Engineering feat or clever con? Clockwork Game explores a historical phenomena and the changing nature of truth and history over the eighty-five year career of “The Turk,” a famous automaton. First exhibited in 1769 by its creator, Herr von Kempelen, the Turk was purported to be the world’s first automaton capable of independent thought and action. It played chess, regularly beating opponents and appearing to react to outside stimuli. Fascinated royals and nobility, despite careful examination, could find no reason to doubt the genuine nature of the creation. And yet, it was a fraud. From France, it passed into the hands of Herr Maelzel, who maintained the machine through a lengthy and tempestuous career as an entertainer. He found both success and failure with the machine and after his death, it was lost and forgotten. Although attempts were made to revive the machine, its time had passed and it was donated to a museum where it was destroyed in a fire in 1854.
Jane Irwin takes the bare facts of the automaton’s history and fleshes them out into a remarkable narrative of historical fiction, giving life to the characters and using the Turk to expand on the changes in history and the views of science, race, and entertainment over the “lifetime” of the creation. The story is framed by the responses of Dr. bin Ibrahim to the attempted revival of “The Turk” and his own experiences of prejudice and science. Irwin imbues each set of characters in the historical drama with their own philosophy and individual interests, concerns, tragedies, and triumphs. Kempelen, the automaton’s creator, exemplifies the scientist whose amusing creation, intended as a sop to royalty, took over his life and overshadowed his scientific ambitions. The second main character, Maelzel, is accompanied by the automaton as he goes from a cocksure and shady young man, whose automated entertainments make him wildly successful, to someone with a slowly dying career. As science gains a foothold in Europe, the automaton’s fraudulent nature is exposed to more and more people. Maelzel struggles to hold his own against up and coming entertainers like Barnum and his relationship with his chess-playing assistant deteriorates.
Nisi Shawl’s introduction to this fascinating story discusses Irwin’s ability to create a story with just enough facts to intrigue and captivate the reader. Irwin’s research can be seen within the book’s extensive notes and sources; she is meticulous in emphasizing that this is historical fiction. The black and white art is skillfully drawn with close attention to historical details, like clothing styles and architectural changes. The ambitious nature of the project, spanning decades and involving a huge cast of characters, does tend to make it difficult to differentiate between characters and follow the action at times, but the story overall is captivating.
Thoughtful teens and adults who like substantive graphic offerings will find much to mull over in this story. Although it can be read and enjoyed purely as fiction, the historical framework draws the reader in and offers much food for thought regarding the way attitudes change—and don’t change—as science and history move forward.
Clockwork Game: The Illustrious Career of a ChessPlaying Automaton
by Jane Irwin
Fiery Studios, 2013