The Clockwork Man: Sci-Fi’s first cyborg novel

The Clockwork Man by E. V. Odle science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Clockwork Man by E. V. Odle science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Clockwork Man by E.V. Odle

Just recently, I had some words to say about an English dystopian novel from 1920, The People of the Ruins by Edward Shanks. This book had been brought back into print in 2012 by HiLo Books as part of its wonderful Radium Age Science Fiction Series, the goal of which was to unearth neglected works from the period 1904 – 1933 for the modern generation. Now, I am here to tell you of another novel from this same series that I have just enjoyed. The book in question is The Clockwork Man, which was the creation of another British author, E.V. (Edwin Vincent) Odle. This novel was originally released as a Doubleday hardcover in 1923 and then, as far as I can tell, languished in out-of-print obscurity for the next 90 years, until HiLo chose to resurrect it in 2013. Its neglect is a puzzlement, as the book does have a claim to some kind of historical fame: It is thought to be the first novel to deal with the subject of the cyborg; that is, a being with both human and mechanical components. Odle, who was 33 at the time of this book’s release, had seen his first novel, The History of Alfred Rudd, published the year before, and would soon embark on a lengthy career as the editor of the British magazine Argosy. During the course of his 52-year life, he would also work as a critic, playwright and short-story author, and even managed to write another sci-fi novel, Juggernaut, before passing away in 1942. But it is for The Clockwork Man that his abiding reputation rests today, although his name is hardly a household word. A short, funny, occasionally profound and ultimately moving novel, it is one that should surely be of interest to early fans of early sci-fi.

Odle’s book is a very British sort of affair, and it opens with a setting that is pretty much as English as it gets: a game of cricket that is being played in the small village of Great Wymering. On one of the teams in this game are three men who will figure prominently as events proceed. They are Dr. Allingham, a middle-aged man of conservative bent who is currently having relationship problems with his modern-thinking fiancée Lilian; Gregg, the team’s captain and a recent graduate of Cambridge; and Arthur Withers, an impractical, daydreaming sort who is engaged to a woman named Rose. Allingham’s turn at bat is ruined when he is forcibly distracted by the advent of a rather unusual-looking figure on the horizon. This figure walks in a pronounced jerky manner, its arms and legs flailing about in all directions, and wears a rather comical-looking wig and bowler; as Arthur thinks to himself, “…there was something singularly forlorn and wretched about this curious individual, a suggestion of inconsequence … he was not in the picture of life, but something blobbed on by accident…”

As it turns out later, this curious personage calls himself a “clockwork man”; a being from somewhere around the year 8000. The mechanism inside his head, which allows him, among other things, to exist in a “multiform” universe and experience a myriad of dimensions, has somehow malfunctioned, landing him in the monoform, three-dimensional world of 1923. Mixed up and thoroughly uncoordinated here as a result, he nevertheless manages to converse with the cricketers and even astound them with his feats of batting prowess. A misunderstanding regarding the rules of play results in an unfortunate and violent tussle, during which the Clockwork Man manages to clobber many of the players with eye-defying speed, and then zip off into the fields just as rapidly. The bulk of Odle’s short novel then reveals to use the various characters’ reactions to this amazing phenomenon from the far future, as the Clockwork Man stumbles and bumbles about Great Wymering in a state of utter befuddlement…

Anyway, regarding those comedic elements previously alluded to, they are present in some abundance, all pretty much front loaded in the book’s opening chapters. With his silly-looking wig and bowler (put there to cover up the clockwork access panel in his noggin), our visiting cyborg does indeed look something like a clown, an aspect only enhanced by his “podgy” facial features and jerky gait. And indeed, the Clockwork Man’s very first words, as he reacclimates to speech, are the amusing “Wallabaloo – Wallaballo – Bompadi – Bompadi – Wum Wum Wum – nine and ninepence…” The cricket match that soon follows is surely played for laughs, as is the Clockwork Man’s run-in with a street cop (or rather, constable), and a later scene in which the village curate mistakes him for the visiting magician at a children’s party, only to suffer a near coronary consequent to the Clockwork Man’s antics. In a latter sequence, our visitor from the future grows a beard in a matter of moments, to Allingham’s great consternation. And, in what might be the most amusing and yet flabbergasting sequence in Odle’s book, the doctor attempts to repair the Clockwork Man’s busted mechanism, causing him to turn monstrously obese, and then in turns doglike, gilled, tailed, and, ultimately, into an infant. So yes, our visitor is looked upon with some amusement by the reader … until the final chapter.

It is only here that the Clockwork Man, somewhat newly adapted to life in our monoform world, is able to tell us a bit about his background. Coming upon Arthur and Rose, necking (or rather, snogging) in the moonlight, he begins to let tears drop from his eyes as he tells the couple that in his world of the year 8000, there is no love, and indeed, no women. In the 59th century, a benevolent race of naked people (whether they are aliens or not is never made clear), fed up with man’s incessant wars and violence, had installed the clockwork mechanism into all the males, and then men “…didn’t have to fight any more, because he could move about in a multiform world where there was plenty of room for everybody…”

Thus, mankind was given the opportunity to move freely through dimensions, time and space, but also sacrificed love, romance, emotions, and the ability to laugh or cry. As our visitor explains, “…When we laugh or cry that means that we have to go and get oiled or adjusted. Something has got out of gear. Because in our life there’s no necessity for these things…” Death and decay have been done away with for these Clockwork Men, but at the price of everything that makes life worth living. And so, in the end, this comical figure becomes a tragic one, as Odle gives his readers a warning about the dangers of an increasingly mechanistic society. The visitor’s advice for mankind, when Arthur asks for it, is merely “…How should I know? It’s all so difficult. But don’t make it more difficult than you can help. Keep smiling – laughter – such a jolly little world…” It is a moving finale, indeed, for a book that had been so lighthearted and amusing up until that point.

But the peril of a mechanical society is not the only issue on Odle’s mind in this novel. He also uses his three main characters from Great Wymering to show how a cross section of society might react to such a phenomenon as the Clockwork Man, and to touch on the then-hot-button issue of women’s rights. (Actually, it’s still a hot-button issue to this very day, isn’t it?) For Gregg, a modern-thinking college grad, this being from the year 8000 is wholly credible and a source of enormous fascination. For Arthur, he is merely a novel curiosity, while his relationship with Rose demonstrates the possibility of a married couple in which the male is not the primary breadwinner. Allingham’s reactions to the Clockwork Man and to his fiancée Lilian are perhaps the most interesting, however. A man whose conservative leanings have only solidified in middle age, Allingham finds it impossible at first to believe in the visitor’s claim to being from the far future, and is shocked and aghast when he learns more about him. In his relationship with Lilian, who is very much a modern woman, he ponders that “…he liked a woman to have thoughts; but a thinking woman was a nuisance…” As Annalee Newitz tells us in her scholarly introduction to this HiLo edition, Odle’s sister-in-law was Dorothy Richardson, author of the first stream-of-consciousness novel in English, 1915’s Pointed Roofs, and his Bloomsbury neighborhood in London was filled with literate and brilliant women such as Virginia Woolf. So you can easily see how Odle might be inclined to add a dollop of feminist thought to the proceedings here. And yes, Allingham and Lilian do indeed have a good discussion on these matters touching on male/female relations toward the novel’s end, although whether the couple will marry, and then live happily ever after, is anybody’s guess.

If I would level one complaint against Odle’s work here it is that the book feels a little slight (a mere 123 pages in this HiLo edition). The author, had he wished, surely might have expanded his work and had our visitor from the far future travel around the year 1923 more, meeting different sorts while commenting on life here. But that would have been a wholly different book, and besides, there’s nothing wrong with brevity and succinctness in a novel; of making your points and getting out. Another thing: American readers such as myself may have a bit of a rough time with that opening cricket match, and in truth, I had to go on YouTube to watch a tutorial on the basic rules of the game; after that, it was easy sailing. A bit of research on the reader’s part may also be necessary to ascertain that the three unusual quotes that pop up during the novel’s course all hail from Shakespeare. As always, a little homework in these matters always makes for a richer experience. And, oh … one more minor matter. Newitz, in her introduction, tells us that The Clockwork Man was released in the same year, 1923, as Karel Capek’s famous play R.U.R., about a robot revolt. In actuality, however, R.U.R. had premiered three years earlier, in 1920. But again, these are minor matters. All readers who are interested in reading the world’s first cyborg novel, one that is both humorous and touching, as well as literate and thoughtful, will truly find much to enjoy here, thanks to the fine folks at HiLo…

Published in 1923. Several thousand years from now, advanced humanoids known as the Makers will implant clockwork devices into our heads. At the cost of a certain amount of agency, these devices will permit us to move unhindered through time and space, and to live complacent, well-regulated lives. However, when one of these devices goes awry, a “clockwork man” appears accidentally in the 1920s, at a cricket match in a small English village. Comical yet mind-blowing hijinks ensue. Considered the first cyborg novel, The Clockwork Man was first published in 1923 — the same year as Karel Capek’s pioneering android play, R.U.R.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. This sounds interesting and thoughtful… and funny. I think Newitz might have found some inspiration from it for her two novels.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      You may very well be right, Marion. I didn’t even know that Newitz had written any fiction. At the moment, however, I’m just very upset at noticing two typos in this latest review of mine. My apologies…I think there might be something wrong with MY clockwork mechanism….

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