The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett

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The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Becky Hazlett
Reviewed by Becky Hazlett
Summary: Summary: The Holy Machine, depicts a future in which science and religion are the basis for two completely separate and opposed societies. Beckett explores this dichotomy through the relationship between a man and a robot that appears to be more than the sum of its parts. An interesting idea but not quite living up to the potential.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: July 2010
Publisher: Corvus
ISBN: 978-1848874626

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In the near future, only Illyria city stands for science, technology and progress in a world dominated by religious fundamentalism of every faith (and then some). The city was founded as a haven for those intellectuals not possessing any such religious convictions, who advocated reason and logic instead and were persecuted for their 'blasphemies' in the early stages of the upheaval. George Simling, the introvert protagonist and second-generation Illyrian, falls in love with a beautiful woman called Lucy. Unfortunately, however, Lucy is actually a syntec, a robot ASPU: Advanced Sensory Pleasure Unit, a prostitute. As George obsessively visits her, he realises that she is starting to develop a level of consciousness and self-awareness outside of her programming. Lucy is due for a routine mind-wipe so George decides to flee with her to the technophobic outlands in order to save this newly discovered consciousness.

Beckett brings many familiar sci-fi concepts into play here such as Senspace, a virtual reality world that people escape into at leisure and robots known as vehicles that people can virtually inhabit in the real world (he probably uses that term because avatar and surrogate were already taken). Beckett borrows from George Orwell's 1984 most notably with his own version of the thought police, The O3: Office of Order and Objectivity. It is apparent very early on that Illyria is not quite as liberal as you might suppose and that in its own way it is getting to be every bit as narrow-minded and bigoted as the surrounding lands. Understandably, certain Illyrians are dissatisfied with this society and have a feeling that they are missing something, a spiritual dimension. It seems somewhat simplistic to contrast the material and immaterial, science and faith and then conclude that they work best together rather than in isolation, though the point is eloquently discussed in the latter part of the novel.

Beckett doesn't really dwell on the details of a dystopian future, he is more concerned with his characters. As the novel takes us away from Illyria, George's introspection becomes the focus. His plan of escape wasn't the best laid and the plot fizzles out a bit, becoming rather episodic and I'm not entirely convinced by it, but, luckily the sub-plot involving George's mother Ruth's increasing dependence on Senspace is far more engaging. And, Beckett does draw everything together for the concluding chapters.

Lucy's awakening to consciousness is particularly well handled. It's not BAMMM! She suddenly understands everything (as might be the case in a film)! It is a very gradual process of discovery as she attempts to work around her programming- sometimes not very successfully to dangerous and comic effect. She is like an infant, continually questioning and the book explores the difficulty of relating to a machine, alien to us in every way. There are a couple of extracts in the book told from Lucy's point of view, as a series of instructions she receives from her programming, which are very effective.

This is the debut novel from a writer who is known for short stories and I can't help but think that 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. Beckett has potential but he's nowhere near in the same league as Orwell yet.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Another novel which deals with robots attaining consciousness and the consequences of building such life-like machines isDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. I would also encourage anybody who hasn't read George Orwell's 1984 to do so as there are so many references to it in popular culture. You might also enjoy Beneath the World, A Sea by Chris Beckett.

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