Machine Man by Max Barry
I don’t write many reviews. I read 1-2 books a week and run a bookshop 6-7 days a week, so my time is somewhat limited. However, I’m hoping to write a lot more reviews as our business settles into Melbourne. Normally I read nonfiction, but recently three novels found their way into my list: The Book of Rachel by Leslie Cannold, Glissando by David Musgrave and Machine Man by Max Barry. They were all excellent and I feel compelled to write about each of them, but I’m starting with Machine Man because the main character and I share significant notions about our bodies.
Twenty years ago I had an accident. I was in the gym. I went to the gym almost every day. I was strong and fit. I used to squat with hundreds of pounds on the bar resting on my shoulders. That fateful day I was doing just that when a fellow gym user squeezed past me in the cramped London gym and clipped the bar with his arm as he went past. The heavy bar rotated as I lifted up from the squat position and my spine simply unzipped itself. I heard an explosion, though no one else did. Others saw me lower the bar slowly and quietly to the safety cage. The pain filled my skin and it mostly didn’t leave for many months. I didn’t walk properly for quite some time and couldn’t do things like: sleep properly, hold a coffee cup or wash myself. Any movement I made turned ‘me’ into pain. Several years later I stopped seeing osteopaths and physios and was mostly back to normal as long as I didn’t get so strong that the muscular spasms caused me problems.
My plastic brain (on which there’s great info to be had in Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain) had taught my muscles to spasm for a whole host of reasons that I’m still learning about even now. Every day since this life changing moment, one thing has echoed like a klaxon in my mind: Why in the name of all that is sane and rational can’t I have a new back? This ‘intelligently designed’ meat-version is so very, very stupid. So you could say I ‘understand’ Charlie Neumann, the person through whom the story of Machine Man unfolds. Charlie is a man who finds the limitations of modern medical responses to physical recovery too primitive and even inhumane. Unfortunately for me, but fortunately for the reader of Barry’s book, Dr Neumann is far more brilliant than I.
The first thing to say about Machine Man is that it is laugh-out-loud funny. It is, in the words of my partner who hasn’t yet read it: “Shut up will you? I’m trying to read my book too.” The humour describes the ground between Neumann (the engineer/scientist with more than a touch of asperger’s about him) and the rest of the world. And by ‘the rest of the world’ I mean everything outside of his brain. The classic philosophical mind-body split is given a 21st century makeover here and describes how we may end up if Kurzweil’s singularity theory proves to be as prescient as many hope.
From the moment we meet Neumann, we know that his relationship with technology is a little more intense than for most of us. It’s clear, that for him, his biology is an impediment to being better — at everything that matters. Of course, living in the world and being human, for him, is not much more than being functional and efficient in tasks. There are people in his world however who drag him into the messy, uncomfortable and highly stimulating world of human social interaction. These come in the form of some of his lab assistants, his bosses, and the perfectly named Lola Shanks, the person assigned to fit and train him in the use of his hospital prosthesis. These two aspects of Neumann’s life are further embedded in that of big business, adding another layer of complexity to the mechanized perfection he seeks. Did I say big business? Make that huge business. Huge, though not faceless business, in a company part of town.
As Machine Man unfolds, Neumann, like any good engineer, wants to upgrade his initial prosthetic improvements. As anybody who has upgraded the software on their computer knows, upgrades come with quirks, bugs and learning curves. When the upgrades are connected to flesh, bone and nerve and have the ability to hurl you hundreds of feet into the air or kick through concrete walls, these become a little more … interesting. Especially when one such quirk appears to be the ‘wilfulness’ of the new component. The question mark that hangs over this possibility, as Neumann tries to work out whether or not he’s worried about it, creates a beautifully dark tension in a story filled with them.
Neumann’s employers, Better Futures, very quickly realise the military potential of Neumann’s work, and this provides much of the pacing and action in the book. How he, and his various new parts, deal with the runaway freight train of the consequences of every choice he makes, provides the reader a strangely moving and very human story.
So other than those who have had a life changing accident,who is this book for? If you mix Kurt Vonnegut and Sirens of Titan with Neal Stephenson and Snow Crash with sprinkles of Gore Vidal and Live from Golgotha and a large spoonful of Ed Neumeier writer of Robocop you’ll get something approaching Machine Man. Except it’s funnier and smarter and darker and more moving than such a literary collage might suggest. Suffice to say, I highly recommend this work and all by Max Barry — a writer headed for very big things indeed.