Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Holy Machine

Now, this one, The Holy Machine, by UK social worker and lecturer Chris Beckett, didn't at all go where I expected.

Set in a future in which nation states have collapsed into religious barbarism, the novel is centred on George, a citizen of the city-state of Illyria, the sole refuge for rationalism in the world. Unsuccessful with women, and still living with his virtual reality-obsessed mother, George feels thoroughly disconnected from his secular haven. Lonely, he turns to Lucy, an android sex worker, and slowly discerns that her artificial mind is developing complexities and an awareness that is prohibited by Illyria's authorities. To avoid her shutdown, George flees the city with Lucy, hoping to pass her off as human in the superstitious Outlands.

What surprised me about this novel was how, except for a few dalliances, it spends relatively little time considering either sentient machines or the eponymous Holy Machine. The latter, in particular, is dealt with quite cursorily, and doesn't at all live up to its thematic promise. Instead, and it's not at all unwelcome, the novel focuses on Illyria's hardline anti-religious stance, and on the relationship between George and his mother.

Rather than being a secular paradise, Beckett is keen to show Illyria spiralling toward the same intolerance that it detests in the surrounding Outlands. It may have started as the last best hope in a world self-harmingly shedding rationalism, but Illyria's leaders are shown to enforce a conformity that undercuts the progressive spirit in which it was established. I read this as Beckett responding to the earnest rejection of religion by the so-called New Atheist movement. Although I can understand this - I, too, think Dawkins is often a dick - I found myself tut-tutting at Beckett's throwing out of the baby with the bathwater. And it's not helped by Beckett soft-pedalling at times in the Outlands. But it was still good, and pleasing, to be challenged this way.

The sections that deal with George and his mother are much more unexpected. At first she just seems to be a peripheral character, present only as a placeholder to emphasise the growing disconnection between people in Illyria. But as the novel continues, her descent into a cosy, virtual reality infancy appears to be Beckett articulating fears about our latter-day absorption by virtual worlds and social media. (Fears that I'm sure he'd think I'd personally realised!) I actually found this a very interesting and satisfying theme, and Beckett explores it to a surprisingly moving conclusion.

All that said, the juggling of these two major themes with infrequent forays into machine sentience is unequal to say the least. Beckett doesn't entirely neglect the latter, but I was left thinking that he didn't give it its dues. He clearly thinks that it's interesting, and has a few really good scenes in which he explores it, but then he largely drops it for most of the novel. It might actually have been better if he didn't have artificial intelligence in the novel at all, and instead stuck with his two major themes. That could definitely have worked fine, and it might have avoided the somewhat unsatisfying mix in the finished novel.

However, overall, I enjoyed The Holy Machine. Largely because Beckett took me places I'd not been expecting. But I just wish he'd given AI, and Lucy, the attention they deserved. And he really did miss a trick with the Holy Machine itself. But there's always his next novel ...

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