The Clockwork Man (11)
May 29, 2013
HILOBROW is pleased to present the eleventh 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).
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“It was not so, it is not so, and, indeed, God forbid it should be so.”
At the foot of a hill, about five miles from Great Wymering, Doctor Allingham suddenly jammed down the brake of his car, got out, and began pacing the dusty road. Gregg remained seated in the car with his arms folded.
“Aren’t you going any further?” he enquired, anxiously.
“No, I’m not,” grumbled the Doctor, “I’ve had enough of this wild-goose chase. And besides, it’s nearly dinner time.”
“But just now you were inclined to think differently,” said Gregg, reproachfully.
“Well, I admit I was rather mystified by that hat and wig. But when you come to rationalise the thing, what is there in it?” The Doctor was taking long strides and flourishing his leather gloves in the air. “How could such a thing be? How can anybody in his right senses entertain the notion that Dunn Brothers are still in existence two thousand years hence? And the Clarkson business. It’s absurd on the face of it.”
“Even an absurdity,” said Gregg, quietly, “may contain the positive truth. I admit it’s ludicrous, but we both agree that it’s inexplicable. We have to fall back on conjecture. To my mind there is something suggestive about that persistency in the future of things familiar to us. Suppose they have found a way of keeping things going, just as they are? Hasn’t the aim of man always been the permanence of his institutions? And wouldn’t it be characteristic of man, as we know him to-day, that he should hold on to purely utilitarian things, conveniences? In this age we sacrifice everything to utility. That’s because we’re getting somewhere in a hurry. Modern life is the last lap in man’s race against Time.”
He paused, as though to adjust the matter in his mind. “But suppose Time stopped. Or, rather, suppose man caught up with Time, raced the universal enemy, tracked him to his lair? That would account for the names being the same. Dunn still breathes and Clarkson endures, or their descendants. At any rate, the idea of them persists. Perhaps this clock that they wear abolished death and successive generations. Of course, it seems like a joke to us, but we’ve got to drop our sense of humour for the time being.”
“But how could it be?” exclaimed Allingham, kicking a loose stone in his walk. “This clock, I mean. It’s —” He fumbled hopelessly for words with which to express new doubts. “What is this clock?”
“It’s an instrument,” rejoined Gregg, leaning over the side of the car. “Evidently it has some sort of effect upon the fundamental processes of the human organism. That’s clear, to me. Probably it replaces some of the ordinary functions and alters others. One gets a sort of glimmer — of an immense speeding up of the entire organism, and the brain of man developing new senses and powers of apprehension. They would have all sorts of second sights and subsidiary senses. They would feel their way about in a larger universe, creep into all sorts of niches and corners unknown to us, because of their different construction.”
“Yes, yes, I can follow all that” said Allingham, biting his moustache, “but let’s talk sense.”
“In a matter like this,” put in Gregg, “sense is at a premium. What we have to do is to consult our intuitions.”
Allingham frowned. His intuitions, nowadays, were few and far between.
“When you get to my age, Gregg, you’ll have something else to do besides consult your intuitions. The fact is you want all these wonderful things to happen. You have a flair for the unexpected, like all children and adolescents. But I tell you, the Clockwork man is a myth, and I think you ought to respect my opinion.”
“Even if he’s a myth,” interrupted Gregg, “he is still worth investigating. What annoys me is your positive antagonism to the idea that he might be possible. You seem to want to go out of your way to prove me in the wrong. I may add, that once a man has ceased to believe in the impossible he is damned.”
Allingham shot a look of veiled anger at the other, and prepared to re-enter the car.
“Well, you prove yourself in the right,” he muttered, “and then I’ll apologise, I’m going to let the Clockwork man drop. I’ve got other things to think about. And I don’t mind telling you that if the Clockwork man turns out to be all that you claim for him, I shall still wish him at the other end of the earth.”
“Which is probably where he is now,” remarked Gregg, with a slight bantering note in his voice.
“Well, let him stop there,” growled Allingham, restarting the car with a vicious jerk, “let someone else bother their heads about him. I don’t want him. I tell you I don’t care a brass farthing about the future of the human race. I’m quite content to take the good and bad in life, and I want it to go on in the same damned old way.”
Gregg beat his fist into his open palm. “But that’s just what has happened,” he exclaimed, “they’ve found a way of keeping on just the same. That explains the Clarkson business. If the clock is what I think it is, that precisely is its function.”
Allingham shouted out some impatient rejoinder, but it was drowned in the rising roar of the engine as they sped along the road.
So the argument had waged since the telling of Tom Driver’s story. Gregg’s chief difficulty was to get Allingham to see that there really might be something in this theory of a world in which merely trivial things had become permanent, whilst the cosmos itself, the hitherto unchanging outer environment of man’s existence, might have opened up in many new directions. Man might have tired of waiting for a so long heralded eternity, and made one out of his own material tools. The Clockwork man, now crystallised in Gregg’s mind as an unforgettable figure, seemed to him to stand for a sort of rigidity of personal being as opposed to the fickleness of mere flesh and blood; but the world in which he lived probably had widely different laws, if indeed it had humanly comprehensible laws at all.
The clock, perhaps, was the index of a new and enlarged order of things. Man had altered the very shape of the universe in order to be able to pursue his aims without frustration. That was an old dream of Gregg’s. Time and Space were the obstacles to man’s aspirations, and therefore he had invented this cunning device, which would adjust his faculties to some mightier rhythm of universal forces. It was a logical step forward in the path of material progress.
That was Gregg’s dimly conceived theory about the mystery, although, of course, he read into the interpretation a good deal of his own speculations. His imagination seized upon the clock as the possible symbol of a new counterpoint in human affairs. In his mind he saw man growing through the ages, until at last, by the aid of this mechanism, he was able to roll back the skies and reveal the vast other worlds that lay beyond, the unthinkable mysteries that lurked between the stars, all that had been sealed up in the limited brain of man since creation. From that extreme postulate it would be necessary to work backward, until some reasonable hypothesis could be found to explain the working of the clock mechanism. That difficulty, even, might be overcome if only an opportunity occurred to examine this strange being from the future, or if he could be prevailed upon to explain matters himself.
As the car sped swiftly along, Gregg sat back with folded arms and gazed upwards at the now crystalline skies, wondering, as he had never wondered before, about that incomprehensible immensity which for centuries of successive generations man had silently respected. No authoritative voice had ever claimed to penetrate that supreme mystery. Priests had evoked the gods from that starry depth, poets had sung of the swinging hemispheres, scientists had traced comets and knew the quality of each solar earth; but still that vast arch spanned all the movements of crawling mankind, and closed him in like a basin placed over a colony of ants.
True, it was an illusion, and man had always known that. For generations he had known that the universe contained more than his limited faculties could perceive. And beauty. There had always been the consoling fact of beauty, lulling the race of man to content, while every now and again a great mind arose and made one more effort to sweep aside the bejewelled splendour that hung between man and his final destiny — to know.
And yet, a slight alteration in man’s perceptive organs and that wide blue shell might shatter and disclose a thousand new forms, like fantastic cities shaped in the clouds at sunset. Physiologists claimed that the addition of a single lobe to the human brain might mean that man would know the future as well as the past. What if that miracle had been performed? By such means man might have come to know not only the future, but other dimensions as yet unnamed or merely sketched out by the mathematician in brief, arbitrary terms.
Until that time came, man’s deepest speculations about ultimate reality brought him no nearer to the truth than the child worrying himself to sleep over the problem of what happened before God made the universe. Man remained, in that sense, as innocent as a child, from birth to death. Until the actual structure of the cells in his brain suffered a change man could not actually know.
Einstein could say that we were probably wrong in our basic conceptions. But could he say how we were to get right? The Clockwork man might be the beginning.
And then, when that change had been wrought, that physical reconstruction, what else might follow in its train? The Truth at last, an end to all suffering and pain, a solution of the problems of civilisation, such as overpopulation and land distribution, the beginning of human sovereignty in the universe.
But Gregg had the sense to admit to himself that his generalisation was no more than a faint aurora hovering around the rumoured dawn of the future. It was necessary, in the first place, to posit an imperfect thinking apparatus. After all, the Clockwork man was still a mystery to be solved, and even if he failed to justify a single theory born of merely human conjecture, there still remained the exhilarating task of finding out what actually he was and how he had come to earth.
Leaving Gregg at his rooms in the upper part of the town, the Doctor drove slowly along the High Street in the direction of his own house. Everything was quiet now, and there was no sign of further disturbance, no indication that a miracle had taken place in the prosaic town of Great Wymering. The Doctor noted the fact with quiet satisfaction; it helped him to simmer down, and it was necessary, for the sake of his digestion, that he should feel soothed and comforted.
Still, if Gregg’s conjectures were anywhere near the mark, in a very few hours it would be known all over England that the jaws of the future had opened and disclosed this monstrosity to the eyes of the present. There would be a great stir of excitement; the newspapers would be full of the event. Indeed, the whole course of the world might be altered as a result of this astounding revelation.
He would be dragged into the affair. In spite of himself, he would be obliged to go into some sort of witness box and declare that from the first he had thought the Clockwork man phenomenal, when, as a matter of fact, he had merely thought him a nuisance. But, as one of those who had first seen the strange figure on the hill, and as a medical man, he would be expected to make an intelligent statement. One had to be consistent about such things.
And the real truth was that he had no desire to interest himself in the matter. It disturbed his mental equilibrium, and threatened the validity of that carefully considered world of assumptions which enabled him to make light, easy jests at its inconsistencies and incongruities.
Besides, it was distressing to discover that, in middle life, he was no longer in the vanguard of human hopes and fears; but a miserable backslider, dating back to the time when thought and serious living had become too difficult for comfort. Regarded in this way, nothing could ever compensate for the wasted years, the ideals extinguished, the rich hopes bargained for cheap doubts — unless, indeed, it was the reflection that such was the common lot of mankind. The comfortable old world rolled on from generation to generation, and nothing extraordinary happened to startle people out of their complacent preoccupation with passions, desires and ambitions. Miracles were supposed to have happened at certain stages in world-history, but they were immediately obliterated by a mass of controversial comment, or hushed up by those whose axes were ground in a world that could be relied upon to go on repeating itself.
A comfortable world! Of course, there were malcontents. When the shoe pinched, anybody would cry out for fire from heaven. But if a plebiscite were to be taken, it would be found that an overwhelming majority would be in favour of a world without miracles. If, for example, it could be demonstrated that this Clockwork man was a being in many ways superior to the rest of mankind, he would be hounded out of existence by a jealous and conservative humanity.
But the Clockwork man was not. He never had been, and, indeed, God forbid he ever should be.
With that reflection illuminating his mind, the Doctor ran his car into the garage, and with some return of his usual debonair manner, with something of that abiding confidence in a solid earth which is a necessary prelude to the marshalling of digestive juices, opened the front door of his house.
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.