Rationalization is even older than Yuletide.

[17] The lack of support for true small caps in common restricted HTML dialects, such as the one used by AO3, continues to irritate some authors even to the present day. Others seemingly have no urge whatsoever to make use of small caps; their mysterious behavior may never be explained satisfactorily.

[18] It is not clear that either activity requires sentience.

[19] A reasonable and consistent moral view, though it is unclear if either the real Lovelace or the real Babbage would have believed machine intelligence to be possible. Lovelace certainly felt that it might be possible for machines to perform acts like music composition, and yet she also famously said: "The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths."

[20] The branch of computer science devoted to the analysis of the time and space required for algorithms to execute. We would describe it in detail, but we lack the time and the space required.

[21] In an Analytical Engine, the Mill was the equivalent of the Central Processing Unit of a modern computer system. The Store was the equivalent of the memory of a modern computer. The Yule-Goat’s maw and hindquarters might be likened to Tumblr.

[22] Michael Faraday, FRS, a major early researcher into the phenomena of electromagnetism. It may be reasonably said that Faraday’s basic research led eventually to Maxwell’s equations, likely the greatest result in 19th century physics. Faraday was known for giving Christmas lectures to the general public at the Royal Institution, partially to entertain but also to enlighten. Whether he participated in Yuletide is unknown.

[23] William Ashbless is a fictional poet jointly created by the fantasy writers James Blaylock and Tim Powers, and who has appeared in the works of both. In the context of the novel “The Anubis Gates”, by Powers, in which Ashbless plays a starring role, he does meet Byron, sort of, only not really (and not really for two different reasons). We would explain, only we shouldn’t. In fact, we regret even bringing it up.