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Book Review: Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett

# Genre: Steampunk, Alternate History
# Hardcover: 168 pages
# Publisher: Abrams Image
# Publication Date: October 1, 2009
# ISBN-10: 0810989506
# ISBN-13: 978-0810989504
# Book Website
# Author Website: Big Red Hair

In Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel Eisner Award nominated author/illustrators Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett create a fiction and present it as fact. Building on the true history of nineteenth century robots, Guinan and Bennett tell the story of Boilerplate, the first successful anthropomorphic robot, whose history had been lost.

The story is collected into a large, full-color book that reflects the popular non-fiction Eyewitness series of science books and other DK books in layout and design. Like them, there are many images attached to short paragraphs of text explaining in quick and easy fashion the importance/historical relevance of the image. Coupled with the primary text, the entire story of Archibald Campion’s creation is presented in the context of world history from 1893-1917.

Created by Campion in order to replace the human in the arena of war, Guinan and Bennett explain how in and age of technological and scientific wonder, Campion’s “marvel” went unremarked. Yet though Campion’s automaton did not immediately proliferate, Boilerplate was to go on to play a significant part in many of the early twentieth century’s most important historic events until its disappearance in 1917. Teddy Roosevelt, Nikola Tesla, The Alaskan Gold Rush, Pancho Villa, The Philippine-American War, the Boxer Rebellion and World War I are all a part of the life of Boilerplate.

Boilerplate himself lacks any real character. In truth, the protagonist of the story is primarily his creator Archibald Campion and his suffragist sister Lily. Beyond that, history itself is the primary motivator of the story. And a tumultuous time it was. Much happened in the time between the Civil War and World War I that changed both the American psyche and the way the world relates to each other.

Guinan and Bennett’s story reads like it is real. Using period images tweaked to include Boilerplate, the authors give their fiction the air of authenticity. Though at times the image modification is unsubtle, for the most part the iconic images look real.

The text, too, feels authentic, though at times the writers break out of character. Yet the text reads like an Eyewitness book, factual yet appealing in content. Using what I suspect are real quotes from famous people of the period, the authors modify them just slightly to include the existence of Boilerplate, doing with the text as they did with the imagery to give the book an authentic feel.

Though Guinan and Bennett’s political opinions are not well-hidden, they are not in your face about it either. Modern liberals will agree with some of their disappointments concerning technological development, war and the effects of the New Deal, and everyone will agree with their positive portrayal of the suffragist movement and labor laws concerning children. So while the reader will likely get a sense of Guinan’s and Bennett’s politics, it does not detract from the story.

It is also hard to believe that with so many pictures and iconography that shows Boilerplate that its history would be “lost” as the authors claim. Though I guess it should be no harder to believe than unicorns or warp drive, I admit to having had a little trouble swallowing it with the mounting evidence that Guinan and Bennett present. Once I let myself think of the work as an alternate history’s work of nonfiction I was able to enjoy the book for the piece of entertainment it is.

The clever imagery and text of Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel really draw you in. Readers of steampunk will likely love this story, but I think it will also have broad appeal to those interested in popular history, design and layout, and smart but unusual presentations of story.