The Clockwork Man
By E. V. Odle
This is an odd, sometimes awkward book, with most of that attributable to it being ahead of its time.
It’s being republished now as part of MIT Press’s Radium Age series, which covers a period that general editor Joshua Glenn sees as being a proto-SF stage of experimentation and flux. So perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that parts of it don’t come into focus. The Clockwork Man himself, for example, is usually touted as the first cyborg in literature (oddly enough, Karl Čapek’s R.U.R. came out the same year, inventing the robot). But while I think the cyborg label fits, it’s really not clear how the clock mechanism functions, or who the “makers” are and what their purpose was in creating them. Are clockwork people being punished? Has the Clockwork Man escaped, consciously or not, from the multiform world of many dimensions where he is free from the constraints of time and space but is otherwise a slave? Or is his sudden appearance just an accident? These are points I don’t think Odle was much concerned with, but they seem important.
Of course, the book is really about life in England in 1923, and the Clockwork Man is only window-dressing. After opening on the cricket pitch (a game more confusing to me than the Man himself when he appears) we settle into life in Great Wymering, which isn’t quite as cozy as it sounds. Doctor Allingham is all used up at the age of 40, settling into life as a bitter grouch. But then, as the cricket captain Gregg explains, the human organism is showing signs of breaking down everywhere “under the strain of an increasingly complex civilization.” Directed and expedited evolution – that is, having a clock installed – is one way of coping. Unfortunately, even with upgrades we still break down.