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The Clockwork Man (SF) - E. V. Odle ***

This 1923 novel by Edwin Vincent Odle is a title that many with an interest in the history of science fiction will have heard of, but few are  likely to have read. It's often described as the first cyborg story (I did so myself in my book on science fiction and science Ten Billion Tomorrows). But it was overshadowed by the publication in the same year of Karel Čapek's play Rossum's Universal Robots - the origin of the English language word 'robot'. Odle's only novel is not a great book, so that overshadowing is unsurprising, and even the cyborg description is more than a little misleading.

This is a romance (literally - it features two courting couples), but not so much a scientific romance (as early SF was often described), more a mythic romance. The titular clockwork man turns up from 8,000 years in the future at a village cricket match, producing some sub-Jerome K. Jerome style humour as a result of his wacky behaviour. He is a cyborg in the sense that he is a human that has been fitted with a piece of what appears to be technology. But this 'technology' is no more science-based that the wings of Daedalus and Icarus were in Ancient Greek mythology. The back of the clockwork man's head features an extremely complex clock that somehow magically takes him outside of time and space, able to shape both of them at will.

The clock seems to have been put in place to remove the war-like tendencies of men from the world. Odle was peripheral to the Bloomsbury set and the underlying theme of the book seems to be a Bloomsburyesque commentary on the role of women and men - and that's the whole point of it. The clockwork man makes no sense scientifically: he is simply a vehicle, like Daedalus and Icarus's wax-fixed wings, to (heavy handedly) make a point about human relations. This heavy handedness comes through particularly in one character, Doctor Armstrong, whose role is primarily to spend ages anguishing over how impossible the clockwork man is, unable to accept the existence of this creature from the future because he disrupts Armstrong's Edwardian pipe and slippers view of how human life should be (complete with servant wife), and should continue to be forever.

It's good that the Radium Age series in which this book is published gives readers the chance to encounter a title that is often held up as a starting point of an important science fiction trope. But when read, it shows us that the book is neither a particularly good work of fiction, nor does it play much of a meaningful part in SF history. The clockwork man is no more a cyborg than Talos, the huge bronze automaton in Greek mythology, was a robot. (To be fair, Čapek's robots weren't robots either, they were androids.) This is an interesting oddity, but no more than that.

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