From Publishers Weekly
In five entertaining chapters, British journalist Wood describes the ways humans have built machines to resemble themselves over the past three centuries. Wood begins with the dynamic creations of the 18th-century Frenchman Jacques de Vaucanson, explaining how his elaborate automatons, most notably a mechanical flute player and a mechanical duck apparently capable of eating and defecating, fascinated onlookers throughout Europe. She then moves to Wolfgang von Kempelen's chess-playing machine, constructed to look like a Turkish gentleman and capable of beating virtually any chess player in the 18th century, and Thomas Alva Edison's unsuccessful attempt to capture the American toy market by incorporating a version of his phonograph into the first talking doll. In her fourth chapter, Wood switches her attention from machines that look like humans to humans who look like machines. To wit, the Doll family: four midgets who toured with Ringling Brothers' Circus and appeared in The Wizard of Oz, in addition to other lesser known Hollywood productions. Some audiences refused to believe the Dolls were alive, assuming instead that they were sophisticated toys. Wood's anecdotes are delightful, though the book as a whole feels somewhat repetitive and short on analysis. She frequently reminds readers that these historical vignettes show the continuous struggle to determine what makes us human, but that's about as far as her commentary goes.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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Embodying the confusions between what is "lifelike" and what is alive, robots have always held an anxious fascination. When eighteenth-century physicians described the body as a complex piece of machinery, the stage was set for inventors like Jacques de Vaucanson, who thrilled Paris with a flute-playing android, and Wolfgang von Kempelen, whose chess-playing automaton took on the best players of its time. Deftly balancing historical detail with provocative meditations on the reception accorded such marvels, Wood then traces the development of subsequent imitations of life, such as the talking doll designed by Thomas Edison and the magic-filled films of Georges Méliès. Her contention that in the twentieth century human freaks came to seem more uncanny than machines may not entirely persuade, but the exotic particulars—especially those pertaining to a group of circus midgets called the Doll Family—more than make up for this inconsistency.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
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