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The Clockwork Man by E.V. Odle

with 6 comments

Clockwork ManSmall press HiLoBooks has been reviving stories from the “Radium Age,” a term coined by publisher Joshua Glenn to mean the era in science fiction encompassing 1904 to 1933. The Clockwork Man, having come out last week, is their most recent title in the series.

Written by Edwin Vincent (E.V.) Odle, a British playwright, critic, and short-story author, The Clockwork Man is considered by many to be the first cyborg novel. Unfortunately it came out in 1923, the same year as Karel Čapek’s R.U.R., which succeeded in taking all the glory.

For years The Clockwork Man languished in obscurity, ultimately becoming out-of-print. Joshua Glenn, having heard about the book, was tired of waiting for someone else to reissue it, found a first edition, and brought it back to life.

A forgotten classic, first serialized online at HiLoBrow, now published in paperback with an introduction from Annalee Newitz of io9, The Clockwork Man should be on the shelf of every science fiction fan.

Here’s an excerpt:

It was just as Doctor Allingham had congratulated himself upon the fact that the bowling was broken, and he had only to hit now and save the trouble of running, just as he was scanning the boundaries with one eye and with the other following Tanner’s short, crooked arm raised high above the white sheet at the back of the opposite wicket, that he noticed the strange figure. Its abrupt appearance, at first sight like a scarecrow dumped suddenly on the horizon, caused him to lessen his grip upon the bat in his hand. His mind wandered for just that fatal moment, and his vision of the oncoming bowler was swept away and its place taken by that arresting figure of a man coming over the path at the top of the hill, a man whose attitude, on closer examination, seemed extraordinarily like another man in the act of bowling.

That was why its effect was so distracting. It seemed to the doctor that the figure had popped up there on purpose to imitate the action of a bowler and so baulk him. During the fraction of a second in which the ball reached him, the second image had blotted out everything else. But the behavior of the figure was certainly abnormal. Its movements were violently ataxic. Its arms revolved like sails of a windmill. Its legs shot out in all directions, enveloped in dust.

The doctor’s astonishment was turned into annoyance by the spectacle of his shattered wicket. A vague clatter of applause broke out. The wicket keeper stooped down to pick up the bails. The fielders relaxed and flopped down on the grass. They seemed to have discovered suddenly that it was a hot afternoon, and that cricket was, after all, a comparatively strenuous game. One of the umpires, a sly nasty fellow, screwed up his eyes and looked hard at the doctor as the latter passed him, walking with the slow, meditative gait of the bowled out, and swinging his gloves. There was nothing to do but glare back, and make the umpire feel a worm. The doctor wore an eye-glass, and he succeeded admirably. His irritation boiled over and produced a sense of ungovernable childish rage. Somehow, he had not been able to make any runs this season, and his bowling average was all to pieces. He began to think he ought to give up cricket. He was getting past the age when a man can accept reverses in the spirit of the game, and he was sick and tired of seeing his name every week in the Great Wymering Gazette as having been dismissed for a “mere handful.”

He looked out the window, and there was that confounded figure still jiggling about. It had come nearer to the ground. It hovered, with a curious air of not being related to its surroundings that was more than puzzling. It did not seem to know what it was about, but hopped along aimlessly, as though scenting a track, stopped for a moment, blundered forward again and made a zig-zag course towards the ground. The doctor watched it advancing through the broad meadow that bounded the pitch, threading its way between the little groups of grazing cows, that raised their heads with more than their ordinary, slow persistency, as though startled by some noise. The figure seemed to be aiming for the barrier of hurdles that surrounded the pitch, but whether its desire was for cricket or merely to reach some kind of goal, whether it sought recreation or a mere pause from its restless convulsions, it was difficult to tell. Finally, it fell against the fence and hung there, two hands crooked over the hurdle and its legs drawn together at the knees. It became suddenly very still—so still that it was hard to believe it ever moved.

It was certainly odd. The doctor was so struck by something altogether wrong about the figure, something so suggestive of a pathological phenomenon, that he almost forgot his annoyance and remained watching it with an unlighted cigarette between his lips.

::[Links]::
Find The Clockwork Man at your local bookstore
Listen to Joshua Glenn on Gweek (second segment)
Read The Clockwork Man online
Check out the other books in the HiLoBooks Radium Age series

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Written by Gabrielle

September 17, 2013 at 6:54 am

6 Responses

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  1. I really enjoyed reading the except and the phrase “Radium Age” set my mind off in lots of directions. It reminded me, perhaps obviously, of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The kind of vanity and reservations of Doctor Allingham, with cricket being a metaphor for civilization and stability (going by this snippet). As Frankenstein reflected a deep seated fear of the natural realm being invaded by man’s hands [sic] there is that same wrongness’ here. Perhaps it’s quite a Christian suspicion of anything not considered to have a ‘soul’ but that can still act among us and even be like us in almost every way. Still relevant today of course and it’s too obvious for me to expand the technologies that raise similar anxieties. Anyway, that’s what this post got me thinking about… so thanks again!

    jamesclegg2013

    September 17, 2013 at 8:40 am

  2. But how exactly is it a forgotten classic (besides perhaps its historical significance)? What about it makes the read worthwhile? Perhaps due to the fact that he was a playwright the prose is on the whole ok (not sure the blurb makes this clear though).

    But yes, it’s cool that some small presses are releasing this sort of text with nice intros.

    Joachim Boaz

    September 17, 2013 at 9:10 am

  3. this excerpt reminded me of Philip K. Dick (with an English accent). . .And the term “radium age”, so full of promise at recent scientific discoveries and their associated apprehensions. . .I’m definitely going to get my hands on this one! Thanks for sharing. . .

    stevewthomas

    September 17, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    • How does it remind you of PKD?

      Joachim Boaz

      September 18, 2013 at 11:20 am

      • I think it’s more a “feeling”, the sense that while things are “normal”, there is something “not quite right”. . .It’s most apparent in PKD’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” The excerpt from “The Clockwork Man” does little more than give one a sense of atmosphere and language, but the “not quite right” feeling is there in spades. . .I’m looking forward to reading a story filled with questions that ask, Is this the future science has in store for us? What does it mean to be “human”? Will Man eventually supplant God as creator (or self-creator)? Has he already? PDK asked these questions and we have yet to answer them.

        stevewthomas

        September 18, 2013 at 11:40 am

      • Perhaps we haven’t answered them because they’re questions we’ve always asked 😉 But yes, PKD does poignantly explore them in his writings. I think I only have 6 or so of his SF novels left to read! And perhaps 1/2 of his short stories… alas… Still young 😉

        Joachim Boaz

        September 18, 2013 at 2:37 pm


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