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Review of Machine Man by

Machine Man

by Max Barry

3 out of 5 stars ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Reviewed .

Shelved under

Another, albeit much more recent, addition to my to-read shelf courtesy of io9, Machine Man is sardonic exploration of the symbiotic relationship between humans and technology. I happened to see a copy on the library’s “New Books” shelf, so I took the opportunity and grabbed it. Unlike Fragment, Machine Man seems a little more plausible, which makes it much scarier. Max Barry’s main character isn’t someone with whom everyone will identify—he’s rather asocial and unable to empathize—but I think we share more in common with him than we would care to admit. In general, I had a very visceral, conflicted reaction to the ideas and questions raised by Machine Man, and that went a long way to helping with an otherwise mediocre plot.

I wear a prosthesis: I wear glasses. It’s a device I attach to my body to correct for a loss of function. Although not as invasive as contact lenses or, say, an entire prosthetic limb, my prosthesis is still a sign of disability and a significant part of my identity. I have resisted getting contacts both because I’m not comfortable with the idea of slipping something against my eye, and because I just don’t want them: “I wear glasses” is a core attribute of how I see myself. I’ve had the same pair of frames since grade 8; they are somewhat worse for wear, but I am going to keep them for as long as possible, because they are a part of me.

Now, the onset of my vision problems (near-sightedness) was gradual. I had trouble seeing the blackboard from a distance; I had trouble reading text if it was a certain distance from my face; suddenly people looked blurry if they weren’t close to me. (I don’t know my “20” rating, but my eyes are pretty weak. Other people try my prescription and go, “whoa”.) And glasses are a fairly advanced and stable technology, as far as prosthetics go: one trip to the optometrist, and I could see again. It’s miraculous, in a way. So unlike Charles Neumann’s accident in Machine Man, my experience wasn’t sudden and traumatic. Charles chooses to cope with the loss of his leg in a very original way: he builds a better leg. Not just “better” than the prosthesis, but a leg that is better than human legs. Because we can do that now. Our legs could have WiFi!

Many people do not have any prostheses (although, at least in developed countries, I feel like that number is shrinking, depending on how one defines prosthesis, as our technology advances). However, for those who don’t, how many are dependent on, say, a smartphone? That number is going up too. Barry begins to get us thinking about the relationship between humans and our technology with a simple event: Charles can’t find his phone. And he’s lost without it. The poignant part is that Charles doesn’t actually use his phone to make or receive calls—when this happens later in the book, he is puzzled by the sound his phone is making—he just depends on his phone to provide him with information, such as news. In fact, it’s this obsession with finding his phone that causes the inattention and results in the accident where he loses a leg.

I wouldn’t say I’m as desperate as Charles when I’m without my phone. I’m now accustomed to having a smartphone, so I would miss it, but it helps that I’m in class for several hours during the day and do not actually check it, except between classes or during a break. Nevertheless, I can certainly empathize with Charles’ discomfort when he does not have his phone: we become accustomed to using certain technologies as extensions of our minds and bodies, and when those technologies change or go missing, we struggle and flail before we adapt. Losing one’s phone is, for some people, like losing a limb.

There is really only one place to go after building a better leg, of course: build a matching leg. Charles realizes this quickly, and it is the start of a somewhat unsurprising slippery slope. This is where Machine Man becomes, for me, less interesting as a novel. None of the characters are quite real; to Barry’s credit they are dynamic people who grow and change, but I can’t shake the feeling that they are more like archetypes than individuals—most obviously, the CEO being called “the Manager” and being demonstrably an interchangeable cog in the corporate machine. (Austin Grossman provides a blurb for the back cover, and that’s so appropriate, because this novel’s style reminds me a lot of Soon I Will Be Invincible). The veil between the big ideas in Machine Man and the plot itself is just so thin that the very weight of those ideas overwhelms the story. Of course the company’s going to misuse Charles’ research! Of course Charles is going to become the company’s “property” in some way. Of course he’s eventually going to go on the run. There are very few surprises in Machine Man, at least in terms of the story.

So bear that in mind when I say that there are parts of this book I can’t shake off. It’s rather like my experience with The Dervish House, where I eventually decided to give it five stars because I could not stop thinking about it. Machine Man isn’t quite that good, but like McDonald, Barry discusses the choices we face as a society and as individuals that I feel are particularly relevant to us today. Although much of the technology in Machine Man is exaggerated, the spirit of Charles is very much something that is happening now, and our technology will get there soon. Already we must confront the use of performance-enhancing drugs in athletics, as well as decide which types of prosthesis convey an unfair advantage. The question usually becomes one of distinction: where do we draw that line between “fair” and “unfair”. How much assistance is just enough and how much is too much? Should we just care about replicating the human experience with a prosthetic limb, or should we, like Charles, perhaps think about augmenting and improving upon that experience?

This are all huge issues, and they aren’t, if you will forgive my turn of phrase, science fiction. Brain-computer interfaces are also an item of hot discussion these days, and as those improve, so too will our capabilities to augment ourselves cybernetically. All those jokes about being connected directly to the Internet? Those might not be jokes in a decade or two.

Personally, I find this terrifying.

That might sound weird coming from a self-confessed technology geek. I should clarify right away that terrifying does not inherently mean “bad”; I’m not saying that we “must stop this at all costs!” Of course, one of the reasons this change is so terrifying is precisely that we can’t halt it. Humans love to innovate, and if the idea and knowledge is there, we will build it. It is only a matter of time and resources.

So here’s the thing: I love technology, and I dislike biology. The fact that I’m a squishy bag of water freaks me out constantly: thinking about how fragile and necessarily ad hoc my respiratory and circulatory systems are, contemplating the various fluids and other things my body excretes, and of course, sex. Corporeal existence is weird and sometimes very inconvenient. So why aren’t I the first in line for mind uploading? Why don’t I want to wire myself for WiFi?

Despite my reservations about this whole sack of meat thing, I am equally weirded out by the idea of putting technological devices into that body. It might be a fear of the implantation itself, the surgery, but I think on a larger level it’s just that we use technology and love technology, but we can’t trust technology. I’ll give my body kudos: it is remarkably resilient. It regenerates itself constantly; its capacity for healing is amazing, and it is in many ways very redundant. Simply put, we still can’t really design a “better body”. We might be able to design better parts, but the execution remains problematic.

All of this speaks from a specific socialized viewpoint. The next generation, or the generation after that, might view me as an outmoded conservative, even as they are downloading music directly into their cortices. But I want to illustrate why Machine Man strikes a chord with me: these choices might not be imminent yet, but they are lurking beneath the surface of our society. We are entering a period of sustained tension between biology and technology, and it will be interesting to see how we navigate that.

The actual experience of sitting down and reading this book was extremely moving—and perhaps, in a way, the predictability of the plot freed me up cognitively to consider the implications of Charles’ radical self-modification agenda. I have probably spent more time ruminating on these ideas than discussing the novel itself. That happens. Usually it happens because the novel broaches these ideas, and I get so carried away with them that it eclipses the story itself. That’s the case here: Machine Man was entertaining, but its substance is nothing compared to its subtext. Great novels manage to include both of these elements in abundance; managing one out of two is still good, especially when it’s a subtext like this. Machine Man is not an amazing book, but it is a product of a stunning imagination and fruitful food for thought.


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