Mechanicals, Wizards and Gypsies,
Or Round-Up at the Robot Rodeo
“Of Metal Men and Scarlet Thread and Dancing with the Sunrise” was one of those accidents of story that I fell into and had no idea how important it was. In 2005, just after learning I’d won the Writers of the Future contest, I saw that a small press ‘zine was calling for stories for a special “mechanical oddity” issue. Back in those days, I was dashing off stories left and right with little thought other than to land yet another tale in the boat and then find it a home out in the world. I had been playing with a bit of lyric: “Rudolfo rode to Glimmerglam in the Age of Laughing Madness” and it was laying around the factory floor when Leroy, my redneck muse, started twisting it up with whatever else he could find to fashion a mechanical oddity story. The first line showed up fast and easy: Rudolfo’s Gypsy Scouts found the metal man sobbing in an impact crater deep in the roiling smoke and glowing ruins of Windwir.
From there, the story took off and wrote itself over several lunch breaks spent nibbling tuna fish sandwiches at the Big Town Hero near my day-job office in downtown Portland, Oregon. Robots. An ancient wizard. A dashing Gypsy king and his Wandering Army. A fallen city. When I finished “Of Metal Men…”, I learned that the magazine calling for those mechanical oddity stories had received their fill early and closed to submissions. But that was okay, I told myself, because it really wasn’t that great of a tale. It felt a little different and the world and characters seemed a little different from my norm. But all in all, “Of Metal Men…” just slid off my to-do list and into my done pile with little fanfare and no expectations for it. It found its way out the door in search of a market and was largely forgotten about until the next fall when Doug Cohen pulled it out of the Realms of Fantasy slush pile, passed it along to Shawna McCarthy, and turned it my first pro-level sale after Writers of the Future. Still, until Allen Douglas hit me in the head with his art for the story, I had no clue of the story’s importance.
Writers are weird. Ask any of us. I’d gotten in the habit of occasionally Googling the titles of my short stories. Sometimes it led to nice reviews I’d not seen while Googling my name. Yes. Weird. Fortunately, you run out of time for that kind of stuff later. Mostly. But anyway. On a lark, for no good reason at all, in the deep of winter with the story not coming out until spring at the soonest, I plugged in the title of my story while sitting in my cubicle at work.
If you know me at all, you can guess what I did. Yep. I cried. Right there in my cubicle.
Art has always moved me, even before my stories started connecting up with artists. It was especially surreal and powerful to see what an artist did with my words and I have several examples here in my house now. What Allen Douglas did changed my life. Because when I saw that image of Isaak, kneeling in the crater, weeping as the smoke poured off his back, I knew there was much, much more to that metal man’s tale. My short story turned into…wait for it…four short stories!
I knew it in an instant.
Four interconnected stories about this survivor of Windwir and the impact of his programming upon Rudolfo’s world. Of course, from there – a story too long to tell here – it evolved slowly into my series, The Psalms of Isaak. The first two short stories comprised the beginning and end of the first volume, Lamentation. And then the third and fourth stories (unwritten) became anchoring ideas in the second and fourth volumes. The rest just kind of grew to fit the size of story bucket Leroy had in mind. As I write this post, I’m now within a few months of finishing the final volume after a nine year journey with Isaak, Rudolfo and the Gang. That first novel led to an agent and a five book contract with Tor within thirteen months of sitting down to write it. And it led to the books coming out here and overseas to a lot of nice words and even a few awards. From short story to writing career in thirty seconds, so to speak.
Part of the series’ success – and the story’s success, I think – is Isaak himself. I’m often told by fans that he is their favorite character. He’s also a character whose point-of-view we never experience. We see him only through the eyes of the humans he’s met along the way. I’ve been told how clever I was to honor Dr. Asimov with the name of my robot and maybe Leroy really was being clever. I actually chose the name because it means ‘laughter’ (approximately) and I thought a weeping robot named laughter was a nice twist. Leroy, obviously, is vastly more clever than me.
And Isaak weeps for what he’s done. A mechanical who had no ambition for becoming human, he’s thrust into an innocent, awkward humanity from his first entrance onto the page and becomes a central figure over the course of five books. At the time, I thought nothing of it. Now, I can see clearly the homage I was paying to all of the metal men who’d influenced me. Baum’s Tin Woodman grabbed me first, followed closely by Lester Del Rey’s Max in Runaway Robot, C3PO (Star Wars), and Twiki (Buck Rogers) showed up soon after. There were more over the course of decades of science fiction but those are the first that leap to mind. They were the ones I laid awake at night wishing I could build and then take to school with me.
So when Katie Cord decided she also wanted to pay homage to all the robots she’s loved and turned Jennifer Brozek loose to round up stories for Evil Girlfriend Media’s Bless Your Mechanical Heart, I was thrilled to be invited to that rodeo. I hope you’ll pick up your copy today and see what they’ve put together for you!
Ken "Trailer Boy" Scholes is the critically acclaimed author of four novels and over forty short stories. His series, The Psalm of Isaak, is being published both at home and abroad to award nominations and rave reviews. Publisher's Weekly hails the series as a "towering storytelling tour de force."
He is a winner of the ALA’s RUSA Reading List award for best fantasy novel, France's Prix Imaginales for best foreign novel, and the Writers of the Future contest.
Ken is a native of the Pacific Northwest and makes his home in Saint Helens, Oregon, where he lives with his wife and twin daughters. You can learn more about Ken by visiting www.kenscholes.com.