553. The Babbage Bureau of Accountancy

Yesterday was Christmas. Today is the 26th of December. Happy Boxing Day.

If Boxing Day is just something British you’ve vaguely heard of, let me explain. It is the holiday on which various workers expect to receive their Christmas-box from those they serve.

I have never written about the commercialism of Christmas. That notion has been done to death, and besides, even Santa’s elves get paid in cookies. Christmas gifts don’t make themselves, you know.

So you can imagine my surprise when, seven chapters into Like Clockwork, the Dickens-inspired steampunk novel that turned out to not be about Christmas, Hemmings appeared without warning and dragged me into exploring the commerce of my pocket London. Take a look.

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Throughout the main building of the Babbage Bureau of Accountancy, ten thousand human computers were required to keep up the constant cross checking of the Great Babbage, as it kept track of every transaction in all the factories and warehouses of London.

It was late November. Christmas was coming, the warehouses were nearly full, and the remaining raw materials had to move through the system to produce the goods, neither running short of materials too soon, nor finishing the last needed item before the final day.

Full employment, full consumption. Everybody has a job. Everybody consumes the goods that everybody else makes. Every tally book balances. The capitalistic ideal.

A single employer. Every job suited to the person who does it. All those tally books replaced by the Great Babbage. The communistic ideal.

Either way, it was no place to be unemployed.

The ten thousand computers counted themselves lucky. They were Time’s Favored Ones. They worked seated, in gentleman’s clothing. They returned home at night unstained. Not for them was the curse of Adam, to work by the sweat of their faces. The middle fingers of their right hands all bore the honorable callus that came from holding a pen. The skin on the rest of their bodies was smooth. Time moved crisply for them, to the smooth rhythm of numerals filling up little blue squares.

In the factories, time moved differently, slowing down and growing more resistant to human movement as the day wore on. That does not seem possible, but young Albert had done work in time dilation according to theories of his own. Time moved smoothly for the computers; time dragged on more slowly as the day progressed for those who bent their backs.

It had always felt that way, throughout the history of mankind, and now it actually was that way.

Morning, morning tea, and luncheon all rolled by with stately grace. It was at 2:18 in the afternoon, November 27, 1850, that Hemmings the computer hit a reef.

His whole job was to check by hand the calculations made by the Great Babbage, looking for errors. On November 27, he found one. Did they thank him? Of course not. The Babbage was incapable of error — even though Hemmings had found one — so they fired him.

Hemmings stood on the street in front of the Babbage Bureau of Accountancy and stared upward, considering the machine which had just become his nemesis. He had never seen the Great Babbage itself, but he imagined it as a massive collection of repeating components, interlaced with walkways where the technicians came and went to clean and oil and inspect. There were a trillion gears, cams, and escapements in his mental image. There were Jacquardian punch cards by the waggon load, as many cards as there were oysters in the ocean.

As many as there had been oysters, when there was an ocean.

Now the picture in his mind had changed. Not much, really, but enough. There was rust on some of the gears now, and some unidentifiable ooze coming out of some of the housings. Hemmings shook his head, trying to clear his mind. He knew the rust was hatred and the ooze was envy, and that they were in him, not the machine.

Still, here he was, with no place in the world, ripped out of the one thing he had been trained to do. With no money to buy his food or pay his rent, no companions, no usefulness to stabilize his identity.

Every stone and brick in London was unchanged, but Hemmings was changed, and suddenly he was as adrift as a chip of wood floating somewhere on the ocean.

When there had been an ocean.

There was no fight in him. He ate his supper where he always did, but this time he sat alone. There were very few coins left in his pocket. Then he walked.

All the streets were well lighted by gaslight. There was no refuse in the gutters. There were few pedestrians, and they all were moving purposefully toward someplace they belonged. He looked at their faces. He had never cared before to look into the faces of the strangers he passed by each day, but now he chose to examine them.

Their faces were calm and peaceful, but there was no joy in them.

He wandered into darkness. By that time, he owned the empty streets. He needed sleep, but it was hard to choose a place to lie down. Every place was identical to every other place. It clearly did not matter where he slept, but that was why he couldn’t choose.

Every clock-face on every building-face in all of London said 3:35 when he could no longer stand. He crawled behind an ash can and let go of everything.

He dreamed of whirling gears, and rust, and ooze.

On the third day, his coins ran out. He did not eat on the fourth day. He had never been hungry before, and the misery of that condition frightened him. He considered stealing. He could go into the place where he had always eaten, scoop up a loaf of bread, and walk away. They probably wouldn’t chase him, at least not far.

Then what? Would the — bobbies, peelers, cops, pigs, police — come to get him? He realized that all the names he had dredged up from deep memory were without weight or taste. He had never seen a policeman, not in a thousand iterations of the year.

What kind of place is so smug, so self-righteous, so self-certain that no one breaks the law? How could there be no rebellion?

He could probably become invisible to the machinery of the state and make his living by simple theft. Could the Great Babbage find him? How? Track him by arithmetic errors, by all the places which reported one less loaf of bread than the Great Babbage had predicted?

Try to find me, you bucket of rusty gears and ooze.

He considered the possibility of living by theft, outside the norms of the rest of mankind, and it tore at his heart. The thought hurt him more than hunger.

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Now, back to our world.

There I was, sitting at my computer, comfortably contemplating my novel of a variant Dickensian London, when suddenly Hemmings appeared. Now my pocket London was split in two. Half would have looked familiar to Scrooge, and the other half was as four-square and linear as an equation. One half was under thrall to the Great Babbage and the other half to the Great Clock that kept turning time back on itself.

Weird. I’ll let you know when you can read it for yourself and see just how weird.

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