Of Silver Swans and Steampunk

Peter Carey explores timeless questions through old technology

May 30, 2012

Peter Carey’s novel follows a curator working with 19th-century robotics.

Peter Carey isn’t sure, but he thinks his new novel, “The Chemistry of Tears,” might fall under the subgenre of “steampunk.”

“The notion, as I understand it, is old technology in the modern world,” Carey says. His book has plenty of “old technology” — namely, 19th-century automata, incredibly intricate robots whose clockwork innards allowed them to (stiffly) simulate natural movement. The realistic appearance of these mechanical creatures gives them an aura of “creepiness,” he says. “It looks like it’s [alive]; it’s not.”

One automaton in particular — a silver swan whose neck would bend swiftly — fascinated Carey. The creature, which is now on view at England’s Bowes Museum, was actually built in the late 1700s by London showman James Cox and was feted by Mark Twain in his 1869 travelogue “The Innocents Abroad.”

A heavily fictionalized version of that swan is the centerpiece of Carey’s book. “The Chemistry of Tears” ($26, Knopf) is about both the 19th-century Englishman who funds the swan’s creation and the 21st-century curator who later re-assembles it.

“I’m not a wildly mechanical person,” Carey admits. “I think I follow abstract logic quite well, but I’m not brilliant with machines or anything like that.” So, he worked with curators from the Bowes and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London to be sure he could properly describe the mechanical details of the old-fashioned robots. One horologist — that’s someone who studies timepieces — “thought I was nuts,” laughs Carey. “For a high-level clockmaker, he was very down to earth and told me, ‘People think this is wonderful work, but it’s just a job for me.’ He just couldn’t understand why I wanted to have anything to do with this.”

That collaboration, however, raised the stakes for the novel. “I wanted it to be correct for [the people who still work with these mechanics],” Carey says. “I think the most important thing when you write about someone else’s world is that you take the trouble to respect that world.”

Through that process, the novelist discovered the real themes of “The Chemistry of Tears,” whose title suggests a coalescence of science and humanity. “It’s about life and death, what humans are and to what degree humans are machines. And if we are machines, is that really less wonderful and less mysterious?”

Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Thu., 7 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)
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Marc Silver · May 30, 2012