Chris Beckett The Holy Machine (£12.99 Corvus Books 2010, available at www.corvus-books.co.uk)
The Holy Machine brings together technology and religion in a love story reminiscent of Metropolis. There is a real sense of the visual in Beckett’s writing, from the towering Beacon, to the vast expanse of SenSpace and the rustic potholed Ioannina devoid of technology, seeped in myth, religion and fear of ‘the city’. Into this idealised technological world of Illyria (‘the city’) the reader is introduced to George, a frustrated, bored individual dealing with a needy mother, Ruth, and a worrying fixation with a sex robot called Lucy. Lucy who looks human enough for George to want to rescue as she shows signs of independent thinking; Beckett blurs the lines between what it means to be human and what is a machine. What Beckett does with this landscape of characters is to show that total belief in one system does not give you all the answers. The fervour of technology and atheism in Illyria does not satisfy George, he seeks more, wants more, wants faith and this is counterpointed by the countries surrounding the city of Illyria. Countries in which Illyria technology is seen as the devil, such as Ioannina, where robots are torn to pieces or crucified and it is this religious zeal that gave birth to Illyria. Illyria is born of those who have been victims of a religious backlash against technology, in sections that are horrifying as all the scientists are rounded up and made to repent to a baying crowd:
‘Methinks he doth protest too much, brothers and sisters, methinks he doth protest too much. This is false repentance, my friends, thrown to us as a sop, while in his heart this unbeliever, this sinner, still nurses the viper of sin and atheism!’
Carp stares at him in terror, ‘No sir, I really do…I mean…’
He is led away to where the tar smokes and bubbles in its black pots.
And it is Ruth’s turn.
It is a form of entertainment to the worlds outside of Illyria to destroy anything artificial and is a continuance of the destruction of science. In both worlds, of religion and technology, there is a blind faith that George begins to question when he falls in love with Lucy. He is the anti-hero often found in science fiction but it is Beckett’s ability to weave complex themes within a story that makes us first sympathise with George, then the machine Lucy as she becomes sentient and with Ruth as she becomes less and less human. It is the latter story between George and Ruth that is the most heart wrenching to read. It counterpoints the excitement of the illicit lust George feels for Lucy and the love he unable to show Ruth. This is a novel about fleeing from the truth, when the characters face the truth of themselves they find acceptance as does the state of Illyria. Beckett weaves this plot and sub plot together, conscious of this theme throughout and shows that a machine can find faith and the faithful can believe in the divinity of a machine.
Available at http://www.corvus-books.co.uk/