The Clockwork Man (19)

By: E.V. Odle
July 24, 2013

HILOBROW is pleased to present the nineteenth 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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ALL EXCERPTS: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20

***

CHAPTER TEN
Last Appearance of the Clockwork Man
I

It must remain for ever a question for curious speculation as to what action might have been taken by Doctor Allingham and Gregg in conjunction, had they been able to pursue their investigation of the Clockwork man upon a thorough-going scale; for while their discussions were taking place the subject of them escaped from his confinement in the coal cellar.

Indeed, it was hardly to be expected that he would remain there for very long. As Gregg pointed out, such very delicate mechanism needed constant attention, and the unexpected was always likely to occur. There must have been some deeply-rooted automatism that gradually released the Clockwork man from his sleep; and having awakened, the grimy walls of the cellar no doubt struck him as distasteful. It was not to be expected that the Doctor, in his hurry and panic, should have succeeded in mastering the intricacies of the clock. He had merely brought about a temporary quiescence which had gradually worked off. It had to be borne in mind, also, that although the Clockwork man was dependent upon adjustment in order that he should be made to work in a right fashion, it was only too plain that he could act independently and quite wrongly.

The truth is that Doctor Allingham had not been able to summon the courage to make a further examination of the Clockwork man; and he had permitted himself to assume that there would be no immediate developments. So far as was possible he had allowed himself that very necessary relaxation, and he had insisted upon Gregg sharing it with him. The Clockwork man was not quite what either of them had, alternatively, hoped or feared. From Allingham’s point of view, in particular, he was not that bogey of the inhuman fear which his original conduct had suggested. True, he was still an unthinkable monstrosity, an awful revelation; but since the discovery of the printed instructions it had been possible to regard him with a little more equanimity. The Clockwork man was a figment of the future, but he was not the whole future.

RUR

And now that he had disappeared there was a strong chance that he would never return, and that his personality and all that was connected with him would dissolve from memory of man or crystallise into a legend. That seemed a legitimate consummation of the affair, and it was the one that Doctor Allingham finally accepted. This visitation, like other alleged miracles in the past, had a meaning; and it was the meaning that mattered more than the actual miracle. To discover the significance of the Clockwork man seemed to Doctor Allingham a task worthy of the highest powers of man.

The Doctor’s conclusion may be taken as a fair expression of his character. Naturally, the effect of such a preposterous revelation upon a sluggish and doubting mind would be to arouse it to a kind of furious defence of all that man has been in the past, and a scarcely less spirited rejection of that grotesque possibility of the future which the Clockwork man presented to the ordinary observer. Gregg, on the other hand, may be excused, on the score of his extreme youthfulness, for the impetuosity of his actions. His attempt to persuade the editor of the Wide World Magazine that his version of the affair, put in the shape of a magazine story, was actually founded on fact, ended in grotesque failure. His narrative power was not doubted; but he was advised to work the story up and introduce a little humour before offering it as a contribution to some magazine that did not vouch for the truth of its tall stories. As this was beneath Gregg’s dignity, and he could find no one else to take him seriously, he shut up like an oyster, and just in time to forestall a suspicious attitude on the part of his friends. It was only years later, and after many experiences in this world of hard fact and difficult endeavour, that he began to share the Doctor’s view, and to cherish the memory of the Clockwork man as a legend rich in significance.

II

One evening Arthur Withers and Rose Lomas sat together on their favourite stile talking in low whispers. The summer dusk lagged, and the air about them was so still that between their softly spoken words they could hear the talk of innumerable insects in the grass at their feet. There had been few interruptions. So familiar had their figures become in that position, that it had grown to be almost a tradition among the people who passed that way during the evening to cross the stile without disturbing the lovers. There are ways, too, of sitting upon a stile without incommoding the casual pedestrian.

This evening there had been one or two labourers with red, wrinkled faces, too hungry and tired to make much comment. Then Mrs. Flack had come hurrying along with her black bag (they had to get off for her as she was not so young as she had been), and soon afterwards the Curate, who beamed affably, and enquired when it was to be. He was so looking forward to uniting them.

But it was not to be yet. That was the burden of their subdued murmurings. It couldn’t be done on Arthur’s present income, and he was still less certain than ever that it could be regarded as cumulative or even permanent. Rose understood. To her country-bred mind it was marvellous that Arthur should succeed in adding up so many figures during the course of a day, even though the result did not always meet with the approval of the bank authorities. They would have to wait.

“It’s such a responsibility,” said Arthur, presently. “If we were to get married, I mean. I might come home with the sack any day.”

“I shouldn’t mind,” protested Rose, “but I couldn’t bear you to feel like that about it. We shall have to wait.”

“I wonder why I’m not clever,” Arthur remarked, after a long pause. Rose clutched him indignantly towards her.

“Oh, you are. The things you say. The things you think! I never knew.”

And although he shook his head vigorously, Arthur inwardly contemplated that region in his mind wherein existed all the matters that comprised a knowledge quite irrelevant to the practical affairs of life but very useful for the purpose of living.

“I do have ideas,” he admitted, thoughtfully. “I suppose I’m really what you might call an intellectual sort of chap.”

“Dreadfully,” said Rose, without a trace of disrespect. “The books you read!”

“Of course, I’m only a sort of amateur,” Arthur continued, modestly. “But I do like books, and I can generally get at what a chap’s driving at — in a way.”

He stared hard at a grasshopper, who seemed to be considering the possibility of an enormous leap, for his great hind legs were taut and his long feelers caressed the air. “Sometimes I think the chaps who write books must be a bit like me — in a way. They seem to like the same things as I do. There’s a lot about beauty in most books, and I like beauty, don’t you?”

“Yes,” breathed Rose, wondering what exactly he meant.

The grasshopper hopped and landed with a quite distinct thud, almost at their feet. They both looked at it without thinking about it at all. But its advent produced a pause.

“In the books I’ve read,” Arthur resumed, “there’s generally a chap whom you might regard as being not much good at anything and yet pretty decent.”

“Heroes,” suggested Rose, whose knowledge of literature was not very wide.

“Sometimes. Chaps people don’t understand. That’s because they like beauty more than anything else, and not many people really care about beauty. They only think of it when they see a sunset or look at pictures. If you can forget beauty, then you’re alright. Nobody thinks you’re strange. You don’t have any difficulties.”

The slight stirring of Rose’s body, and a sigh so low that Arthur scarcely heard it, seemed to suggest that matters were becoming rather too deep for comprehension. The grasshopper sprung again, and this time landed upon the stile, where he remained for a long while, as though wondering what perversion of the common sense natural to grasshoppers could have prompted him to choose so barren a landing place. During the long pause Rose did not see the look of strained perplexity upon Arthur’s face.

couple

“But they always get married,” he said, suddenly. “The chaps in books, I mean. They always get married in the end.”

“Oh, Arthur!” Her hand went up to pull down his, for the moment, unwilling head. “Oh, Arthur, we will get married some day.”

“You’re so pretty,” he whispered. “You’re so very beautiful.”

“Oh, am I? Do you think so? I’m so glad — I’m so sorry.”

Her tears gushed forth, inexplicably, even to Arthur, who thought he understood so much that was difficult to understand. He had let loose his feeling without any real knowledge of its depth, or that which it aroused in Rose.

“I can’t bear you not to have me,” she sobbed. “It’s cruel. It ought to be arranged. People ought to understand.”

Arthur was startled back to common sense. “They don’t,” he whispered, as they held one another in trembling arms. “If they did they would be like us.”

And then he remembered a possible sequel to the search for beauty.

“Besides,” he added, in a formal whisper, “there’s the children.”

III

Along the path that led from Bapchurch to Great Wymering there walked two persons, slowly, and with an air of having talked themselves into embarrassed silence. Their steps were gradually bringing them to the stile upon which Arthur and Rose sat.

“That last remark of yours cut me to the quick,” said the Doctor, at last.

“I meant it to,” said Lilian, firmly. “I want you to be cut to the quick. It’s our only chance.”

“Of what?” enquired the Doctor, conscious of masculine stupidity.

“Of loving somehow. Oh, don’t you understand? I want to care for you, but you’re making it impossible. You will jest about the things sacred to me. Your flippant tongue destroys everything. It’s as I said just now. I like my friends to be humorous; but my lover must be serious.”

“But I can’t help it,” pleaded the Doctor. “Take away my humour and I’m frightened at what’s left of myself. There’s nothing but an appalling chaos.”

“Because you are afraid of life,” said Lilian. “Men have laughed their way through the ages; women have wept and lived. I can’t share your world of assumptions and rule of thumb laws. To me love is a chaos, a dear confusion — a divine muddle. It’s creation itself, an indefinite proceeding beginning with God.”

The Doctor harked back in his mind to the beginning of their talk. “But you objected to my house,” he mused, “that was how the discussion arose. And now we’ve got somewhere up in the stars.”

Lilian glanced up at them. “If only we could keep there! By their habitations are men known. A house ought to be a sort of resting place. No more. Once you elaborate it, it becomes a prison, with hard labour attached.”

“But where does all this lead?” pondered the Doctor, half falling in with her mood. “Why not make some things permanent and as good as they can be?”

“Because they are only part of ourselves, only so many additions to the human organism, extra bits of brain. We’re slowly discovering that. Humanity daren’t be permanent, except in its fundamentals, and all the fundamentals have to do with living and being. Just think what would happen if the blood in your veins became permanent?”

“Death,” said the Doctor, “speaking from knowledge rather than from symbolical conviction.”

“Well, then,” resumed Lilian, triumphantly, “isn’t all this possession of things, all this wanting to have and keep, a sort of death, beginning from the extremities? Wouldn’t it be awful if the human body didn’t change, if we got fixed in some way, didn’t grow old or lose our hair, or have influenza?”

The Doctor paused in his walk. How strange that Lilian should say that! It almost seemed as though she must have heard about the Clockwork man!

And then they both stopped, and at the same moment saw Rose and Arthur seated on the stile.

***

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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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