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.

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February 2012

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