Boilerplate is an ambitious book, rich with detail that makes the story feel about as real as anything you can get from a history book. Guinan and Bennett have constructed analternate history which lies so close to the real thing that I promise you you’ll be checking Google and Wikipedia to see if what they’re saying is true or not. I’m still not entirely sure that Boilerplate, the robot, didn’t exist. He appears, Zelig-like, in photo after photo with historical figures and yet blends into the background as if he was nothing very much out of the ordinary. The main reason for the brilliance of this book is the deft way the visuals are handled. The text itself is a bit dry, though it does have a history-book feel to it which works well under the circumstances. If pastiche was the intention, then it’s well done.
But the book isn’t just a wonderful fantasy. Folded into the history is a pointed commentary on subjects which are still pertinent a century later. Boilerplate is a mute witness to to early movements for workers’ and women’s rights. It fights alongside the Buffalo Soldiers and sees action in the Philippine-American War, Spanish-American War and WWI, fighting both in the trenches and with T. E. Lawrence, in Arabia. While the narrative never becomes preachy, only a fairly obtuse reader could fail to understand the point of history as it’s presented here. This is not a book likely to appeal to people whose beliefs run to the right of the political spectrum.
“Robot”, a word not in existence when Boilerplate itself was supposed to have been created, derives from a word that means “forced labor.” (Karel Capek, R.U.R., 1920) Even the name, “Boilerplate” suggests a kind of non-existence, something that only serves as a model for the real thing. Created as a replacement for soldiers, Boilerplate is intended to save lives in time of war. Sadly, what he foreshadows is mechanized warfare, increasingly removed from human concerns. There’s a nice tension between our knowledge of what Boilerplate represents, and his thoroughly anthropomorphized features — his human form and a face that registers perpetual surprise, between his utter lack of personality and the concern his creator feels for him as he strides into battle.
The questions raised by this book aren’t easy ones, but they’re raised in a way that does allow us to choose the level on which we read. Boilerplate is still a ripping fantasy adventure.