Monday, 5 October 2015

Machine Man by Max Barry

Machine Man is okay. It's entertaining, moves along sharply, and definitely leans more towards the action than the ideas. That's a pity, in some ways, because the ideas it raises are provocative, and I would have enjoyed more thought about them. Ah well. That is not this book. 

There were two things that struck me about this book, both of which weren't things I hold against it, exactly, but were jarring enough that they did pull me out of it. First is the names. They're cutesy, the kind of names that approach Johnny Goodboy as a level of anviliciousness. The main character, who is more than delighted to replace his body with artificial limbs, has the last name Neuman. His love interest is a prosthetist obsessed with his legs - Lola Shanks. The evil corporate bitch is Cassandra Cautery.

They're cute, sure, but I found it more the kind of cute that disrupts the narrative rather than adding to it. One of those moments where it feels like the author wants to be patted on the head because they've been so clever.

The other thing was the voice of the main character, who is obsessed with his scientific work, doesn't get human relationships, and it's never said but perhaps implied he might be somewhere on the autism spectrum. That was not the problem. The problem was that his voice was EXACTLY like that of the main character in The Rosie Project. Is there really only one way to write detail-obsessed men who don't get these icky things called emotions?

So, this book is about a scientist who accidentally cuts his leg off in a lab accident. He starts to build himself a newer, better prosthetic to replace the terrible ones commercially available, but then realizes that this would really work better if he could replace both legs. And fingers? I mean, aren't there better ways to do those?

His company is delighted - think all the money you could make if you sold these things as upgrades for healthy people, as opposed to that niche market of those who have had things amputated? They give him all the research assistants he could want, who quickly start going into things like enhanced contacts, and ways to turn off nasty emotions like guilt.

There's this obvious pdystopian undertone, but the main character is so utilitarian that he usually only has one second of "is that really what we should be doing?" and then is able to convince himself that you should. With no character to stand in opposition and register actual developed thoughts, we lose what could be a fascinating debate. Instead, thought is truncated.

Also, there are way too many people in this book far too happy to get rid of the nasty parts of their bodies and replace them with cleaner machine ones, and without someone there who feels actually attached to their physicality and able to argue it coherently, it remains a background to the action.

Which is fine. This is not a book with deep moral thoughts about bodily integrity and at what point humanity is invested in the physical, and would it be possible to imagine a humanity outside the body. It's a pity, because those ideas are sort of there, floating around the edges. They're just never really allowed to take centre stage.

So, it's entertaining. But I'm not in love with it.

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