The Clockwork Man (9)
May 15, 2013
HILOBROW is pleased to present the ninth 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).
The Clockwork Man Investigates Matters
Whatever inconveniences the Clockwork man suffered as a result of having lapsed into a world of strange laws and manifestations, he enjoyed at least one advantage. His power of travelling over the earth at an enormous speed rendered the question of pursuit almost farcical. While Allingham’s car sped over the neighbouring hills, the object of the chase returned by a circuitous route to Great Wymering, slowed down, and began to walk up and down the High Street. It was now quite dark, and very few people seemed to have noticed that odd figure ambling along, stopping now and again to examine some object that aroused his interest or got in his way. There is no doubt that during these lesser perambulations he contrived somehow to get the silencer under better control, so that his progress was now muted. It is possible also that his faculties began to adjust themselves a little to his strange surroundings, and that he now definitely tried to grasp his environment. But he still suffered relapses. And the fact that he again wore a hat and wig, although not his own, requires a word of explanation.
It was this circumstance that accounted for the Vicar’s late arrival at the entertainment given in aid of the church funds that night. He had lingered over his sermon until the last moment, and then hurried off with only a slight pause in which to glance at himself in the hall mirror. He walked swiftly along the dark streets in the direction of the Templars’ Hall, which was situated at the lower end of the town. Perhaps it was because of his own desperate hurry that he scarcely noticed that other figure approaching him, and in a straight line. He swerved slightly in order to allow the figure to pass, and continued on his way.
And then he stopped abruptly, aware of a cool sensation on the top of his head. His hat and wig had gone! Aghast, he retraced his steps, but there was no sign of the articles on the pavement. It seemed utterly incredible, for there was only a slight breeze and he did not remember knocking into anything. He had certainly not collided with the stranger. Just for a moment he wondered.
But duty to his parishioners remained uppermost in the conscientious Vicar’s mind, and it was not fair to them that he should catch his death of cold. He hurried back to the vicarage. For a quarter of an hour he pulled open drawers, ransacked cupboards, searching everywhere for an old wig that had been discarded and a new hat that had never been worn. He found them at last and arrived, breathless and out of temper, in the middle of the cinematograph display which constituted the first part of the performance.
“My dear,” he gasped, as he slid into the seat reserved for him next to his wife, ” I couldn’t help it. Someone stole my hat and wig.”
“Stole them, Herbert,” she expostulated. “Not stole them.”
“Yes, stole them. I’ll tell you afterwards. Is this the Palestine picture? Oh, yes —”
And so the Clockwork man was able to conceal his clock from the gaze of a curious world, and the grotesqueness of his appearance was heightened by the addition of a neatly trimmed chestnut wig and a soft round clerical hat. His perceptions must have been extraordinarily rapid, and he must have acted upon the instant. Nor did it seem to occur to him that in this world there are laws which forbid theft. Probably, in the world from which he came such restrictions are unnecessary, and the exigency would not have arisen, every individual being provided by parliamentary statute with a suitable covering for that blatant and too obvious sign of the modus operandi in the posterior region of their craniums.
It was shortly after this episode that the Clockwork man experienced his first moment of vivid illumination about the world of brief mortal span.
He had become entangled with a lamp-post. There is no other way of describing his predicament. He came to rest with his forehead pressed against the post, and all his efforts to get round it ended in dismal failure. His legs kicked spasmodically and his arms revolved irregularly. There were intermittent explosions, like the back-firing of a petrol engine. The only person who witnessed these peculiar antics was P.C. Hawkins, who had been indulging in a quiet smoke beneath the shelter of a neighbouring archway.
At first it did not occur to the constable that the noise proceeded from the figure. He craned his head forward, expecting every moment to see a motor bicycle come along. The noise stopped abruptly, and he decided that the machine must have gone up a side street. Then he stepped out of his retreat and tapped the Clockwork man on the shoulder. The latter was quite motionless now and merely leaning against the lamp-post.
“You go ’ome,” suggested the constable, “I don’t want to have to take you. This is one of my lenient nights, lucky for you.”
“Wallabaloo,” said the Clockwork man, faintly, “Wum —Wum —”
“Yes, we know all about that,” said the constable, “but you take my tip and go ’ome. And I don’t want any back answers neither.”
The Clockwork man emitted a soft whistling sound from between his teeth, and rubbed his nose thoughtfully against the post.
“What is this?” he enquired, presently.
“Lamp-post,” rejoined the other, clicking his teeth, “L.A.M.P.- P.O.S.T. Lamp-post.”
“I see — curious, only one lamp-post, though. In my country they grow like trees, you know — whole forests of them — galaxy of lights — necessary — illuminate multiform world.”
The constable laughed gently and stroked his moustache. His theory about the condition of the individual before him slowly developed.
“You get along,” he persuaded, “before there’s trouble. I don’t want to be ’arsh with you.”
“Wait,” said the Clockwork man, without altering his position, “moment of lucidity — see things as they are — begin to understand — finite world — only one thing at a time. Now we’ve got it — a place for everything and everything in its place.”
“Just what I’m always telling my missus,” reflected the constable.
The Clockwork man shifted his head very slightly, and one eye screwed slowly round.
“I want to grasp things,” he resumed, “I want to grasp you. So far as I can judge, I see before me — a constable — minion of the law — curious relic — primitive stage of civilisation — order people about finite world — lock people up — finite cell.”
“That’s my job,” agreed the other, with a warning glint in his red eye.
“Finite world,” proceeded the Clockwork man, “fixed laws — limited dimensions — essentially limited. Now, when I’m working properly, I can move about in all dimensions. That is to say, in addition to moving backwards and forwards, and this way and that, I can also move X and Y, and X2 and Y2.”
The corners of the constable’s eyes wrinkled a little. “Of course,” he ruminated, “if you’re going to drag algebra into the discussion I shall ’ave to cry off. I never got beyond decimals.”
“Let me explain,” urged the Clockwork man, who was gaining in verbal ease and intellectual elasticity every moment. “Supposing I was to hit you hard. You would fall down. You would become supine. You would assume a horizontal position at right angles to your present perpendicularity.” He gazed upwards at the tall figure of the constable. “But if you were to hit me, I should have an alternative. I could, for example, fall into the middle of next week.”
The constable rubbed his chin thoughtfully, as though he thought this highly likely. “Whatd’yemean by that,” he demanded.
“I said next week,” explained the other, “in order to make my meaning clear. Actually, of course, I don’t describe time in such arbitrary terms, but when one is in Rome, you know. What I mean to convey is that I am capable of going not only somewhere, but also somewhen.”
“’Ere, stow that gammon,” broke in the constable, impatiently, “s’nuff of that sort of talk. You come along with me.” He spat determinedly and prepared to take action.
But at that moment, as the constable afterwards described it to himself, it seemed to him that there came before his eyes a sort of mist. The figure leaning against the lamp-post looked less obvious. He did not appear now to be a palpable individual at all, but a sort of shadowy outline of himself, blurred and in – distinct. The constable rubbed his eyes and stretched out a hand.
“Alright,” he heard a tiny, remote voice, “I’m still here — I haven’t gone yet — I can’t go — that’s what’s so distressing. I don’t really understand your world, you know — and I can’t get back to my own. Don’t be harsh with me — it’s so awkward — between the devil and the deep sea.”
“What’s up?” exclaimed the constable, startled. “What yer playing at? Where are you?”
“Here I am,” the thin voice echoed faintly. The constable wheeled round sharply and became aware of a vague, palpitating mass, hovering in the dark mouth of the archway. It was like some solid body subjected to intense vibration. There was a high-pitched spinning noise.
“‘Ere,” said the constable, “cut that sort of caper. What’s the little game?” He made a grab at where he thought the shadowy form ought to be, and his hand closed on the empty air.
“Gawd,” he gasped, “it’s a blooming ghost.”
He fancied he heard a voice very indistinctly begging his pardon. Again he clutched wildly at a shoulder and merely snapped his fingers. “Strike a light,” he muttered, under his breath, “this ain’t good enough. It ain’t nearly good enough,” Reaching forward he stumbled, and to save himself from falling placed a hand against the wall. The next moment he leapt backwards with a yell. His hand and arm had gone clean through the filmy shape.
“Gawd, it’s spirits — that’s what it is.”
“It’s only me,” remarked the Clockwork man, suddenly looming into palpable form again. “Don’t be afraid. I must apologise for my eccentric behaviour. I tried an experiment. I thought I could get back. You said I was to go home, you know. But I can’t get far.” His voice shook a little. It jangled like a badly struck chord. “I’m a poor, maimed creature. You must make allowances for me. My clock won’t work properly.”
He began to vibrate again, his whole frame quivering and shaking. Little blue sparks scintillated around the back part of his head. He lifted one leg up as though to take a step forward; and then his ears flapped wildly, and he remained with one leg in mid-air and a finger to his nose.
The constable gave way to panic. He temporised with his duty. “Stow it,” he begged, “I can’t take you to the station like this. They’ll never believe me.” He took off his hat and rubbed his tingling forehead. “Say it’s a dream, mate,” he added, in a whining voice. “’Ow can I go ’ome to the missus with a tale like this. She’ll say it’s the gin again. It’s always my luck to strike something like this. When the ghost came to Bapchurch churchyard, it was me wot saw it first, and nobody believed me. You go along quietly, and we’ll look over it this time.”
But the Clockwork man made no reply. He was evidently absorbed in the effort to restart some process in himself. Presently his foot went down on the pavement with a smart bang. There followed a succession of sharp explosions, and the next second he glided smoothly away.
The constable returned furtively to his shelter beneath the arch, hitched himself thoughtfully, and found half a cigarette inside his waistcoat pocket.
“It’s the gin,” he ruminated, half out loud, “I’ll ’ave to knock it off. ’Tain’t as though I ain’t ’ad warnings enough. I’ve seen things before and I shall see them again —”
He lit the cigarette end and puffed out a cloud of smoke. “I never see ’im,” he soliloquised, “not really.”
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.