BOILERPLATE: HISTORY'S MECHANICAL MARVEL
Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In 1983, Wood Allen made the film Zelig, in which the actor/director starred in the title role as a man who had an uncanny ability to be in important places at important times and blend in with the people around him. Three years later, Winston Groom allowed his title character to do the same in his novel (and later film) Forrest Gump. In Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel, Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett do the same thing with their titular robot, placing it at important junctions in history from its debut at the World's Columbian Exposition on May 23, 1893 until its disappearance on October 7, 1918.
Although there is a narrative which runs throughout this coffee table book, it is almost secondary to the recreation of numerous styles of photographs taken over the years with Boilerplate lovingly inserted into them, either through the wonders of photo manipulation or by the creation of miniature scenes with an articulated Boilerplate inserted into them. In this way, Guinan and Bennett have chronicled Boilerplate in areas as disparate as the Klondike, where it served as a gold miner in the late 1890s to the Russo-Japanese War.
One of the amazing things about Guinan and Bennett's work is that the existence of Boilerplate is easy to accept and a hidden treat of history. However, the fact that the machine was at so many of the pivotal points of history during the quarter-century between its creation and disappearance, especially given the geographic distance between the places, is a little hard on the suspension of disbelief. Guinana and Bennett do provide a detailed timeline of Boilerplate's travels in an attempt to assuage this difficulty. At the same time, Boilerplate almost provides a history lesson of this period about which many of the book's readers may be ignorant.
In discussing the events of the 1890s and early twentieth century, Guinan and Bennett are not attempting to be objective observers. Instead, they are placing their creation on one side or the other in a variety of conflicts and events and allowing the prevailing point of view drive their narrative. This means that Boilerplate, and Archibald Campion, were firmly on the side of the Europeans during the Boxer Rebellion and found themselves with T. E. Lawrence in Arabia. Boilerplate's appearance at these and other events doesn't substantially effect any of the outcomes, but the beauty is the skill with which it is inserted, both narratively and photographically.
Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel is a remarkable achievement and a thoroughly fun book. The amount of detail Guinan and Bennett have put into the book means that even after having read the book, a person can go back and re-read portions or study the images and find details missed on previous passes through the work. The book takes many of the common tropes of steampunk and presents them in an interesting, different, and very visual manner which will impress any who are interested in the genre.
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