The Clockwork Man (8)
May 8, 2013
HILOBROW is pleased to present the eighth installment of our serialization of E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man. New installments will appear each Wednesday for 20 weeks.
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.
“This is still one of the most eloquent pleas for the rejection of the ‘rational’ future and the conservation of the humanity of man. Of the many works of scientific romance that have fallen into utter obscurity, this is perhaps the one which most deserves rescue.” — Brian Stableford, Scientific Romance in Britain, 1890-1950. “Perhaps the outstanding scientific romance of the 1920s.” — Anatomy of Wonder (1995)
In September 2013, HiLoBooks will publish a gorgeous paperback edition of The Clockwork Man, with a new Introduction by Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of the science fiction and science blog io9. Newitz is also 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).
“Oh, I’m not nearly ready yet!”
Rose Lomas stood at the open window of her bedroom. Her bare arms and shoulders gleamed softly in the twilight. One hand held her loosened hair on the top of her head, and the other pressed a garment to her chest.
“Alright,” said Arthur, standing at the gate, “buck up.”
Rose looked cautiously around as though to make sure no one else was in a position to observe her décolleté. But the road was empty. It seemed pleasant to see Arthur standing there twirling his walking stick and looking upwards at her. She decided to keep him there for a few moments.
“Lovely evening,” she remarked, presently.
“Yes, jolly,” said Arthur, “buck up.”
“I am bucking up.”
“You’re not even dressed!”
“I am,” Rose insisted, distantly, “much more than you think. I’ve got lots on.”
They looked solemnly at one another for a long while without even approaching a “stare out.”
“How many runs did you make,” Rose asked. She had to repeat the question again before he could hear it distinctly. Besides, he never could believe that her interest in cricket was serious.
“None,” he admitted, “but I was not out.”
Rose considered. “That’s not as good as making runs though.”
Arthur heard a slight noise somewhere round the back of the cottage. “Someone coming,” he warned.
Rose retreated a few steps and lowered her head.
“Walk up the lane,” she whispered, “I’ll come presently.”
“Alright,” Arthur nodded, “buck up.”
He walked a few yards up the road, and then turned through a wicket gate and mounted the hump of a meadow. The narrow path swerved slightly to right and left. Arthur fell to meditating upon paths in general and how they came into existence. Obviously, it was because people always walked in the same way. Countless footsteps, following the same line until the grass wore away. That was very odd when you came to think about it. Why didn’t people choose different ways of crossing that particular meadow? Then there would be innumerable paths, representing a variety of choice. It would be interesting to start a path of your own, and see how many people would follow you, even though you deliberately chose a circuitous or not obviously direct route. You could come every day until the path was made.
He climbed over the top of the meadow, descended again into a valley, and stopped before a stile with hedges running away on either side. He decided to wait here for Rose. It would be pleasant to see her coming over the hill.
It was gloaming now. The few visible stars shone with a peculiar individual brightness, and looked strangely pendulous in the fading blue sky. He leaned back and gazed at the depths above him. This time of the day was always puzzling. You could never tell exactly at what moment the sky really changed into the aspect of evening, and then, night. Yet there must be some subtle moment when each star was born. Perhaps by looking hard enough it would be possible to become aware of these things. It would be like watching a bud unfold. Slow change was an impenetrable mystery, for actually things seemed to happen too quickly for you to notice them. Or rather, you were too busy to notice them. Spring was like that. Every year you made up your mind to notice the first blossoming, the initial tinge of green; but always it happened that you awoke one morning and found that some vast change had taken place, so that it really seemed like a miracle.
He sat there, dangling an empty pipe between his teeth. He was not conscious of a desire to smoke, and he felt strangely tolerant of Rose’s delay. She would come presently.
Presently his reverie was abruptly disturbed by a faint noise, strangely familiar although remote. It seemed to reach him from the right, as though something crept slowly along the hedge line, hidden from his view. It was a soft, purring sound, very regular and sustained. At first he thought it was the cry of a pheasant, but decided that it was much too persistent. It was something that made a noise in the process of walking along.
He held his breath and turned his head slowly to the right. For a long time the sound increased only very slightly. And then, there broke upon the general stillness a series of abrupt explosions.
Pfft — Pfft — Pfft — Pfft — Pfft —
And the other noise, the purring and whirring, resumed this time so close to Arthur that he instinctively, and half in fear, arose from the stile and looked around him. But the tall hedges sweeping away on either side made it difficult to see anyone who might be approaching under their cover. There was a pause. Then a different sound.
Click — click — clickerty click — clicker clicker — clicker — And so on, becoming louder and louder until at last it stopped, and its place was taken by the dull pitter-patter of footsteps coming nearer and nearer. There was a little harsh snort that might have been intended for a sigh, and then a voice.
“Oh dear, it is trying. It really is most dreadfully trying —”
The next moment the Clockwork man came into full view round the corner of the hedge. He was swaying slightly from side to side, in his usual fashion, and his eyes stared straight ahead of him. He did not appear to notice Arthur, and did not stop until the latter politely stepped aside in order to allow him to pass. Then the Clockwork man screwed his head slowly round and appeared to become faintly apprehensive of the presence of another being. After a preliminary ear-flapping, he opened his mouth very wide.
“You haven’t,” he began, with great difficulty, “seen a hat and wig?”
“No,” said Arthur, and he glanced at the Clockwork man’s bald forehead and noticed something peculiar about the construction of the back of his head; there seemed to be some object there which he could not see because they were facing each other. “I’m sorry,” he continued, looking rather hopelessly around him, “perhaps we could find them somewhere.”
“Somewhere!” echoed the Clockwork man, “that’s what seems to me so extraordinary! Everybody says that. The idea of a thing being somewhere, you know. Elsewhere than where you expect it to be. It’s so confusing.”
Arthur consulted his common sense. “Can’t you remember the place where you lost them,” he suggested.
A faint wrinkle of perplexity appeared on the other’s forehead. He shook his head once “Place. There, again, I can’t grasp that idea. What is a place? And how does a thing come to be in one place and not in another?” He jerked a hand up as though to emphasise the point. “A thing either is or it isn’t. It can’t be in a place.”
“But it must be somewhere,” objected Arthur, “that’s obvious.”
The Clockwork man looked vaguely distressed. “Theoretically,” he agreed, “what you say is correct. I can conceive it as a mathematical problem. But actually, you know, it isn’t at all obvious.”
He jerked his head slowly round and gazed at the surrounding objects. “It’s such an extraordinary world. I can’t get used to it at all. One keeps on bumping into things and falling into things — things that ought not to be there, you know.”
Arthur could hardly control an eager curiosity to know what the thing was, round and shiny, that looked like a sort of halo at the back of the Clockwork man’s head. He kept on dodging from one side to the other in an effort to see it clearly.
“Are you looking at my clock?” enquired the Clockwork man, without altering his tone of speech. “I must apologise. I feel quite indecent.”
“But what is it for?” gasped Arthur.
“It’s the regulating mechanism,” said the other, monotonously, “I keep on forgetting that you can’t know these things. You see, it controls me. But, of course, it’s out of order. That’s how I came to be here, in this absurd world. There can’t be any other reason, I’m sure.” He looked so childishly perplexed that Arthur’s sense of pity was again aroused, and he listened in respectful silence.
“You see,” the mechanical voice went on, “only about half the clock is in action. That accounts for my present situation.” There was a pause, broken only by obscure tickings, regular but thin in sound. “I had been feeling very run down, and went to have myself attended to. Then some careless mechanic blundered, and of course I went all wrong.” He turned swiftly and looked hard at Arthur. “All wrong. Absolutely all wrong. And of course, I — I — lapsed, you see.”
“Lapsed!” queried Arthur.
“Yes, I lapsed. Slipped, if you like that better — slipped back about eight thousand years, so far as I can make out. And, of course, everything is different.” His arms shot up both together in an abrupt gesture of despair. “And now I am confronted with all these old problems of Time and Space.”
Arthur’s recent reflections returned to him, and produced a little glow in his mind. “Is there a world,” he questioned, “where the problems of Time and Space are different?”
“Of course,” replied the Clockwork man, clicking slightly, “quite different. The clock, you see, made man independent of Time and Space. It solved everything.”
“But what happens,” Arthur wanted to know, “when the clock works properly?”
“Everything happens,” said the other, “exactly as you want it to happen.”
“Awfully convenient,” Arthur murmured.
“Exceedingly.” The Clockwork man’s head nodded up and down with a regular rhythm. “The whole aim of man is convenience.” He jerked himself forward a few paces, as though impelled against his will. “But my present situation, you know, is extremely inconvenient.”
He waddled swiftly along, and, to Arthur’s great disappointment, disappeared round the corner of the hedge, so that it was impossible to get more than a fleeting glimpse of that fascinating object at the back of his head. But he was still speaking.
“I don’t know what I shall do, I’m sure,” Arthur heard him say, as though to himself.
Rose Lomas came slowly over the top of the hill. She was hatless, and her short, curly hair blew about her face, for a slight breeze had sprung up in the wake of the sunset. She wore a navy blue jacket over a white muslin blouse with a deep V at the breast. There a fair stretch of plump leg, stockinged in black cashmere, between the edge of her dark and the beginning of the tall boots that had taken so long to button up. She walked with her chin tilted upwards and her eyes half closed, and her hands were thrust into slanting pockets of her jacket.
“Whoever was that person you were talking she enquired, as soon as they stood together.
“Oh, someone who had lost his way,” said Arthur, carelessly. He felt curiously disinclined to explain matters just at present. The Clockwork man was disconcerting. He was a rather terrifying side-issue. Arthur had a feeling that Rose would probably be frightened by him, for she was a timid girl. He half hoped now that this strange being would turn out to be some kind of monstrous hoax.
And so he said nothing. They remained by the stile, courting each other and the silent on-coming of night. They were very ordinary lovers, and behaved just exactly in the same way as other people in the same condition. They kissed at intervals and examined each other’s faces with portentous gravity and microscopic care. Leaning against the stile, they were frequently interrupted by pedestrians, some of whom took special care to light their pipes as they passed. But the disturbance scarcely affected them. Being lovers, they belonged to each other; and the world about them also belonged to them, and seemed to fashion its laws in accordance with their desires. They would not have offered you twopence for a reformed House of Commons or an enlightened civilisation.
“Oh, Arthur,” said Rose, suddenly, “I want to be like this always, don’t you?”
“Yes,” murmured Arthur, and then caught his breath sharply. For his ear had detected a faint throbbing and palpitation in the distance. It seemed to echo from the far-off hills, a sort of “chew chew,” constantly repeated. And presently, another sound aroused his attention. It was the “toot-toot” of an automobile and the jerk of a brake. And then the steady whine of the engine as the car ascended a hill. Perhaps they were pursuing the Clockwork man. Arthur hoped not. It seemed to him the troubles of that strange being were bad enough without there being added to them the persecutions suffered by those to whom existence represents an endless puzzle, full of snares and surprises.
RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HILOBROW’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.” More info here.
HILOBOOKS: The mission of HiLoBooks is to serialize novels on HiLobrow; and also, as of 2012, operating as an imprint of Richard Nash’s Cursor, to reissue Radium Age science fiction in beautiful new print editions. So far, we have published Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’s The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, and J.D. Beresford’s Goslings. Forthcoming: E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.
SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | serialized between March and August 2012; Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, serialized between May and September 2012; William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, serialized between June and December 2012; J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, serialized between September 2012 and May 2013; E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, serialized between March and July 2013; and Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, serialized between March and August 2013.