Saturday, August 1, 2020
by Edwin Vincent Odle (1890-1942)
Dr. Allingham stood in front of the wicket, idly twirling his cricket bat while gazing into the distance. Several hundred yards up the small hill he spotted a figure capering about against the horizon. Something about it seemed unusual, but his attention was diverted by the next ball, which he swung at and missed. Bowled out, he retired to the side while continuing to glance at the unruly figure, which was zig-zagging down toward the fence in a jerky fashion, flailing it's limbs about in a knock-kneed manner. It arrived at the paling and draped itself over the wire, helplessly twitching its arms and legs. Arthur Withers, an onlooker, had seen the figure as well, and he walked over for a closer inspection. The personage had a bright red wig and a black bowler hat on, and its face was flushed and rather flabby, with a bulbous nose. Arthur noticed that it was flapping its ears violently back and forth while muttering to itself something like "Wallabaloo, wum, wum". A short period elapsed during which the man seemed to gather a bit of control over itself, then observed: "You see, i'm a clockwork man."
Gregg, the captain of the cricket team, becomes involved in examining the strange creature, and, since the game is not over, invites it to play, as they are one participant short. The newcomer grabs the bat and at the next pitch there is a flurry of dust as the ball disappears over the hill. There's a sort of grinding noise emanating from the figure, and it goes a bit berserk, flailing about with the bat and laying low most of the members of the opposite team. Then it runs off at a high rate of speed, jumping the fence and vanishing over the same hill. Later, the ball was found at the bottom of a ditch about three miles away.
Gregg and the doctor have tea and discuss the situation. Locomotor ataxia is mentioned, coupled with the increasing stress suffered by humanity over politics and burgeoning technology. Fifteen year old Tom Driver arrives and tells the men that he's found the unusual being at the bottom of a chalk pit, having fallen in after leaving the cricket pitch. Investigating, they see that the man's hat and wig have disappeared somewhere, revealing a glass door at the back of its head through which various tiny cog wheels, spiral gears, and mechanical regulators are revealed. They help him up and he runs off again, looking for his hat and wig.
Arthur Withers is in love with Rose Lomas, and has changed as a result of his passion. Whereas he was formerly a disconsolate, slovenly layabout, now he's changed into a neat, ambitious participant in village affairs. He meets the Clockwork man in a lane near the village and they converse. The CM is from 8,000 years in the future, and his mechanical brain normally provides complete freedom in time and space, so that he can be anywhere in the universe at any time. His story is that he had been in the shop for a periodic service, but the technician had done something wrong that shut down half of his brain, and thrown him back in time.
Subsequent to several episodes, involving the Clockwork person appearing on stage as a magician, being rousted by a constable who thinks he's a ghost, and being hit by a passing car (he strokes the auto on its hood, sorry for the pain it's suffering), he finds himself one night in the doctor's parlor, looking for someone to put his brain right. The doctor nervously pokes around inside the clockwork, punches a few buttons and spins several relays and inadvertently initiates a sort of ontological reversion in the robotic man. He develops scales like a trilobite, briefly, then changes those for fins, becomes fat and then skinny, grows and loses tails and horns and eventually vanishes underneath his clothes. The doctor frantically pushes another button and restores the man to his original form.
Dr. Allingham calls his friend, Captain Gregg and the two of them meet and converse about what to do for the android. They suddenly spot a piece of paper on the floor, evidently left from one of its configurative alterations, and, reading it, they figure out how to correctly adjust the clock. They do so and the Clockwork Man instantly vanishes.
Later, Arthur and his friend Rose meet the doctor at a stile in one of the local fields and while they speculate about the bizarre goings-on, the android appears, still walking like an arthritic turkey, but obviously improved over-all. He reveals his origin and something of his world: apparently the history of mankind was so riddled with wars, cruelty, thievery, and dishonesty that the "makers" decided to do something about it. So they replaced all the human brains with mechanical substitutes, which provided total freedom in space and time so that humans could leave whatever in their environment was causing strife and resentment and travel to other parts of this universe, or indeed, to other universes or dimensions. But he admits to Rose and Arthur that love has gone and loneliness was now rampant. After this, the clockwork being slowly vanishes and they never see him again.
This was the first book ever written about an android or robot, in the science fiction sense. It was published in 1927, just before Capek's Rur. Odle had a gift for the trenchant phrase, and was an expert at communicating the quiet village atmosphere present in England between the wars. In a way the book was akin to one of Wodehouse's, but without the humor, although it would be more accurate to say it was a different sort of humor, actually. Sort of cosmic in scope. Some quotes: The conception of natural laws is the outcome of nervous apprehension because the universe is only what we think it is"; "the whole aim of man is convenience". There was more food for thought in the book than one might suppose, and the entire presentation was pleasant and informative, if slightly beyond the pale of ordinary apprehension. I liked it, but it was the only book ever published by Odle. He did write another one but it never saw print.