Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

"The Holy Machine" by Chris Beckett (Corvus, 2011)

SF, first published in 2004. George, a twenty-something translator, and his mother Ruth live in Illyria, a place in the Balkans where science believers live to escape the religious fundamentalism that dominates the world. Houses have domestic robots and SenSpace devices (providing all-senses VR), yet have hard-drives in TV boxes. "Vehicles" are lifelike robots - avatars of people in SenSpace devices. Outside there are robot police and robot prostitutes (Chapter 17 is a robot-PoV of an encounter with a human). Lucy is the robot prostitute he visits - she's SE (self-evolving). The country needs guest-workers, who riot and get shot, so Illyria is under threat from other countries and from terrorism.

He's a virgin, born in Illyria. He meets cute Marija just as Illyria's new leader is introducing laws to enforce scientific thinking. He arranges a meeting with a terrorist organisation, "the Army of the Human Spirit". It's unclear why he takes such a big risk.

He emigrates illegally with Lucy (couldn't he buy her?). Meanwhile Ruth decides to be permanently hooked into the VR world. Lucy's identity is revealed (partly his fault) and she's set on fire. Mysteriously, they let him drive away. He continues wandering, feeling guilty about Lucy. He's puzzled by religion ("I had noticed that geography was the main determinant of religious belief", p.252). A Holy War breaks out. By chance he meets Marija in Montenegro, leaves after a few hours in search of "The Holy Machine", a preacher which turns out to be Lucy - damaged, but able to deliver sermons suggesting that robots, free of the limitations of biology, have a greater capacity for spiritualism. She dies giving a public sermon. Parts of her become sacred relics. Illyria reaches peace with its enemies, both external and internal, so George returns. Ruth's had enough of VR life. Her Vehicle collects her ailing body and buries it alive (a neat idea). Marija returns.

There are ironies and parallels - a shy man prefers robots to women. He falls in love with a robot, hoping to teach her social skills. She begins to acquire self-conciousness, becoming more human, while Ruth becomes more virtual. Both sort of commit suicide. But I was disappointed by the novel. I expected the coincidences to be revealed as part of a plan. I thought that he might have been in VR all the time. The dreams are too convenient. Why introduce a breakthrough as big as "Discontinuous Motion" then barely use it? I much prefer The Turing Test.

Typo (I think) on p.227 - "Aren't you going back that lovely home of yours?"

Other reviews

  • Michael Levy (There are very few sureties in The Holy Machine. George, Lucy, Ruth and Marija all undergo profound changes, some of them quite unpleasant, but, by the end of this very fine novel, each character has achieved some measure of both agency and joy.)
  • Becky Hazlett (The Holy Machine is more like a long short story than a novel. It isn't detailed enough for me personally (does that sound Geeky?) and I think a great deal more could have been made of the subject matter, which is original in places. The book has some nice touches and is definitely worth reading, just I felt slightly unsatisfied.)
  • Nicholas Whyte (A couple of touches I liked: the Illyrian subversives meet under the cover of the "Mountain Club" which sounds rather like the "Sierra Club" in the infamous role-playing game "Paranoia". Lucy the robot's gaffes as she tries to be human are reminiscent of the Buffy-bot in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I did feel that Beckett over-egged the pudding at one or two points: perhaps it's believable that George has never been kissed before he encounters Lucy, but it seems most implausible that his conception was the only sexual act of his mother's life. But in general, this is an interesting tale well told in Beckett's sparse prose)
  • Gavin Pugh (Highly recommended for those that think that science fiction can't be literature or literature can't be science fiction as well as to anyone that wonders what the future of humanity could hold. )

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