The Clockwork Man by E. V. Odle

This most-early mention of a mechanically enhanced human presages the notion of the cyborg with the technology of time but a universal verity. Charming and clearly a product of the early 20 th century this is a delight to read and a revelation to comprehend.

The Clockwork Man by E. V. Odle
MIT Press
Paperback | $19.95
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This remarkable novel contains what is perhaps the very first mention of a cyborg, although that term is not used therein. It was first published in 1923 by an author who was a playwright, critic and short story writer well-known in his time but forgotten by literary history due to his overshadowing by Karel Capek, the writer who produced the play R.U.R. ( Rossum’s Universal Robots – the source of that term).


It is written in the style of the times which provides a charming tone quite pleasant to the reader’s sensibilities, if one is prepared to accept the social and cultural attitudes of that era. The assumptions about what is and is not acceptable behavior, what may be the purpose of humanity, how our species relates to the universe and the direction of our collective future all bear the stamp of the early twentieth century. The language is refreshingly direct and without florid embellishment and wears, in the opinion of this reader, quite well.


What is truly surprising, however, is a revelation that elevates this work into the halls of great science fiction in that is it is alarmingly and accurately predictive. There are aspects of sexual politics that are well beyond the tenor of the times except for the beliefs of a few enlightened contemporary progressives. The introduction of these themes is handled subtly and without heavy-handedness and goes nearly unnoticed until the very end, although hints are sprinkled throughout the narrative.


A strange being appears abruptly in the middle of a cricket match in a rural English village. His actions are bizarre and disturbing and defy scientific explanation, at least the science of the time. As he exits and re-enters the stream of the tale, the full story of his accidental transportation from his time (8,000 years in the future) emerges and contributes to the extreme discomfort of his principal correspondents, a doctor and a young thinker who become his caretakers and eventually his saviors. The culture clash is profound and only becomes more distressing as more information is made available, and it is with relief that he is finally restored to his own time. A masterful twist on virtually the last pages buoys this work above the “time traveler” genre into a true commentary on the human condition.