Going by the title, I thought The Clockwork Man by William Jablonsky would be a classic science fiction book. As I flipped the pages however, the novel turned out to be more of a love story between a machine and a teenage girl.
Ernst, an automaton made entirely of clockwork, is the creation of a German genius, Karl Gruber. Despite being a machine, Ernst has several human qualities. He exercises discretion in his speech and behaviour, discovers that he has a conscience, shows traits of loyalty, attraction love and even regret. Hard science fiction fans would be a tad disappointed here – how his master endows Ernst with human qualities is neither described nor even alluded to in passing.
Ernst ‘grows up’ with the Gruber family, being a caretaker and companion to his master’s children, Jacob and Giselle. Under the guidance of his master, he develops a remarkable degree of propriety and courteousness. While Jacob treats him with little respect, often pulling a nasty prank on him, Giselle easily warms up to the clockwork man. They form an intimate relationship, even as Ernst questions himself whether he is being swept away in love. The author does an excellent job of depicting this in-between state of Ernst. Just as the protagonist gets closer to Giselle, the Gruber family is hit by tragedy and Ernst, too depressed to live any longer, winds himself down.
When he wakes up more than a hundred years later, he finds himself in an American town. This transition might seem abrupt, with no mention of the long intermediate period. But I found it reasonable since the narrative is from the point of view of Ernst who has just come out of a century-long ‘coma’. Ernst learns that his original homeland is no longer the same as he had left it. Yet memories of his relationship with Giselle haunt him. Just like a human surviving a tragedy, Ernst realizes he has to let go of his past and rebuild his life. Under the care of Greeley, an eccentric homeless tramp, he forms new friendships and adapts to his newfound home.
Written as an autobiography, The Clockwork Man drew me in with its simplicity. The central idea and the initial setting reminded me of the movie Bicentennial Man. However, the book does deviate refreshingly in the second half.
While Jablonsky gives Ernst a distinct likeable human character, the plot does not throw up many twists, and the pace stutters at times, especially in the latter half of the book. I would expect a tighter narrative from a science fiction novel, but this is not a conventional science fiction novel, so those expectations can be discounted.
Keeping these flaws aside though, the author shows good attention to character development. The idea of an anthropomorphic machine having emotions, thoughts and a deep yearning for human appreciation has been around since decades. Yet, the author’s voice makes this an engrossing read. While the prose is not a literary masterpiece, Ernst’s human traits are described in a credible manner, and I empathized with the character for the tribulations he goes through. The other characters have a lot of depth too, be it Karl Gruber with his stoic serenity, the sensitive, intellectual Giselle or the restless, yet friendly Greeley. The relationship between Ernst and Giselle initially appeared long-drawn to me, but once I regarded this novel as more of a tragic love story than a futuristic tale, the relaxed tone did fit in.
Further, the narrative seems natural in the first half when the plot is based in late nineteenth-century Germany. Jablonsky creates a world which does seem like it belongs to a period long gone in history. I would want the pace to step up when Ernst awakens in twenty-first-century America, yet the tempo remains mostly the same throughout, as if Ernst is still stuck in his German homeland. Perhaps the author has done this intentionally. If so, it works well. The historical characters of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Hitler are woven into the story without dragging the narrative.
The hallmark of the book is definitely the way the author weaves a tale of pathos and adventure around a humanoid machine. I would recommend this book to readers who are not too keen on reading hard science fiction (you might be disappointed if you are) but would enjoy an emotional drama.
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