Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, April 25, 2022

Monday, April 25, 2022: Maximum Shelf: The Clockwork Man

MIT Press: The Clockwork Man (Mit Press / Radium Age) by E.V. Odle

MIT Press: The Clockwork Man (Mit Press / Radium Age) by E.V. Odle

MIT Press: The Clockwork Man (Mit Press / Radium Age) by E.V. Odle

MIT Press: The Clockwork Man (Mit Press / Radium Age) by E.V. Odle

The Clockwork Man

by E.V. Odle, introduction by Annalee Newitz

The Clockwork Man--originally published in 1923--is a sometimes comic, sometimes disturbing feat of imagination, with a passionate sociopolitical message. It has now been republished as part of MIT's Radium Age series, an ambitious project seeking to bring attention to forgotten "proto-science fiction" from the underappreciated era between 1900 and 1935. In editor Joshua Glenn's series foreword, he makes the case that the Radium Age's achievements have been unfairly overlooked in favor of the so-called "Golden Age" of science fiction, an era beginning in the 1930s that established the towering influence of writers like Isaac Asimov. By republishing the little-known British author E.V. Odle's The Clockwork Man, among other neglected classics, Glenn and the MIT Press have made an excellent start at showcasing the strange wonders offered by the Radium Age.

Odle's novel uses the titular Clockwork man as a catalyst, a strange and unexpected interruption of sedate English life that begins when the malfunctioning creation wanders into a cricket match. The Clockwork man's herky-jerky movements and impossible-to-ignore wig make him a comic figure, and Odle mines humor from his bizarre interactions with the unfailingly polite cricketeers. He proves an amusing spectacle: "his actions produced an instantaneous appeal to the comic instinct; and in laughing at him people forgot to take him seriously." Here, Odle introduces an important theme of the book, which suggests that the radically new might appear absurd to onlookers who don't know any better, and that characters like the conservative-minded Doctor Allingham are inclined to use humor to laugh away anything that might disrupt their staid worldview.

A series of comic adventures follow, the Clockwork man's increasingly inexplicable and seemingly supernatural actions gradually forcing Doctor Allingham to abandon his detached disbelief for growing horror. Underneath the Clockwork man's wig, we learn, complicated clock-like machinery is attached to his skull, complete with a set of knobs that allow him to be tweaked and adjusted. He is therefore part man and part machine, and, according to Annalee Newitz, who writes the thought-provoking introduction, the first appearance of a true cyborg in literature. Further adding to his alien nature, is the Clockwork man's claim to have existed apart from time, in a kind of virtual, multiversal space that gives him immediate access to everything he wants and needs, in exchange for control over his emotions. As Newitz points out, Odle's conception of machine-amplified intelligence existing in a virtual space is suggestive of modern futurist and science fictional ideas about the Singularity, the theoretical merging of minds with computers that some believe promises to transform our world. To encounter the precursors of these futuristic ideas in an almost century-old novel is fascinating and exciting.

Revelations about the Clockwork man's inner workings take place alongside twin courtships: Doctor Allingham with Lilian, and the younger, more idealistic Arthur Withers with Rose. The Clockwork Man proves just as far-thinking about relationships between men and women as between man and machine. Odle engages the pressing, politically charged topic of gender equality head-on, as Doctor Allingham manages to alienate Lilian with his old-fashioned attitudes at the same time that Arthur's more egalitarian romance with Rose progresses. The issue of gender is woven into the science fictional element of the story as well, with the Clockwork man eventually revealing that, in the future, only the men have been shut away in clockwork universes that amount to gilded cages. In one of the novel's more bizarre revelations, we learn that some manner of beings descended to Earth and, together with women, mechanized all of the men after they were unable or unwilling to stop their ceaseless wars and exploitation. The Clockwork Man was published at a time when long-simmering grievances were boiling to the surface, and Odle's book argues that if the male ruling classes aren't willing to put up with change, they might find themselves shunted aside.

For all of its very serious concerns, The Clockwork Man is largely a comic novel, where even its dystopian elements are presented in absurd forms. The Clockwork man's constant malfunctioning leads to pratfalls and physical comedy reminiscent of a cyborg Mr. Bean, and the way he rudely interrupts the familiar workings of daily life creates ample opportunities for poking fun at familiar figures like the constable, who responds to one of the Clockwork man's rants about the fixed, finite nature of the world he's fallen into by saying "If you're going to drag algebra into the discussion I shall 'ave to cry off. I never got beyond decimals."

The Clockwork Man is an excellent example of the promise of the Radium Age series, giving deserved attention to a hilarious and prescient work of science fiction that has almost been forgotten. Those interested in the preoccupations of science fiction will be amazed to see some of its most familiar and compelling tropes introduced in a book well before the advent of modern computers, while others will find a tremendously entertaining novel with a witty, absurdist bent. At the heart of The Clockwork Man is a warning about what might happen in the absence of true equality and justice--that resonates a century later. --Hank Stephenson

The MIT Press, $19.95, paperback, 202p., 9780262543439, May 3, 2022

MIT Press: The Radium Age Series

Editor Joshua Glenn: No Gatekeepers

Josh Glenn 
(image: Seth)

Joshua Glenn is the coauthor of books such as The Idler's Glossary and Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun. Glenn is the publisher of the HiLobrow blog and the editor of the MIT Press's Radium Age series, which seeks to bring attention to the underappreciated era of science fiction, 1900-1935, by republishing forgotten classics. Among them is E.V. Odle's The Clockwork Man, originally published in 1923, which imagines a human from the future implanted with a clockwork device that amplifies his physical and mental abilities.

How did the idea for the Radium Age series develop?

I read Brian Aldiss's book Billion Year Spree, about the history of science fiction. Very good book. He says that the era of scientific romance--H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe--is this incredible, important early part of science fiction. The Golden Age of John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and so forth, coming up in the 1930s, is the really important seedbed of science fiction, and in between there's a handful of okay things and a lot of bad pulp fiction. That just seemed incorrect to me--how could this 30-year period not have much good science fiction?

My friends Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders, who were the editors of, invited me to write a column about what I was calling at the time pre-Golden Age science fiction. I wrote about the tropes that emerged during that time, like the berserk robot and the friendly robot. The idea of the superman or the eco-catastrophe were first appearing during this period. I decided to reissue some science fiction books from this era almost 10 years ago under my own imprint. Then I stopped until the early part of Covid, when MIT Press approached me and asked if I would be interested in resurrecting this idea. I named it the Radium Age because I thought this era needed its own name to compete with the Golden Age.

How did you select the books to be included in the series?

I wanted to do two things with this series. One, I wanted to argue that there's this really interesting overlooked period in what I'm calling the proto-science fiction phase of the genre that people should know more about. Science fiction historians, science fiction scholars, even science fiction fans should be aware that this era exists, and there's a lot of good material there. And the other part of what I wanted to do was entertain. I wanted people to read really fun, great stories that they might have missed. I don't want to publish anything that will contribute to this false impression that it's all bad writing from before 1935.

E.V. Odle was a very obscure figure at this point. In fact, there's a rumor going around online that this was a pen name for Virginia Woolf. He was a real person—he was the editor of the British magazine the Argosy. He worked in a munitions factory and married a woman who was part of the Bloomsbury group. The Clockwork Man is a great story, the first cyborg story, and as Annalee Newitz points out in their introduction, also the first Singularity story, the first idea of a post-human future in which consciousnesses can be uploaded and people can become eternal.

It's also a feminist story because these people who are being uploaded are men who have failed at being good human beings. These aliens and/or mutants come along and turn all the men into cyborgs. It could be a very didactic story the way I've just described it, but it's actually quite witty, sweet and funny. As Jonathan Lethem says in the blurb for the book, it makes you realize that there's an origin story for science fiction that begins in the world of G.K. Chesterton and British humor writing, not just from futuristic hard science writers.

The novel often has a comic tone. Was that humor something lost in the Golden Age?

What I'm attracted to about Radium Age science fiction--and by the way, I love Golden Age science fiction--is a real freedom because there are no gatekeepers, no people saying here's what science fiction is and isn't. Once you get John W. Campbell and people like that coming along, they're saying "this is what science fiction should be: it should be about technology, women aren't good at writing about this stuff." But in the early days, the danger of too much freedom is that things can get kind of goofy, and is this even science fiction or is it just fantasy? A lot of weird stuff happens in this Radium Age period. But one of the things that you're allowed to do in this period that maybe you aren't allowed to do later is be funny.

At the same time, the novel seems to critique humor as a tool of avoidance and conservatism when used by Doctor Allingham.

I think Odle's brand of humor is opening us up and helping us think about issues that are difficult to think about, and he's saying that there's another kind of humor that closes conversations down.

In their introduction to The Clockwork Man, did Annalee Newitz write anything that surprised you or made you think about the book in a different light?

Well, Annalee Newitz is one of the smartest and best minds of my generation. In my own reading of the book, I saw that it was about cyborgs and feminism. What Annalee brought out was this idea of the Singularity. Now there are all these people who are impatient with meatspace, they wish they could upload their consciousnesses and not have to deal with the physical world and, as Annalee points out, that idea is mocked by the book even before the idea existed. It's even being presented as a punishment for these men who are causing war and social injustice and economic injustice and so forth; they are being punished by being put into this Singularity. It's not actually a reward that people should be working towards, it's a prison.

Why do you think the Radium Age was capable of being more politically radical than a lot of the Golden Age?

I think there's something very vertiginous about what was happening in the world during the early 20th century. Science and technology were making massive steps forward. Marie Curie's discovery of radium, which gave us the Radium Age, opened people's eyes to the fact that matter itself is partially in motion, which was an earth-shattering notion. Anarchy, socialism, feminism, the NAACP, workers' rights, all these things were happening at this time as well as the conservative backlash. It was an extremely volatile time, and science fiction was talking about these issues. Female writers were writing feminist utopias and dystopias during this period, and it did get shut down during the Golden Age, and it had to fight its way out later. --Hank Stephenson

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