Gaby Wood’s book seemed to have been the perfect tome for me: for years I’ve been entranced by its major topics – Jacques de Vaucanson’s writing automata and digesting duck and Wolfgang von Kempelen’s ‘The Turk’ chess playing robot. I suppose like any young boy, clockwork, robots and artificial humans had become an abiding interest.
Unfortunately, the book doesn’t live up to its title. It’s portraiture, not history. And it’s certainly not as rigorous as I’d have liked.
Part of the problem is that Wood deviates from the strict mimicry of life into some areas better covered elsewhere. Doubtless, the films of Georges Méliès and the development of moving pictures are essential in the study of representation of the human form, and that the stories of midgets in circus entertainment and Hollywood are crucial to how individuals are othered by observation. But it seems disingenuous to yoke midgets and screen representation to the idea of describing ‘mechanical life’, no matter how interesting the observations.
There’s some interesting observations about the nature of the uncanny in these chapters – but the assemblage seems too loose to be meaningful. A coherent theory isn’t developed, and while I’m left wanting to learn more about Méliès or Coney Island say, the chapters figure a little like a sell for an unwritten biography rather than the cover’s promised magical history.
Admittedly, the book is now over twelve years old and so the details of recent robot developments are understandably not covered. But it’s a bit of a cop-out to pass off a couple of chapters about individuals as an examination of mechanical life. The subject of artificial intelligence isn’t really examined, and short of bookended instances of the author visiting modern laboratories (and a couple of pictures at the halfway point) there’s nothing modern discussed after the release of Tod Browning’s Freaks.
I enjoyed reading the chapters in isolation – they’re entertaining, though not really scientific, despite lengthy bibliographies – but they don’t hang together. My enjoyment probably came from delight at being able to read a little more about things which entranced me as a child rather than the book itself, which is a shame.
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