A PRECISION PIECE
A Review of William Preston’s “Clockworks”
by Andrew Salmon
Last year a new pulp voice burst on the scene from the most unlikely of sources: Asimov’s science-fiction magazine. The story was called “Helping Them Take The Old Man Down”, the author one William B Preston. Given the tale’s locale, it was no surprise that this modern pulp gem slipped past a lot of pulp fans’ radar.
Well, Preston has written a prequel to that first Old Man tale. It’s called “Clockworks” and resides in the current issue of Asimov’s on newsstands everywhere, the April/May 2011 issue to be precise. And it’s precision that best characterizes Preston’s second instalment of his Old Man saga.
“Clockworks” is a wonderfully detailed, rich literary work that is sure to please pulp fans of any age. The tale, set in the early 1960s, is told from the perspective of a super-criminal who is recovering from a brain operation performed by the Old Man in his Arctic retreat. Sound familiar? That’s the idea. Preston’s Old Man is really a thinly veiled Doc Savage under a new name and one of the pleasures of reading the tale is enjoying how the author makes no mistake as to who he’s writing about without mentioning any names.
The tale gives us a captivating insight into the mind of the criminal whose brain has been altered by the good doctor while touching on the moral implications of such operations. Fractured memories of an evil past and deep-rooted guilt over past crimes plague the reformed Dr. Blacklight as he struggles to find out who he is in the wake of the Old Man’s skilled work on parts of his brain. Watching Blacklight wrestle with his past deeds is a satisfying reading experience, but pulp is about action and Preston provides a wonderful race against time element to the tale. You see, Blacklight was in the process of setting up a terrible weapon when he was captured. The Old Man and his associates need him to reveal the weapon’s location before it goes off. Will Blacklight remember what his master plan was in time? Will the Old Man and crew get there before it’s too late?
Yup, this is pulp, friends. Only in the hands of a capable wordsmith like Preston, it has taken on a literary quality rarely seen in the genre. “Clockworks” is a beautifully written tale. The characters have dimension and depth. Even the Old Man, while remaining a fascinating enigma, reveals his thoughts and feeling obliquely. The Ham/Monk-like quarrelling between two of the Old Man’s team is spot on and pulp fans will find much here that is familiar. However, it’s the approach that is new and fresh and makes this tale a stand out. Look for it to receive considerable consideration at next year’s Pulp Ark Awards.
We’re in the midst of a pulp revolution unlike any fans have seen and the genre is growing by leaps and bounds. So many talented writers, artists, editors and publishers are boldly carrying pulp into the 21st Century. William Preston is one of the shining stars of this renaissance and his Old Man saga is destined to be a classic. Well, most of us missed The Shadow’s arrival on the scene, ditto for good Doctor Clark Savage, The Spider, Secret Agent X and the vast army of greats from yesteryear. But we are privileged to enjoy the Old Man tales fresh, as they appear on newsstands and bookstores. Preston has indicated that there are further adventures in the works and this reader can’t wait to see what’s in store for the Old Man.
I give “Clockworks” my highest recommendation. It’s a tale not to be missed. Bravo.