Clement Dyer is an artist; his canvas and brushes are sheet metal and gears. Like any true artist he's a perfectionist, meticulous to a fault in designing and fashioning his mechanical creatures which are all the rage in the society he lives in. But along with the industrial age comes mass production and economies of scale, and Clement's stubbornly solo act is soon threatened by competitors who can keep up with demand. Among the rival autosmiths is Hugo "Duke" Goodwin, a dashing fellow with whom Clement had a brief one-nighter only to discover Duke's true motives were that of a business merger, effectively making Clement his employee. Embarrassed and insulted, Clement ignores Duke's relentless proposals until a disastrous client mix-up results in an offer he can't refuse.
The artists pursuit of perfection in his craft is an endless struggle in any era. And so it is with Clement Dyer, who sadly, will not be the first nor last craftsman who allows it to become his downfall. I loved the term "autosmith", evoking a connection between antique and modern, the past and the present, and making the job sound utterly natural and acceptably vocational. The same can be said of Dyer's society, in that homosexuality is perfectly understood and accepted without gossip or stigma. The romance between Duke and Clement is a tentative one however, and while there is promise of a steamier relationship, this short story stops "short" of further detail, leaving the sweet conclusion for the reader's imagination to embellish.
I was also drawn by the story's title, putting in mind the Stanley Kubrick film "A Clockwork Orange," another example of craft over conformity and the 'renegade' mindset. The text itself is well written and the dialogue engaging, two of my favorite things to discover in any book, long or short.
Steampunk fans will find The Clockwork Menagerie a fun, fast read that ticks along like 'clockwork' in the time-honored tradition of a happy ending.