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Holy Machine by Chris Beckett
Review by Gavin Pugh
Corvus Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781848874626
Date: 01 July 2010 List Price 14.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

Another choice selection from Corvus, the new imprint at Grove Atlantic headed up by Nic Cheetham, an editor with a real eye for quality.

The Holy Machine is the first novel length work by British writer Chris Beckett, a writer who hit the headlines last year when he was awarded the Edge Hill Short Story Prize for his collection The Turing Test, beating competition from the like of Anne Enright (a Booker winner) and Ali Smith (who won the Whitbread). The Holy Machine was previously published in the US by Wildside Press back in 2004. Hat's off to Corvus for bringing Beckett to the wider audience he so richly deserves. Published in hard cover in July.

"Illyria is a scientific utopia, an enclave of logic and reason founded off the Greek coast in the mid-twenty first century as a refuge from the Reaction, a wave of religious fundamentalism sweeping the planet. Yet to George Simling, first generation son of a former geneticist who was left emotionally and psychically crippled by the persecution she encountered in her native Chicago, science-dominated Illyria is becoming as closed-minded and stifling as the religion-dominated world outside...

The Holy Machine is Chris Beckett's first novel. As well as being a story about love, adventure and a young man learning to mature and face the world, it deals with a question that is all too easily forgotten or glibly answered in science fiction: what happens to the soul, to beauty, to morality, in the absence of God?"

It's hard to write a review of a book that gets under your skin and gets you thinking. Not because it's a private conversation that you're having though it is a personal reaction. It's more that it is hard to explain what nerve it hits or why. Plus you then have to wonder if it's going to have the same affect on other people.

Chris Beckett's novel The Holy Machine is one of those books. And the skin it gets under is, in some cases, artificial, in others, virtual, as well as our own real skins. Though mainly it's about the skin of one 'ASPU' - Lucy - and a man named George Simling.

The premise here is that religious tolerance and integration has broken down and various religions and their followers are no longer as accepting of others as they once were. George's mother Ruth, a scientist, had no choice but to flee during the 'Reaction', an event that happened all over the world, to the scientific city haven that is Illyria, a place where guest workers are needed but their religious views aren't encouraged or, as the story progresses, tolerated.

With all its exploration of religious extremes versus science and its insights concerning exactly how easy it might be to fall into a state where religion is once again something to be observed and feared, The Holy Machine remains essentially a love story.

George falls in love with an Advanced Sensual Pleasure Unit (ASPU) called Lucy or more accurately, he falls for a personality of Lucy which he feels he can encourage to become more than her programming. Even though she is meant to self-evolve I'm not sure George gets to the nature of what he has fallen for. And when he discovers his mistake, he is too far along on a journey that leaves a lasting effect on both himself and the reader. What I found particularly effecting was Beckett's observation that the world doesn't need to turn too much to arrive at a place where tolerance and openness is dangerous and where control of people through religious dogma is enforced. That future for some, is already here.

Beckett describes such a world where scientists are ordered to convert or face being burned or stoned or in some other way killed. Even then they might not be saved if their conversion isn't convincing enough. Becket also plays with the idea of souls and the notion of machines that are alive. There are two scenes that show events in a brothel from the point of view of the robot. We're shown their reasoning and their standard responses. It's not free thinking. It's a case of 'if this, then that' statements that can alter through experience but only in knowing that one reaction is preferred over another one.

It also illustrates George's naivety for thinking that his love for Lucy is a love for the machine under the skin of Lucy. He is in love with what he thinks Lucy is, as we find out when they escape to the religious Outlands where they burn the robots as soulless demons and George gets to know Lucy a little better outside her brothel environment.

Becket shows a battle for soul on the level of Lucy who George is trying to encourage to move beyond her programmed personalities and to find her own self. There is a battle on the level of state where Illyria wants only views and actions that scientifically assess rather than ones based on faith alone so they start to replace guest workers with robots. The trouble is that scientists have souls too and they need more than science to sustain themselves.

Beckett shows also that to be human is a mix of the known and unknown and also that artificial intelligence could move a machine from a cold, calculating, analytical and concrete entity to one empathising with concepts that religion is supposed to help us with.

The saddest story here though isn't George or Lucy though they both have lessons to teach us as they go on their journeys, but the story of Ruth, who withdraws from the real world into the virtual world of SenSpace. It's a safe place for her. When she has to leave and come back to reality George often has to carry her from her all-in-one suit and feed her drugs before watching her cry herself to sleep. But the question is what would happen if you didn't have to leave that virtual space?

I did wonder why Corvus Books had decided to reprint a six year old novel that previously had a US release in 2004 by an independent US publisher. And after reading it I know why.

Chris Beckett has told a science fiction story that deals with the important things that could happen in the future and it's not about exploring space or meeting aliens (though they are fun and exciting things to read!).

The Holy Machine is about how we might cope with a future where science has advanced sufficiently so that our various religions need to reassert themselves as forces of control.

Highly recommended for those that think that science fiction can't be literature or literature can't be science fiction as well as to anyone that wonders what the future of humanity could hold.

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