The Clockwork Man (18)

By: E.V. Odle
July 17, 2013

HILOBROW is pleased to present the eighteenth 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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“Stop,” cried the Doctor, and there was almost anger in his features as he leapt to his feet. “It is you who are raving now. How can there exist such a world? And what plight has overtaken the human race, that it is now dependent upon mechanical contrivance for its actions! But, no. I refuse to believe that the Clockwork man represents the final destiny of man. He is a myth, a caricature, at the most a sort of experiment. This multiform world of which he talks so glibly is an extravagant boast. Besides, who would care to live in such a world, and with every action conditioned by an exact mechanism? Your optimism about this extraordinary affair amazes me even more than the thing itself. At the best what it means is that man has come to final ruin, not that he has achieved any real mastery of life. If all the creatures in the world eight thousand years hence are indeed clockwork men, then it is because some monstrous tyranny has come to birth in the race of man; it is because some diabolical plan has been evolved to make all men slaves. The clock may make man independent of time and space, but it obviously condemns him to an eternity of slavery. That is why I am still loath to believe in the evidence of my own eyes. That is why any explanation of this phenomenon is better than the obvious one!”

“But the proof,” interjected Gregg, “you cannot escape from the facts. There lies the Clockwork man. Explain him otherwise if you can.”

“I cannot,” groaned the Doctor, his face hidden between his hands. And then he looked up quickly, and his eyes cleared. “Perhaps, after all, that is the consoling feature of the affair. If the Clockwork man were really capable of explanation, then indeed there would be an end to all sanity. But since he is inexplicable, there still remains the chance that we may be able to put all thought of him out of our minds. I tell you, Gregg, I can live this down, I can forget this night of horror; but not if there is an explanation to fit the case. Not if I can satisfy my reason!”

“As I remarked before,” Gregg resumed, coolly, “you were not in a fit state to carry out the investigation. You could not bring yourself to accept even the obvious. Fortunately you remembered some of the most salient facts. Those tubes fitted into the clock, for example; I regard those as highly suggestive. Think of it, Allingham! The energy of generations compressed into a tube and so utilised by a single individual. For that is what must have happened in the year 8000. The scientists must have discovered means of gathering up and storing nervous energy. Everybody has this extra reserve of force. That solved one problem. Then there was the question of a better distribution. They had to invent a new nervous system. If we ever have an opportunity of examining the Clockwork man thoroughly, we shall find out what that system is. Speaking in rough terms, we may assume that it is probably an enlargement of the compass of what we call afferent and efferent impulses. There will also be new centres, both of reflex and voluntary action. Each impulse, in this new system, has a longer range of effectiveness, a greater duration in time.”

Gregg paused abruptly, as though arriving at some crisis in his thought. “It must be so. There is no other explanation to cover what we have seen. Man, as we know him, is no more or less than what his nervous system allows him to be. A creature of action, his actions are nevertheless strictly prescribed by the limitations of his neural organism. In the case of the Clockwork man we are confronted by the phenomenon of an enormous extension of nervous activity. One imagines terrific waves of energy unimpeded — or, relatively unimpeded — by the inhibitory processes that check expenditure in the case of a normal organism. Of course, there must be inhibition of some sort, but the whole system of the Clockwork man is on so grand a scale that his actions take place in a different order of time. His relapses, as he describes them, are simply the parallel of that degeneration of tissue which accompanies ordinary human fatigue. That is why his ineptitude appears ghastly to us. Again, his perceptions would be different. He would see relatively far more of the universe, and his actions would carry him further and further into the future, far beyond those laws which we have fashioned for ourselves, in accordance with our neural limitations. For, just as man is at the mercy of his nervous system, so his conception of universal laws is the natural outcome of nervous apprehension; and the universe is no more or less than what we think it is.”

In his growing excitement Gregg rose and paced the floor of the room, walking away from the Doctor. He did not hear the slight snigger that broke from the latter; nor had he observed any signs of deeper incredulity in the features of his friend that might have led him to moderate his enthusiasm. He continued, in an exultant voice. ” Think of what this means! We know the future! The accidental appearance of the Clockwork man may save the human race generations of striving and effort in a wrong direction. Or rather, it will save us from passing through the intermediate stages consciously, for everything has already happened, and the utmost we can hope is to escape the knowledge of its happening. We shall be able to take a great leap forward into the future. Once we have grasped the principle of the Clockwork man, the course of humanity is clear. It may still be several thousands of years before the final achievement, but we can at least begin.”

young man

NO,” thundered the Doctor, suddenly leaping to his feet. “By heavens, no. Not that!”

Gregg swung round with a gesture of annoyance. Both men were now pitched to their highest key, and every word that was spoken seemed to be charged with terrific import.

“Why not?” said Gregg, catching his breath.

The Doctor’s reply was equally breathless. “Because I, for one, refuse to accept such a responsibility. If this monstrosity is indeed the type of the future, then I reject the future. I will be no party to any attempt to reproduce him — for that, I can see, is what lurks in your mind. You would have us all clockwork men before our time! But I tell you, rather than that should happen, rather than the human race should be robbed of a few more generations of freedom, I will take steps to prevent it ever being known that the Clockwork man has paid us this visit. I will hide him. Not even you shall set eyes on him again. He shall remain an unfathomable mystery. No pagan priest ever guarded the sacred mysteries of life from an unthinking populace as I shall this enigma sprung from the womb of time! Nobody shall know. He shall remain in my keeping, a memorial to the final fall of man!”

“But why do you persist in adopting this attitude,” demanded Gregg, in tones of frank disgust, “it is so frightfully reactionary.”

The doctor pulled at his moustache. “I have no use for such phrases,” he muttered, angrily, and began striding up and down the narrow floor space. Gregg leaned against the wall, his expression still critical.

“I won’t have him,” the Doctor’s voice broke out again, and there was a kind of sob in it, “I won’t have the Clockwork man at any price. Every nerve in my body cries out against him. He is the scandal of the ages. He must be hushed up, hidden — forgotten.”

“That is already impossible. His exploits are the talk of the village.”

“Let them talk,” cried the Doctor, beating his head with his closed fist. “In heaven’s name, let them talk the thing into a nine days wonder. Let them think he’s the devil — anything rather than that they should know the truth. There may be a hundred explanations of this mystery, and yours may be the right one; I only know that I repudiate it. I cannot escape from the evidence of my own eyes; but there is something in me that denies the Clockwork man. He sticks in my gorge. Call me what you will; I am not to be shaken with phrases. The whole of man’s past shrieks out against this monstrous incubus of the future. Do not ask me to offer my own explanation of the phenomenon. I have none. In vain I have stretched my brain to its bursting point in order to solve this problem. You, apparently, are ready to accept the Clockwork man as a foregone conclusion. Time alone will reveal which of us is nearer the truth.”

Gregg smiled. “After all,” he remarked, allowing a suitable pause to follow the Doctor’s impassioned words, “it will not be for you or me to decide the matter. Our humble part will be to produce the object of the problem. Wiser men than ourselves will have to interpret its significance.”

This statement might have ended the argument for the time being, had not an accident occurred that altered the whole complexion of the affair. Gregg had the wisdom to see that his friend was literally beside himself with fright and repugnance; he would have been quite content to await another opportunity for the discussion to be renewed. But at that moment the Doctor gave a cry of surprise, and stooping down picked up an object from the floor. The next moment both men were standing side by side, examining with feverish interest a further clue to the mystery.

The object that the Doctor picked up from the floor was an oblong-shaped piece of metal, almost as thin as paper, and slightly bluish in colour. Upon its surface, printed in red embossed letters, was the following matter: —


1. Remove hat and wig and disclose Clock.

2. Open lid of Clock by means of catch.

3. Place Clockwork man in recumbent position, face downwards.

4. Press stops A and B well home, and wind up by turning red hand. N.B.—Great care should be taken not to over-wind.

5. The Clockwork man should now sit up and take a little nourishment. This should be supplied at once in the form of two green tabloids (solids) and one blue capsule (liquids). Stop C should now be pressed, and the pressure maintained until a red light appears within the bulb X. i. This registers that digestion has taken place.

On no account must any adjustment be made before the red light has appeared. Any attempt to cause function on an empty stomach will result in failure.

The Clockwork man is now ready for adjustment. The chart should be studied with care, and a choice made from one of the types indicated. Having made a selection, proceed to arrange indicators in accordance with detailed instructions, taking the utmost care to follow the directions with absolute accuracy, as the slightest error may lead to serious confusion. A good plan is to hold the chart in the left hand, and manipulate the regulators with the right, checking each adjustment as it is made.

Now wind black central hand fourteen and a half times, press centre knob until bell rings, close lid, replace wig and hat, and Clockwork man is ready for action.

The expression on Gregg’s face, as he read these amazing instructions, changed slowly from avid curiosity to puzzled alarm. He was frankly embarrassed by this sudden turn of events, and for a few moments he could make nothing at all of the matter. Yet the wording was intelligible enough, and its application to the Clockwork man only too obvious. The little piece of thin metal must have slipped from his pocket during the Doctor’s examination, and its discovery was undoubtedly of supreme importance.


But what could it mean? Gregg rather prided himself upon the resiliency of his mind, but not all the elasticity of which he was capable could enable him to overcome a sudden sense of uneasiness. Was the Clockwork man, after all, no more than a very elaborate and highly complex puppet? But how could that be, since he breathed and spoke and gave every sign of the possession of an individual consciousness? Considered in this new light he was even more difficult to explain.

But when Gregg looked up, rather sheepishly, wary of meeting the Doctor’s eye, he beheld a sight that sent an uncomfortable thrill down his spine. For the latter lay at full length upon the couch, his chest and stomach rising and falling in the convulsions of that excessive laughter that at first sight raises a doubt of danger in the mind of the beholder — for men have died of mirth. Gregg stared at his prostrate friend, and his own countenance was transfixed with alarm. Many minutes elapsed before any kind of definite sound brought a relief to the strain; for the Doctor’s laugh was primaeval; it racked his vitals, shook him from head to foot, began and stopped, proceeded in a series of explosions, not unlike those of the Clockwork man himself, until at last it reached the throat and found expression.

“Ha! ha! ha!” broke at last upon the silence of the night (and Mrs. Masters in her top attic heard the noise and thought of the devil climbing over the roofs). “Ha! ha! Ha! ha!”

Gregg pulled himself together and crossed to the couch. He undid the Doctor’s collar, and forced him to sit up. He thumped his back violently, at first remonstrated and then fell to the use of soothing phrases. For there was still an element of hysteria in the Doctor’s manner; only now it was a symptom of release from unendurable strain. It was the hilarity of a man who has just saved his reason.


Stay tuned!

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.

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