The second novel by Scottish poet J.O. Morgan begins with a large piece of technology being delivered to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Pearson:
The unit came to a rest in the kitchen. There was no obvious place for it to stand so it jutted awkwardly into the middle of the room. It couldn't be set flush against the wall because of the stiff cabling that ran out of the back and because it was deemed sensible, at least for the test period, to keep both sides of the unit unobstructed and freely accessible. The singular cable was as thick as a baby's forearm and sheathed in soft brown rubber. (p. 3)
Mr. Pearson works in Personnel for the manufacturer of this technology, and he's agreed to test out a prototype. What we see from the description above is that this bulky item doesn't really fit, doesn't belong—yet it still dominates the space, cabling and all.
When the machine is in operation, it makes an awful noise, “like the air was being scratched at with steel claws and torn apart, ripped suddenly open with the force of a hurricane and then just as forcefully snapped shut” (p. 6). This could almost be tearing reality apart, and in a way it is, because the appliance does something entirely new: teleportation. Nothing elaborate to begin with, just a plastic spoon, but there it is: the future, emerging in a nondescript household.
Each chapter of Appliance unfolds as a separate story with different characters: links in a chain tracing the development and ramifications of this technology. At one point we meet Frank, who becomes the first human to be transported, in a story that builds tension effectively. It's a shock to discover that Frank is being cannibalized by the company: samples of his body tissue are being put through the machine as initial tests. It's another shock to find that Frank isn't the good person we might have hoped for, as he assaults his wife Kathy. Frank takes on a mechanistic coldness: Kathy watches his precise movements intently, fearful of where they may land.
There is a question throughout of whether the person who emerges from the teleporter is the same as the one who went in. When Frank returns from his first trial transportation, he insists he's still himself. But Kathy perceives someone different—a brighter, more beautiful Frank, the kind who still knocks on the door before entering: “When she looked now she didn't see her husband. What she saw was a young man in the guise of her husband. She saw someone serene and childlike, someone she used to know well” (p. 58). It's impossible to tell whether the machine has changed Frank, but Kathy can hardly be blamed for wishing he would stop the trials at this point.
In a later chapter, the appliance has a name—the “transmat system"—and has most of the country wired up. Anna goes to visit her elderly father in one of the few off-grid areas. He's had a fall and, though he has previously hated the transmat technology, he now contemplates using its next iteration: a wireless version that can be built into his whole house. Anna and her father debate whether the wireless transmat will work and be safe, with she now the worried skeptic and he—because he can now see a use for the technology that he could not before—the enthusiastic early adopter. The system transforms the house, taking over the decor and requiring Anna's father to wear special clothes—the whole place is always on. When Anna visits the refurbished house, we understand the limits of her acceptance:
Anna had had her own walk-in unit in her apartment for years … When she was in the machine at home, she was in and prepped and ready to go, and that was that. It was no more awkward than any other sort of travelling. But this permanent readiness: the constant crackle of analysis—(p. 157)
So the differential between Anna and her father is not quite a generational thing, but it is about what the characters are used to: a step too far for some is exciting for someone else. The acceptance and trade-offs of transmat technology, and how they are calculated differently by individuals, are key themes running through Morgan's novel.
It's a basic fact about the appliance that nobody really knows how it works—it's a black box. One of the most moving chapters features Janey, an effervescent soul, all words, emotion, and mystery; and her husband, a logical creature of numbers who works on the transmat. We follow their lives together, until Janey is diagnosed with cancer. Typically, she seems to take the news in her stride, partly because she's sure the transmat can deal with it. “Your machines will be able to see what the matter is,” she tells her husband. “All you need to do is find a way for them to transport that matter out” (p. 89).
This feels instinctively as though it should be feasible: if you're the one who tells the machine what to do, then you can tell it to do this. But it turns out that, for all the refinements which can be made to the transmat process, it can't go so far as to save Janey. Even the most pervasive technology has limits.
Which is not to say that people won't keep pushing to find those limits. By novel's end, transmats are being sent to the moon, to help exploit its resources. Two characters discuss this: has there not been a test run? As close as can be. Are they sure it can be done? They wouldn't be doing it otherwise. Why do we need the moon's resources to be sent back to Earth anyway? To build new transmat machines. While onlookers debate the ethics, the system marches on for its own sake.
The transmat is not just a black box technologically. As one character comments, not only do people not know how it works—scientifically, it shouldn't work. Since it can only then exist in the confines of fiction, the transmat also becomes a narrative black box: it can stand in for whatever technology you like, and this helps give Appliance its power. By structuring his novel in discrete stories and often focusing on characters who aren't involved in the making of the transmat, Morgan shows how technological development can happen inexorably and by increments, often through decisions made elsewhere. The transmat system develops and spreads before its implications are fully grasped. Appliance is a breathing space to take stock and reflect on the benefits and costs of this. It's a powerful exploration of how technology interacts with everyday life.