Sunday, July 04, 2010

Beckett, The Holy Machine (2010)

Chris Beckett, The Holy Machine. Corvus, 2010. Pp. 288. ISBN 9781848876569. £10.99.

Reviewed by Christopher Michaels

This book has many of the elements of classic science fiction. At first impression, it is full of clichés, but its takes these ingredients in interesting directions that make reading on worthwhile. Like the best classic sci-fi, The Holy Machine has captivating writing that draws in the reader’s imagination. It explores a future that is an extension of current social movements. It has conflict between robots and workers, and looks at the social consequences of technology. It has questions about sentience and personhood for robots that go back to Asimov in the 1940s and ‘50s. Of course there are robots designed for pleasure, one of the morally problematic economic functions that many hope they could help solve. You have philosophical and political ideas being explored to their logical extreme, and as with the best of classic sci-fi you have all of these being explored through an emotional personal story as you journey with a few people struggling to cope with this world.

The world we are visiting has been engulfed by “The Reaction,” a movement across religions which has meant they each now rule their home territories. In this irrational darkness the one beacon of light is the Mediterranean island-state of Illyria off the coast of the Balkans. This city-state has the sense of Western philosophy’s mythic place for ancient Athens surrounded by barbarism. Illyria is populated by rationalist refugees from the rise of radical fundamentalist religion. Atheist scientism (my coinage) is the state religion.

The older generations have horrifying memories of persecution by the religions of their mother cultures as they took power. So if you are southern European you were persecuted by the Catholics and the Orthodox. If from the USA, as our hero’s mother is, then it was by the protestants. If you were Indian or Japanese then it was the Hindu and the Shinto radicals that gained political power and persecuted intellectuals and scientists.

Illyria is a hi-tech world with virtual reality for escape and robots being developed and produced to free the inhabitants of dependence on uneducated religious, and therefore dangerous, guest workers from neighbouring countries. They outmatch any society in the world for war machines. The post-traumatic stress of the older refugees has meant they are fundamentalist militant atheists and rationalists, introducing laws intolerant of anything that cannot be scientifically proven. The younger generations though are realising the shortcomings of pure scientific materialism and can see the similarity between the intolerance of their politicians and those of the theocracies surrounding them.

Enter George Simling, hero or maybe better anti-hero, the primary first person narrator of this story. We do have snap moments offered of the first person experience of some other characters, in particular his robot lover, and his mother. He is a nerd in a society of nerds, deeply isolated and dissociated from the culture of “the City”, as it is called. He gets involved with some of the milder rebels and moves towards the more radical militants of the younger generation. But his passionate love for one of the newest versions of pleasure robot deflects him from participating in violent political action.

We get to see some aspects of the internal life of the “Syntec” pleasure robot, Lucy, as she comes to sentience, to a sense of a self/identity beyond her programming. This was some of the best writing. George gradually notices her growing sentience; he decides to take liberate her when the self-evolving programming of other robots leads to unpredictable behaviour. Some just walk off, but when a police robot becomes a mass killer a law is passed that all robots will be rebooted and set back to their default programming every six months thus wiping their memory and their evolutionary progress towards sentience.

The latter part of the story then turns into the after-story of one of the endings of Blade Runner, when Harrison Ford runs off with the beautiful robot, but without the four year life span. In the medieval religious world of the City’s neighbours the robots are demons they proudly destroy as proof of their religious fervour.

Again like good classic sci-fi this story is a metaphor exploring deep philosophical questions relevant to modern life. In this case the central problem is how do you find spiritual depth as an atheist. As George journeys through the Outlands, first with his disguised robot then by himself, he explores the different religions he meets, trying to find satisfaction for his scientifically trained, inquiring mind.

The Holy Machine edges almost too close to cliché in places but it is saved by the writing, and by the emotional intensity of the protagonist’s journey through the world of medieval religion versus so-called atheist enlightenment. Occasional readers of sci-fi will definitely enjoy it; more accomplished readers of science fiction will either not get past the beginning with a sighed, “here we go again” or will enjoy the twists it takes in setting a lot of standard science-fictional ingredients in a relatively unique world to explore important and interesting philosophical and human questions at the core of atheism and religion.

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