Into the Canny Valley
by Nisi Shawl
“People believe stories, not facts,” says Johann Maelzel, one in a series of owners of “The Turk,” the figure at the center of the real-life, 85-year conspiracy depicted in Clockwork Game. Telling The Turk’s strange story through expressive drawings and apt words, Jane Irwin makes us believe everything, from its first appearance before 18th-century Vienna’s royal court up to its blazing finale in 19th-century Philadelphia. There’s the supposed chess-playing automaton’s match against Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon’s pragmatic skepticism when presented with The Turk in the wake of his Austrian victories, and Edgar Allan Poe’s article debunking the claim that its prowess was that of a pure machine. The Turk rubbed elbows with Beethoven and shared an exhibit hall with P.T. Barnum’s Joice Heth, who the fledgling impresario said was the 161-year-old former nurse of President George Washington.
Clockwork Game is true. It’s also, unlike Barnum’s showman’s patter, mostly facts. Though not entirely.
But to paraphrase Maelzel’s lead-up sentence to the aphorism above, the story’s telling is what Jane Irwin gets right.
The Ottoman Empire had a long and glorious tradition of engineering marvels and expanding scientific knowledge. Irwin makes this tradition concrete in the book’s opening pages with a charming sequence showing Al-Jazari’s elephant clock in operation, complete with dragon heads and drummer. In 19th-century Philadelphia, Turkish-American doctor Yusuf bin Ibrahim provides another lens on the racially-charged lampoon its inventor created in his ostensible automaton. Again and again Irwin challenges herself to question comfortable assumptions, looking at The Turk’s career through the eyes of those so often classified as “others”: workers, women, people of color, the physically disabled. Again and again she enriches the telling of this fascinating tale by doing so; Clockwork Game is simultaneously funnier and more tragic than readers may expect.
In the field of human aesthetics, the “uncanny valley” is the dip in the graph of our tolerance of human simulacra. We react with rising positivity to dolls and robots as they become more and more like us--up to a certain point. At that point there’s a drop-off in acceptance, a sinking into revulsion. Too lifelike, yet not alive, inhabitants of this figurative valley are uncanny in appearance. If their similarity to us is developed further and continues to grow, the positive reaction reasserts itself and the graph line trends upward again.
Wolfgang von Kempelen, The Turk’s inventor, despised what he’d created as a fraud, “base trickery.” Discussing one of his “serious” devices he bemoans the way audiences focus on the odd appearance of his Speaking Machine, explaining that he’d frequently begin demonstrations with its wheezing bellow and nostril-simulating tubes covered by a sheet. He tells a sympathetic visitor that he hopes eventually to hide the apparatus inside the dummy of a young girl’s body. I think doing this would have been a mistake; a human-looking doll that spoke would have been far too disturbing to people of that time. The Turk was saved from inhabiting in the uncanny valley by several factors: the clockwork noises made during its operation; the standing invitation to inspect its inner workings and thus disregard its outward appearance; and its likeness to an exoticized other, which allowed the intended viewers to distance themselves from it rather than identify with it. These dehumanizing elements kept The Turk on the valley’s far side.
What I call the canny valley--without any experiments or charts to back my theory up--is the sweet spot authors aim for between data and whimsy. Clockwork Game sits in the canny valley’s exact center. Here the dip represents a fall in resistance to the unfamiliar. Beginning with sheer nonsense, what writers and artists offer becomes more captivating as it encompasses more verifiable facts--but not too many. There is a place on this imaginary graph where, suddenly, facts take on the allure of fantasy and speculation the weight of certainty. Clockwork Game’s dramatic framing and quick pace make it easy for the book to fulfill our innate biological hunger for narratives, and Irwin’s art—particularly her characters’ enchantingly expressive faces—fleshes out the mere names and dates that would have comprised her initial research. And that research was both broad and deep, as can be ascertained by referring to her twelve pages of notes and four of bibliography. It included books, videos, websites, and consultations with people knowledgeable in areas such as Turkish culture and the representation of diversity in fiction.
Composer and comedian Neil Innes once famously said, “I’ve suffered for my music. Now it’s your turn.” It was a joke, but other creative artists have sometimes had to strive to avoid meaning something similar—especially when they do lots research to support their projects. They’re drawn to the far side of the canny valley, the dry and tortuously infertile terrain of facts for facts sake. A book filled with nothing but the poorly presented results of research will beguile very few of us to spend our precious time struggling through its pages. Resistance will be high.
Irwin’s motto might well be “I’ve been suffused with pleasure for my work’s sake. Now it’s your turn.” Though she carefully describes when, where, how, and why she departed from what’s known about The Turk and its many adventures, she keeps these notes out of the story’s way, confining them to Clockwork Game’s after matter, where they rightfully belong. This leaves us free to luxuriate in the delightful greenery where the story proper grows—to speed through it or linger, to return to the canny valley as often as we like.