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The Holy Machine

by Chris Beckett

(Wildside Press, 242 pages. Hardcover, $29.95, April 2004, ISBN: 1592242081. Paperback, $12.49, October 2004, ISBN: 1592242103.)

Review by Nicholas Whyte

Beckett is well known to readers of Interzone as a writer of short stories. cover scanThis 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 jumper".

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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