Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 459
E. V. Odle was a close friend of J. D. Beresford, and The Clockwork Man is an obvious meditation on possibilities raised by Beresford’s classic tale of a superhuman being, The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911). Beresford was later to return the compliment in the visionary fantasy The Riddle of the Tower (1944, written in collaboration with Esmé Wynne-Tyson), which vividly extrapolates the notion of human automation central to The Clockwork Man.
Odle’s novel was the first of many memorable British scientific romances that were deeply affected by the dark lessons of World War I, but it is much less bitter than most of the antiwar novels of the 1930’s, which often turned into scathing hymns of hate directed against the stupidity and bestiality of people unable to transcend their tendency toward violence even though modern armaments threatened to destroy the world. It is also of some importance as the first significant literary account of a cyborg, produced half a century before such human/ machine hybrids were integrated into science fiction’s conventional vocabulary of ideas.
The Clockwork Man is a fabular debate in which Gregg’s view of a future of wonderful material prog-ress—whose gifts must be secured by the careful regulation of human behavior—is pitted carefully against Allingham’s skepticism. Odle is more evenhanded than most managers of exemplary debates, treating Gregg’s vision with considerable sympathy even though it is conclusively undermined by the revelation that the Clockwork Man is more machine than human in the one sense that is crucial: He has given away his free will. What makes the novel truly exceptional is the passage in which the Clockwork Man gives his own account of himself, revealing his plaintive awareness of his own limitations.
The Clockwork Man knows that he and others like him have paid a high price for the experiential opportunities and the fundamental stability conferred by the clock. For him, laughter and weeping are mere symptoms of malfunction; in becoming free of the disturbances of sexual desire, he has surrendered the capacity for love and knows that in doing so he has forsaken the best part of his humanity. He sadly observes that even his dreams are programmed. He is not without hope—he wonders whether the makers will some day discover how to make clockwork men more like themselves—but his hope is illusory, for that would be a contradiction in terms.
There is nothing new or original in Odle’s championship of love as the best part of human nature, but the message rarely has been delivered with such deftness and delicacy. The author retains the fairness of mind to agree with Gregg’s defiant insistence that even if the Clockwork Man is mythical, “he is still worth investigating.”