The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who is ‘The Clockwork Man’? He may be literature’s first cyborg.

Last January, I wrote briefly about 18 books from 1923 that had entered the public domain. One of these, “The Clockwork Man,” by E.V. Odle, particularly caught my attention, in part because it was reportedly the first novel ever published about a cyborg. I subsequently researched “The Clockwork Man” to find out more. After learning that Brian Stableford — our leading historian of British science fiction — had once named it the work he would most like to see rediscovered, that was enough for me.

I quickly bought a paperback of Odle’s only novel from HiLobrow publishers, which reissues the book in its line of “Radium Age Science Fiction.” This edition features an excellent introduction by Annalee Newitz, who opens with a funny but accurate summary of the novel:

“If you don’t stop making war on each other, one day women will team up with benevolent, naked aliens and implant you with a clock that controls your behavior and sends you into a timeless multiverse. Oh and also? That timeless multiverse will be full of hat and wig stores.”

Is “The Clockwork Man,” then, serious or slapstick? In fact, it’s both, very much in the manner of H.G. Wells’s comparably serio-comic “The Invisible Man” and “The First Men in the Moon.”

1923 and me: A critic picks some favorite books now in the public domain

As the novel begins, Arthur Withers notices something odd during a village cricket match. On a nearby hill, a peculiar jiggling figure has suddenly appeared, apparently from out of nowhere. Its “arms revolved like sails of a windmill. Its legs shot out in all directions.” Arthur cautiously proceeds to investigate. “The strange figure wore a wig. It was a very red wig, and over the top of it was jammed a brown bowler hat. The face underneath was crimson and flabby.” This Buster Keaton-like fellow also flaps his ears.

To a polite greeting from Arthur the stranger answers:

“Wallabaloo-Wallabaloo-Bompadi — Wum. Wum — Wum — nine and ninepence — .”

To which, Arthur naturally responds, “I beg your pardon.”

“ ‘Wullabaloo,’ replied the other, eagerly. ‘Walla— Oh, hang it—Hulloa, now we’ve got it — Wullabaloo — No, we haven’t — Bang Wallop — nine and ninepence.’ ”

At this point, Arthur hears what “sounded like a hundred alarum clocks all going off at once, muffled somehow but concentrated. It was a sort of whirring, low and spasmodic at first, but broadening out into something more regular, less frantic.”

“It’s only my clock,” says the stranger, who clearly isn’t from the next village. Or even our own time. As for those mechanical tics and spasms, they augur an approaching breakdown. The rest of the novel revolves around the Clockwork Man’s efforts to repair himself and return to full functionality.

At first, Odle keeps everything mildly farcical. When the Clockwork Man joins the cricket match, he knocks the ball out of the park. When told to run, he takes off in a straight line, accelerating faster and faster like the cartoon Road Runner until he disappears over the horizon. Gradually, though, Odle introduces his cyborg to a cross-section of typical English folk, notably the fogeyish Dr. Allingham, who has begun to worry about his impending marriage to Miss Lillian Payne: “Instead of charming little notes inviting him to tea he now received long, and, he was obliged to admit, quite excellent essays upon the true place of woman in modern life.”

When the Clockwork Man reappears, he explains that he must have “lapsed. Slipped . . . back about eight thousand years, so far as I can make out.” Though stranded here for the moment, he continues, “I am capable of going not only someplace but also somewhen,” moving effortlessly through all dimensions. About to listen to a story, he affably remarks, “Begin at the end, if you like . . . It’s all the same to me. First and last, upside or inside, front or back — it all conveys the same idea to me.”

Because the Clockwork Man upsets so many conventions and beliefs, Odle’s various characters soon take to arguing about technology, evolution, sex, woman’s role in society, free will and humankind’s destiny. The Clockwork Man contends that “it was not until man began to respect the machines that his real history began.”

Meanwhile, during a bizarre surgical examination, Allingham discovers a slip of paper: “The Clockwork Man. Directions for Use.” Is the supposed Ubermensch actually “a very elaborate and highly complex puppet”?

Only in the book’s final pages does Odle extinguish the last vestiges of humor. The cyborg happens upon Arthur and his sweetheart Rose:

“Down the smooth surface of the Clockwork Man’s face there rolled two enormous tears. They descended each cheek simultaneously, keeping exact pace.” Asked about his distress, he answers, “I remember now . . . all that old business — before we became fixed, you know. But they had to leave it out. It would have made the clock too complicated. Besides it wasn’t necessary, you see. The clock kept you going for ever. The splitting up process went out of fashion, the splitting up of yourself into little bits that grew up like you — offspring, they used to call them.”

He adds, “No children. No love — nothing but going on for ever, spinning in infinite space and knowledge.”

“The Clockwork Man” closes on a bleak vision of the future that quite undercuts all that initial comedy. Overall, though, Odle’s novel is more about choices than fixed destinies. One critic even sees it as a subtle metafiction about the relationship between actual people and the people in books. “We readers should enjoy our humanity,” suggests Richard Bleiler, “for such is denied to fictional characters who have no free will and are no more than Clockwork men.” Perhaps. Whatever the case, given ongoing advances in robotics and medical technology, not to mention the possibility of uploading consciousness into a computer, “The Clockwork Man” seems, so to speak, both timely and alarming.

Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.


By E.V. Odle

HiLobrow. 144 pp. Paperback. $13.95

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.