Beckett's Dark Eden, a recently released dark, somewhat new-weirdy science fiction dystopia was beautiful, thought-provoking, powerful, intelligent, and wonderful.  So, as I said at the end of that review, I came back to Chris Beckett for more; and more, at the moment, means The Holy Machine. This is another novel in the same mode, whilst at the same time being different; hitting the notes of Gibsonian cyberpunk and Tanith Lee's Silver Metal Lover; The Holy Machine is a romance novel, a science fiction novel, and most of all, a meditation on humanity, the soul, and religion, and a powerful one at that.

The Holy Machine, like Dark Eden, has a plot in which a doctrinaire society - Illyria, whose doctrine is Reason, in a world where religious extremism has taken over everywhere else - eats itself from the inside out, evolving and changing; and following, in the first person, a character, in this case George, who finds himself limited by the society.  The thing about Illyria is that it is so single-mindedly scientific, and this is where the philosophical aspects of The Holy Machine starts to come in; discussion about the importance, or even vitality, of faith and religion to society (an explicit discussion of this happens towards the novel's end), what belief and faith actually are (especially with regard to faith in reason), and most central of all, the nature of the soul.  In common with Silver Metal Lover, the main point of comparison for this novel, Beckett has his protagonist fall in love with a sophisticated machine designed for pleasure, and that machine develop self-awareness; there are significant differences, not least in how Beckett handles that development and the nature of the intelligence (fantastically, by the way) but also in the scale of The Holy Machine: no one is changed by George's actions other than George, really, and he never sets out to make changes.  The plot is simple and well-written, with enough of an emotional punch and viscerally powerful descriptions of the darker moments in the story (and the semi-dehumanisation undergone by George during one sequence) to balance out the incredibly intricate and thoughtful speculations and keep the story moving.

The characters of The Holy Machine are also excellent.  George isn't the typical Campbellian emotionless superman, nor Asimov and Clarke's areligious scientist who needs nothing more than science; George has a yearning for more, beautifully and powerfully portrayed especially in his inability to articulate it, lacking a vocabulary to do so, and his unwillingness to let go of his rationality when he finds it.  George is a damaged, interesting character, thoughtfully portrayed, and incredibly human; his motivations are honest, his feelings universally understandable, his trials and tribulations complex but ones we can empathise with, and even when we think his decisions abhorrent, we can understand from where he is coming.  Similarly his mother, Ruth, who has withdrawn increasingly into SenSpace, essentially a full-sensory VR; having escaped from religious fanaticism and persecution to Illyria, she wants safety from the mob and the religious, and increasingly withdraws seeking it; her changing attitude is powerfully portrayed, and whilst we sympathise less with her - in part because unlike George we only ever see her through George's eyes or in the third person - it isn't as strong a connection as with George, but it's strong enough to let events over the course of the novel have real impact.

Like Dark Eden, The Holy Machine is not an easy, simple or uncomplicated book.  At the same time, Beckett hasn't given us here a series of meditations on philosophical issues or allowed the story to become subordinated to the intellectual side; instead, The Holy Machine has both work in a symbiotic relationship, and without either, this would be a much poorer book, and that would be a great loss to us all.  This is one of the most thoughtful and intelligent novels I have read in a very long time, and I can't recommend The Holy Machine enough.
I came to Dark Eden with high expectations, after an extract posted by my favourite book-blogger (The Speculative Scotsman) and a very favourable and thoughtful review in that not-entirely-genre-friendly (although nor is it hostile to genre fiction) publication, The Guardian.  Chris Beckett's "superior piece of theologically nuanced science fiction" instantly attracted my attention, and looking at the beautiful, simple cover of the novel (the best depiction of a slake-moth that isn't meant to be a slake-moth I've ever seen, incidentally) simply confirmed that this was a book I ought to read... and I am seriosuly glad that I did.

The plot is a complex, thoughtful and brilliant piece of creation all on its own.  Dark Eden takes place on the planet Eden, populated by the five hundred person family, all descended from the same couple (and so various deformities - harelips, or batfaces; and deformities of the feet, or clawfoot - are relatively common); and that population lives in hope that one day, they'll be rescued and returned to Earth - though, having forgotten much in the century and a half since the original couple arrived, they don't understand things like Rayed Yo, Lecky-Trickity and Telly Vision.  The plot of the novel sees one member of the Family, John Redlantern, breaking away from the traditions of the family and trying something new; it's a social novel, seen through a number of characters' first-person eyes including John himself, and we see the increasingly stakes-raising actions of John as he rebels against the strictures of a society that stifles innovation and is slowly strangling itself.  The extent of his rebellion increases over the course of the novel, and Beckett makes the relatively slow plot engrossing and engaging in its development and thoughtful building up - and with the underlying theories of history behind it.

The characters are also well-written and interesting; Dark Eden has a population that is, of course, alien and yet akin to us, descended from a population in our future.  They are constrained by the strange dystopia that is the planet of Eden, and the static (if not degenerating) society of the Family); and that makes them brilliant, combined with the quality of their writing.  John Redlantern is well-written as an introverted, restless young man; he's not a hero - he does bad as well as good, and he can make mistakes, endangering others; he also doesn't necessarily think consequences through.  But he is an interesting and sympathetic character; an impulsive, sometimes-unwise young man who is driven to change things for what he sees as the best.  Tina Spikehair, another of our major characters, is an outside observer of John's actions: a young woman of about the same age, at first she's drawn to John by his impulsiveness, and it's mostly through her we see his very mixed character, because she's the one who best of all gives us insight into his flaws as they're expressed to her.  In fact, Tina is a thoughtful and interesting character in her own right; not a visionary like John, but instead more of a character who can both see the flaws of the Family and with her feet on the ground.  The rest of the cast are slightly less fleshed-out, but are still well-written; we see some fantastic characterisation, especially when they're written from a first-person perspective, but less attention is paid to them and their motives.  The focus is very much on John but over the course of the rest of the novel, the entire cast is really fantastically portrayed as thoughtful and interesting.

In the end, Dark Eden is a fascinating, intellectual and ground-breaking novel, not only well-written and with a good cast but immersed in its world and in the ideas that make up that world; this is deeply thought-provoking science-fiction, and very much worth the read. I'll definitely be back with Chris Beckett for more!


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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