BOOK REVIEW: The Clockwork Man

Years from now, advanced beings known as the Makers will implant clockwork devices into our heads. At the cost of a certain amount of agency, these marvelous devices will permit us to move unhindered through time and space, and to live perfectly regulated lives. However, if one of these devices should ever go awry, a “clockwork man” from the future might turn up in the 1920s, perhaps at a cricket match in a small English village.

Rumors that “E.V. Odle” was a pen name for Virginia Woolf are amusing, but unfounded. Edwin Vincent Odle (1890–1942) was a playwright, critic, and short-story author who lived in Bloomsbury, London during the 1910s; his brother, Alan, was a well-known illustrator and eccentric. From 1925–35, he was editor of the British short-story magazine The Argosy.

Considered the original cyborg novel, The Clockwork Man was first published in 1923 — the same year as Karel Čapek’s pioneering android play, R.U.R. In September 2013, HiLoBooks will publish a beautiful 90th anniversary edition of this long-unattainable book.

NOTE! Our publication of Odle’s long-unattainable classic also marks the launch of a partnership with Singularity & Co., the premier digital and vintage pulp publisher, bookshop and lifestyle brand. Selected HiLoBooks titles, including The Clockwork Man and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses, will be made available in advance as a Singularity & Co. e-book for easy viewing on all of your electronic devices.

“Edwin Vincent Odle’s ominous, droll, and unforgettable The Clockwork Man is a missing link between Lewis Carroll and John Sladek or Philip K. Dick,” says Jonathan Lethem in a 2013 blurb for HiLoBooks. “Considered with them, it suggests an alternate lineage for SF, springing as much from G.K. Chesterton’s sensibility as from H.G. Wells’s.”

“This is still one of the most eloquent pleas for the rejection of the ‘rational’ future and the conservation of the humanity of man,” writes Brian Stableford in Scientific Romance in Britain, 1890-1950. “Of the many works of scientific romance that have fallen into utter obscurity, this is perhaps the one which most deserves rescue.”

“Perhaps the outstanding scientific romance of the 1920s,” agrees the sci-fi reference book Anatomy of Wonder.

Introduction by Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of the science fiction and science blog io9. She’s the author of Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction (2013) and Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture (2006).

I enjoyed this little book entirely. I picked it up because of this satirical article claiming that E.V. Odle was a pen name for Virginia Woolf. And, because of the fact it claims to show the first cyborg/robot/automaton/AI in science fiction.

This copy came with a forward and introduction that can offer better insight into what it means than I can. I particularly recommend the intro by Annalee Newitz titled “The First Cyborg and the First Singularity” — though after the fact because it gives the whole story away. And it will help you understand wtf you just read. At 141 pages the book is worth it.

A lot of the “science fiction terms” it uses are not what sf authors would use today. I didn’t read the synopsis from HiLoBooks, because I thought I knew what I was getting into. But trust me, their interpretation (above) helps.

The only thing about this book that rubs me the wrong way is what it has to say about creation and breeding. The Clockwork man is sad that he (and men in the future) can no longer experience newness (i.e. babies), and that seems to be the end function of the female characters in the book (to allow men to create by marrying them). To be permanent (immortal) is to give up having children is another interpretation I walked away with.

You can read the first part of the book for free here, complete with helpful pictures if you have no idea (like me) that they’re playing cricket in the first chapter.

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