#275 – Machine Man by Max Barry

It wasn’t until I was halfway through this book that I realized I had read another book by the same author: Jennifer Government. Once I realized that something just clicked for me. Despite being written eight years apart, there is that unmistakable sense of satirical edge to both works, and a style I can only describe as quasi-cyberpunk.

I say quasi because, well, I can’t in good faith call it cyberpunk. Even though the settings of both books are in the future and are dystopic in nature (Jennifer Government is set in a world where corporations are so much a part of our lives that people change their last names to match their company) there is nevertheless a lightness of prose and a sense of positivity to them that isn’t found in cyberpunk by design. Black humor with a silver lining, perhaps?

You could call it a tonal mismatch, or argue that the juxtaposition of Max Berry’s light tone with such dysfunctional settings heightens the satire, but I think there is something simpler at play. I think that, perhaps, while Max writes about flawed worlds and horrible out-of-control scenarios, he still believes in people, even when those people are equally flawed.

And flawed is at the core of Machine Man’s protagonist, Dr. Charles Neumann. Neumann is a mechanical engineer with a socially detached personality similar to someone like Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory. He is someone who lives only for solving problems. And that problem very quickly becomes the loss of his leg.

For a while we have a very real and introspective look at someone coping with this situation, and the dissatisfaction felt when trying to adapt to living with a prosthetic. But, being a genius engineer, he soon starts thinking about how he can make his legs better.

As stated earlier, Max Barry’s style is satirical, and striving for something better is the central theme of this book. Even the company he works for is called Better Futures. The story is, ultimately, looking at the dangers of progress run amok, but at the same time it is not a “science should not meddle in God’s domain” warning. If anything is very much pro-science and pro-progress.

The real danger is removing ethics from the equation.

Dr. Neumann is the sort of person who start off seeing emotions as things that get in the way, and that’s further complicated by his physical therapist, Lola Shanks, who he ends up developing feelings for, and vice versa. Lola, fortunately, is more complex than a simple Florence Nightingale figure of fixation for Dr. Neumann. She carries her own personal baggage that informs her character and that backstory make this unlikely pairing more understandable.

The main antagonist is a middle manager for Better Future named Cassandra Cautery, who would fit right in with the staff at Omni Consumer Products in Robocop. The CEO of Better Futures is simply known as The Manager, and I suspect anyone who has worked for a large corporation will appreciate the humor behind giving him that name, not only making him non-descript, but easily replaceable and interchangeable.

Ultimately, however, the story is about that incremental strive for progress and what people might be willing to sacrifice in order to be “better.” The leg Neumann designs is so much better than his old one that he finds his real leg is actually getting in the way. One look at the book’s cover lets you know what happens next.

This mentality has unforeseen consequences, both on his fellow researchers and on the management of the company, who soon see this opportunity as a chance to send Better Futures into a more aggressive marketing direction. We see this both in the to-be-expected trope of military hardware, but also from a vanity or wellbeing perspective as well.

I won’t go into the details of this progress (or descent, depending on your point of view) because that journey is part of what makes the book fun—watching how things start off being about getting back what you lost, to finding room for improvement everywhere you look.

In looking over reviews for this book, I was surprised to find how polarizing reactions seemed to be. While overall it has a high score on Goodreads (3.7/5), and he has a number of fanboys and fangirls, the people who didn’t like it really didn’t like it. I’m personally closer to the fanboy camp on this one. Despite the detached intellectual nature of the protagonist, the fact we see everything from his perspective in first person allows us understand him, and even get on board with him.

You could look at this as an episode of Black Mirror in print form, but I don’t see this as nearly as bleak. Which is weird, because I really should. I think this story reinforces the idea that what constitutes a happy ending really depends on your personal values, as well as your point of view. I chose to see the ending of Machine Man as one filled with possibilities.

0 comments on “#275 – Machine Man by Max BarryAdd yours →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Verified by MonsterInsights