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Monday, July 4, 2011

Guest Book Review: MACHINE MAN

Machine Man, by Max Barry. (NY: Vintage Books, 2011), paperback, 274pp.

Bruce Balas generously agreed to review this book for Books in Northport, after I bailed on it halfway through, and here’s his report:
Ordinarily, I don’t read science fiction. Dune and The Hitchhikers Guide are the only such books I’ve managed to get all the way through--and only because they kept getting mentioned in other reviews, and I felt I had to find out what everyone was talking about. My biggest complaint with “sci-fi” is that I find most of the writers take themselves too seriously. They actually seem to believe that what they are describing is the world to come. This writer is different. He has a good sense of humor, and there are amusing bits throughout the story that make it lighthearted and keep things moving along.

That isn’t to say that Barry doesn’t have some important issues he wants us to think about, but he presents them in a subtle way so that they don’t get in the way of our enjoyment of the story, which is about Charlie, an exceptionally talented scientist and engineer employed in a present-day research laboratory. Charlie’s major contribution to his employer is his relentless search for perfection in the projects he works on. In fact, Charlie is even heard complaining to his co-workers about all the imperfections of the human body.

When Charlie loses a leg in a laboratory accident and is given a prosthesis, he tinkers with it until it is the finest artificial leg in the world. Charlie soon realizes, however, that although he has the most excellent prosthetic leg in the world, his personal mobility is restricted by his other (normal) leg, which can’t keep up with the new one. Here is where the story really gets into the issues. Charlie decides that he should cut off his natural leg and replace it with a match for the superior artificial one. The result is that he can now run and jump like Superman!

But the story is far from over. Charlie finds that although his new legs can perform miracles, his hands are too slow to coordinate with his leg movements. Well, I’m sure you can see where this is going, can’t you? Sure enough, one at a time, Charlie cuts off his hands and designs new superior hands. But now it’s his eyes that can’t keep up with his new rapid arm and leg movements, and so he goes on to design and install new super eyes for himself. And so it goes.

As Charlie methodically upgrades his body in the laboratory, his employers upstairs, hearing of his new superhuman abilities, come to the realization that if they can wrestle the new parts away from Charlie, they can copy them and produce superhuman soldiers, to be sold to the U.S. government for millions. Charlie objects to his body parts being used in this fashion, and here is where the action really heats up, as the author takes us into the conflict between the big company, with all its resources, and our small but much “improved” Charlie. As our emotions join with the hero in the ensuing battle, however, questions begin to occur to us at the same time. For instance, how many parts can Charlie change (now with a new heart and face) and still be the Charlie that we’ve come to know and love? For that matter, how many parts can he change and still be human at all?

Bruce raises here the old philosophical question of personal identity. I think back to the year my son wanted a Bionic Man for Christmas and how I tried in vain to convince him that it was preferable, whenever possible, to go through life with one’s original parts. Creaks and wrinkles, brown spots and morning aches, my feelings and opinions on that question haven’t changed. Bruce enjoyed the story, though. He said that if you accept the premise, the rest makes sense. Isn’t that often the case? Bruce suspended belief and forged on with the story. Me, I was creeped out. One thumb up, one thumb down. Both the natural, organic, fleshy kind.

Thanks, Bruce!


Gerry said...

I have one thumb up and one thumb down, as I am both intrigued and creeped out. I'm pretty sure both thumbs are the fleshy kind, but you never know. Parts is parts.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks especially for that last sentence, Gerry, which takes my memory back to a favorite old book, PIGS IS PIGS. --How can you say I live in the past? I'm blogging, aren't I?

Dawn said...

I'm creeped out too. Glad someone else read it so I could just be creeped out from afar.

P. J. Grath said...

I'm sure this book will have an audience. The philosophers who argue that "We are all cyborgs" will love it. Even in philosophy, ya picks yer poison!

dmarks said...

It reminds me of the actual origin story of L. Frank Baum's Tinman. He was cursed with an enchanted axe that cut off a body part every time he used it. Until every body party was replaced completely at the end. The Tin Woodman can be classified as what is now called a "cyborg"

"My biggest complaint with “sci-fi” is that I find most of the writers take themselves too seriously. They actually seem to believe that what they are describing is the world to come"

Well, I appreciate the authors taking themselves seriously. It shows confidence in their made-up world, and lends more authenticity.

P. J. Grath said...

Now you've got me scared of the tinman, dmarks! Actually, there is quite a body of literature in postmodern philosophy built around the idea that we are already cyborgs--contact lenses, implants, replacement joints, etc. Maybe that's why I went back to old-fashioned eyeglasses?