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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Living Dolls

(Edison's Eve)

Gaby Wood

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To purchase Edison's Eve

Title: Living Dolls
Author: Gaby Wood
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2002
Length: 282 pages
Availability: Edison's Eve - US
Living Dolls - UK
Living Dolls - Canada
Le rêve de l'homme-machine - France
  • UK title: Living Dolls
  • US title: Edison's Eve
  • UK subtitle: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life
  • US subtitle: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life (Hey ! that's actually the same !)
  • With 21 black and white photographs

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Our Assessment:

B- : interesting stories, not quite adding up to a book

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 2/3/2002 Maggie Gee
The Guardian . 2/3/2002 Steven Connor
The Independent . 16/3/2002 Pat Kane
London Rev. of Books . 9/5/2002 Jonathan Rée
New Scientist . 2/3/2002 Simon Ings
New Statesman A 4/3/2002 Edward Platt
The NY Observer A 19/8/2002 Stephen Metcalf
The NY Rev. of Books . 13/2/2003 Jennifer Schuessler
The NY Times Book Rev. B 25/8/2002 Miranda Seymour
The Observer . 24/2/2002 Simon Schaffer
San Francisco Chronicle D 8/9/2002 Aparna Sreenivasan
The Spectator A 2/3/2002 Raymond Keene
The Times . 27/2/2002 Roy Porter
TLS . 3/5/2002 Brian Aldiss
The Village Voice B 28/8/2002 Joy Press

  Review Consensus:

  Both considerable enthusiasm and disappointment. No consensus.

  From the Reviews:
  • "This enjoyable, episodic book hinges on the fascinating distinction between an original living thing and a mechanical copy." - Maggie Gee, Daily Telegraph

  • "(F)or most of the time, Wood is a vivid, alert and intelligent writer, who might have done more with her argument than the judicious little pushes on the pedals marked Pygmalion and Frankenstein allow her to. I believe that there is great seriousness of intent here, and the book shows unmistakable evidence of long stints in archives, despite there being not a footnote in sight." - Steven Connor, The Guardian

  • "(E)xhaustive -- and slightly exhausting -- collection of mini-histories about our fascination with robots. (...) Yet as the well-tooled paragraphs roll elegantly across the pages with the kind of Granta-esque equanimity that seems the default setting for British non-fiction, the last person whose perceptions you would ever expect to be challenged by anything is Wood herself." - Pat Kane, The Independent

  • "Wood's is a solid historical study, modishly expressed, as she traces the fault line between fairground attraction and philosophical toy." - Simon Ings, New Scientist

  • "Living Dolls is a fascinating piece of social and intellectual history, reminiscent of one of Marina Warner's forays into the collective subconscious. It is saturated with evidence of Wood's wide and perceptive reading, and culminates in a remarkable encounter between the author and one of the subjects of her meticulous research." - Edward Platt, New Statesman

  • "Edisonís Eve is densely anecdotal and engaging, and almost frighteningly well-researched. Ms. Wood has the habit, like a superstar grad student, of ferreting out example after example to pad out her story. More restraint might have been nice (.....) Nonetheless, she has written a lovely and often brilliant book" - Stephen Metcalf, The New York Observer

  • "Her book itself is an ingenious miniature, a charming tour through some odd corners of scientific and cultural history: the development of lifelike automata, the history of the doll industry, the origins of cinema. It is also defiantly -- and deceptively -- whimsical. In a few short chapters, Wood is taking on no less a theme than the industrialization of wonder." - Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Review of Books

  • "(A) lively, elegant and surprising book, packed with curious details and enticing anecdotes" - Miranda Seymour, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The odd idea that machine intelligence successfully replicates deceit has a long history. Gaby Wood's new and magical tour of that history offers seductive glimpses of its major landmarks. (...) Wood seems peculiarly sensitive to the fantastic flirtatiousness which envelops dolls, miniature machines, seemingly living constructs. She concentrates on the uncanny aspects of these automata, less on their ribald wit." - Simon Schaffer, The Observer

  • "Reading Edison's Eve is like a nighttime trip down a bumpy road, a road that eventually trails off to nowhere. Wood could have given the reader less to synthesize and more to relish, but most important, she could have remained true to her topic." - Aparna Sreenivasan, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(T)he surrounding voyage is a spectacular treasure trove of curious and well researched anecdote." - Raymond Keene, The Spectator

  • "Wearing her learning lightly, Gaby Wood addresses her riveting subject with energy, clarity and a charming storytelling manner. (...) Matter brought to life has infinite resonances, and one wishes that Wood had pressed her subject further." - Roy Porter, The Times

  • "Edison's Eve resembles a ramshackle cabinet of curiosities, full of miscellaneous bits and pieces sticking out all over. (...) Wood's lucid prose and storytelling ability carry the book, but her subject matter seems disparate and undigested, as if she never really got around to molding her research into fully fledged ideas." - Joy Press, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Living Dolls in the UK, Edison's Eve in the US. Don't even get us started .....
       Living Dolls is an odd book. It bills itself as "A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life", though the magical aspect of this history remains largely unclear. It appears to be a book mainly about automata -- indeed, different efforts at achieving some sort of artificial life, but except for brief contemporary asides (in the Introduction and Epilogue) it is resolutely antiquarian, dusting off old tales and acknowledging little that happened over the past century. Oddest of all is the last of the five chapters of the book, focussed largely on ... circus dwarves.
       Gaby Wood tells her tale in five separate chapters, each largely focussed on a single inventor having something to with automata. The first chapter tells of the brilliant innovator Jacques de Vaucanson, the second of Kempelen's chess playing machine (familiar from Tom Standage's recent book, The (Mechanical) Turk (see our review)), the third focusses on Edison, the fourth on, among others, Georges Méliès, and the fifth ... on circus folk.
       The chapters are quite well done. There are marvelous titbits here, such as Vaucanson building a loom manned by a donkey to spite the silk workers of Lyon and show that animal and machine could produce something just as fine as they could, or the mystery of the missing Edison dolls. There are incredible machines, such as Vaucanson's defecating duck and his flute player. There are fascinating illusions.
       Wood presents a great deal of material, apparently having researched her subjects in great depth. She also offers often extensive historical background and context, as well as philosophical and sociological speculation. Wood also finds interesting spins on some of these stories -- including bringing in such things as Descartes' daughter or Villiers de l'Isle Adam's bizarre Edison-novel.
       An interesting subject matter, thoroughly researched, fairly approachably presented -- what more could one want ? Well, considerably more. Wood's chapters read like separate pieces. Magazine pieces, actually, not book chapters. And there's a lot of magazine-piece frill around the edges. There doesn't seem to be a unifying thread to the pieces, or a thesis being followed through -- just lots of neat history and a variety of speculation. She begins with the quest for mechanical life (robots or automata), but then often gets sidetracked by the illusion of mechanical life (from Kempelen's chess-playing machine to various magical and cinematic illusions). That dividing line between reality and the appearance of reality seems to be of particular interest to her, but instead of then sticking to that she goes off on different tangents again.
       Wood doesn't help her cause with some particularly wild (i.e. unfounded) speculation. She considers chess-players who lose their minds -- noting, however, that Alfred Binet studied the question and "concluded that he could find no direct, causal link between chess an madness" (leaving, with this awkward phrasing, open the possibility that just because he couldn't find it doesn't mean there isn't actually a link somewhere). Despite that piece of evidence she harps on a few players who did go nuts, and brings in some chess-novels -- Stefan Zweig's The Royal Game and Vladimir Nabokov's The Defense -- which also posit a chess-madness connexion. And on and on she goes, spinning her ideas out of control until she closes the chapter:

If chess -- particularly blindfold chess, chess in the mind -- can drive its players mad, then the automaton was an accentuation of that. In the game of artificial intelligence, the only true loser may well be human reason.
       (We know the feeling, we're tempted to say.)

       Then there's the odd final chapter, on dwarves. By this point Wood writes of "our story -- the story of mechanical simulations and distractions, of mad beliefs and curious spectacles", and that allows her to come up with this final twist on her story of mechanical life:
(H)ere, instead of a doll that seems to be human, we have people who seem to be dolls. Their lives might be thought of as a metaphor -- the story of countless automata inverted, a biography of the Uncanny.
       Granted -- that's almost a clever idea. But her narrow focus on a few of these little people -- the Doll family -- doesn't work here, forcing her to stray too far afield and, disastrously, allowing her to get up close and personal. The chapter feels almost tacked on, a magazine piece she couldn't sell so she stuffed it in the book instead.

       There are many, many great stories to be found in this book. Many deserve closer treatment and their own books: one entirely devoted to Edison's Eve, or Vaucanson, or the chess playing automaton (oh right, we already have Tom Standage's book on that) would probably be fascinating (Méliès and the dwarves we can do without). As is, Wood offers many often tantalizing bits, but too often leaves off too soon for the next, generally largely unrelated episode.
       Alternately, a book examining the quest for mechanical life in survey-fashion would also be welcome. Wood offers a sort of highlight-reel but skips over far too much for this to stand as an adequate look at efforts to create mechanical life.
       Finally, a sort of intellectual history of the subject and the issues it raises would also be of interest. Again, Wood offers tantalizing bits, and she does discuss many of the main concerns and consequences, but again in too piecemeal fashion, and entirely too superficially.
       The book is quite well written, and Wood presents much of the marvelous material at her disposal well. Two glaring weaknesses are her over-long book-summaries, and some places where the presentation becomes too journalistic (her Tiny-encounters, for example)

       Living Dolls / Edison's Eve is perhaps worthwhile for the fascinating stories found in it, but despite this intriguing subject matter and the fabulous material she has gathered, Wood has fashioned a disappointing book of it.

       Note: Wood writes at the end of her chapter on Edison's dolls that "no more than a few exist today" -- and then concludes: "they are all gone now". A writer of a letter to the editor in The New York Times Book Review (issue of 15 September 2002) does not agree, claiming: "I know of at least a dozen that are complete with their miniature phonographs".

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Living Dolls: Reviews: Wolfgang von Kempelen: Johann Nepomuk Maelzel: L'homme machine by La Mettrie: Thomas Alva Edison: Villiers de l'Isle Adam: Georges Méliès: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Gaby Wood works for The Observer

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© 2002-2021 the complete review

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