A few weeks ago I wrote a review of the new 3rDegree album, Ones and Zeroes Volume 1, which is about great leaps forward in life extension technology, overseen by a powerful corporation, that ultimate results in the uploading of human consciousness into a computer. I have no idea of the guys in the bad are familiar with Max Barry’s Machine Man, but they really ought to talk.
Two key refrains from Ones and Zeroes kept running through my head while reading Machine Man. One is the plea, “tell me what it means to be human?” The other is the observation that “life is needing more.” Good science fiction, of course, deals squarely with “what it means to be human” and Barry does just that in Machine Man.
Dr. Charles Neumann – Charlie to those lesser beings he allows to get within speaking distance – is a research engineer at Better Future, the kind of soulless, mega corporation that would have to have a name like that (it reminds me, over and over, of Veridian Dynamics from the all-too-short-lived series Better Off Ted). One day he loses a lower leg in an industrial accident. He gets a prosthetic leg, but isn’t much taken with it (he’s much more taken with the protheticist, Lola). As an engineer is apt to do he starts tinkering, building a better fake leg. So good, in fact, that he decides he’s really being held back by his other “good” leg. So off it comes.
Rather than being locked away in an asylum or left penniless and unemployed because of his antics, Better Future sees Charlie as a visionary, someone who can open up a whole new market for them selling medical products to people who aren’t actually sick. It’s a neat setup, but one that only really works because of a decision Barry makes that is both fascinating and limiting.
Machine Man is told entirely from Charlie’s point of view. We are in his head (or whatever passes for his head) from beginning to end. This works really well in putting us inside the mind of someone who comes up with a nice justification for a desperate act and follows that down the rabbit hole. On the other hand, it means we’re stuck with Charlie. In addition to being kind of a dick (we will tell you what’s wrong with everything, including you), Charlie is incredibly naive. He never thinks twice about the broader problems that Better Future’s plans may cause – indeed, he frequently protests that he only ever wanted to build parts for himself and fuck anybody else. That allows Better Future to have a hold over Charlie that a more thoughtful character would be able to shake. It’s not fatal to the book, but it is kind of aggravating.
To Barry’s credit, the devotion to Charlie’s POV means there are no bits of the narrative that devolve into a pro/con argument about Charlie’s augmentation. The argument is there, but it’s more subtle and comes from his interactions with Lola and the fact that we can’t get away from his very selfish and limited view of the world. It’s argument by example, rather than rhetoric, and works pretty well.
Which makes Machine Man seem like a dour trek. In fact, it’s very funny. Darkly funny, but still. The opening chapter, in which Charlie’s resolve to find his cell phone (without which he’d be lost) leads to the loss of his leg, is hilarious. It gets less so the further things go, but Barry never lets go of the fact that he’s telling a story that is absurd and getting more so the longer it goes on.
It’s not perfect. It’s just not believable that the goings on in Charlie’s lab – his army of assistants undergo quit the transformation – could have stayed contained within Better Future in the YouTube age. Someone would have talked or tweeted or Instagrammed and all hell would have broken loose. Barry gets away with a setting that’s almost hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. And it goes on a bit too long, with the emotional punch of a potential ending giving way to a happier conclusion.
Nevertheless, it’s a good read. One that’s bound to put music in your head, whether it’s this: