The Holy Machine
(Wildside Press, 242 pages. Hardcover, $29.95, April 2004, ISBN: 1592242081.
Paperback, $12.49, October 2004, ISBN: 1592242103.)
Beckett is well known to readers of Interzone as a writer of
short stories. This
is his first published novel, and it is a promising start. George Simling
is a translator in the near-future city of Illyria, one of the few parts
of the world that has not succumbed to the religious Reaction against
all forms of technology. He falls in love with a sex robot which has
started to develop autonomous intelligence beyond its programming, but
ends up getting much more than he bargained for.
I normally hate "cute robot" stories with a deep deep loathing. This
is not one of those stories. Although Lucy the robot's sluttish software
is what George falls in love with, it becomes clear to us (and to him,
though he has difficulty in facing up to it) that her emerging consciousness
is something very different indeed. And at the same time as Lucy is
making a transition from program to personality, George's mother, addicted
to virtual reality, is going in the other direction.
Illyria, George's home, is no utopia; where many an author would have
automatically wanted us to side with the scientists against the wild-eyed
fundamentalists, Beckett has taken a more subtle approach. Surrounded
by religious statelets, the city has elevated rationalism to the point
of a state cult; discussions of religion and spirituality are forbidden,
and George gets sucked into the subversive Army of the Human Spirit.
When the authorities start to brain-wipe the most advanced of their
robots, George and Lucy flee across a fractured Balkan landscape to
a destiny that includes transformation and destruction.
The story is set in a part of the world I know fairly well, and I thought
I picked up nods towards the national stereotypes of the isolated Macedonians,
the laid-back Montenegrins, and so on. The fictional future city-state
of Illyria obviously owes a certain debt of inspiration to the historical
city-state of Dubrovnik, though it is two countries further south. A
reference to "Lake Shkroda" is presumably a misprint for "Shkodra".
My one serious cavil is that the oppressively hot Balkan climate is
barely mentioned--indeed one character wears an unlikely "floppy white
A couple of touches I liked: the Illyrian subversives meet under the
cover of the "Mountain Club" which sounds rather like the "Sierra Club"
in the infamous role-playing game "Paranoia". Lucy the robot's gaffes
as she tries to be human are reminiscent of the Buffy-bot in Buffy
the Vampire Slayer. I did feel that Beckett over-egged the pudding
at one or two points: perhaps it's believable that George has never
been kissed before he encounters Lucy, but it seems most implausible
that his conception was the only sexual act of his mother's life.
But in general, this is an interesting tale well told in Beckett's
sparse prose, and nicely presented by Wildside Press. Recommended.
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