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One of the oft stated truisms about utopia is that it can only exist in a vacuum—on a distant island, for example, or as an isolated world state—because as soon as it has borders, as soon as it is forced to interact with the presumably not quite so perfect nations around it, things are bound to go pear shaped. Chris Beckett's first novel, originally published by Wildside Press in 2004 and now reissued by Corvus, is a beautifully written and deeply thoughtful tale about a would-be scientific utopia that has been bent sadly out of shape by both external and internal pressures.

The novel's basic scenario is not particularly original, variations on it having been used by H. G. Wells, as well as Heinlein, Asimov and numerous other Golden Age writers. Beginning in our day and building up steam towards the middle of the twenty-first century, more and more people around the world began to reject both science and the concept of the secular state in what eventually came to be known as the Reaction. Country by country the forces of religious fundamentalism rose up violently against both technology and the very idea of ecumenicalism. Millions died in a variety of horrible ways, though all-out nuclear war seems to have been avoided (and, oddly enough, is not a concern in the current novel). Eventually an alliance of scientists and international corporations founded the nation of Illyria on the Adriatic Sea in Southeastern Europe. Illyria is dedicated to rationality and the scientific method. The open practice of any religion is banned and the majority of Illyrians are atheists. Its citizens come from all over the world and enjoy the highest standard of living of any nation in Earth's history. Surrounded by a crazy quilt of small bickering countries (collectively known as Outlanders), each devoted to its own radical form of Islam, Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, or other faiths, Illyria maintains its hegemony over the region and its high standard of living through a carefully managed combination of superior technology, trade, military might, and guest worker programs.

The balance, however, is always delicate. The other Balkan nations hate Illyria, both for its political and economic domination and for what they see as its myriad blasphemies, particularly the creation of humanoid robots. The guest workers, many of whom have lived most of their lives in Illyria, are also angry over their lack of rights and the ban on the practice of their own religions. Worst of all, the younger generation of Illyrians, none of whom know the horrors of the Reaction first hand, are beginning to lose faith in the nation's ideals. Some have even begun to agitate (occasionally in violent form) for freedom of religion. In response, the rulers of Illyria have begun to crack down on both the guest workers (there is a program to replace them with more robots) and their own citizens, passing laws that radically decrease freedom of speech. Needless to say, echoes of current or recent situations in the Balkans, in Western Europe, in Israel, in the American Southwest perhaps (and for that matter in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night) are either obviously intended or at least worth considering.

George Simling is a professional translator, a fairly important position considering Illyria's many and complex multi-lingual trade negotiations. He is also a badly socialized introvert, who still lives with his mother, Ruth. Mrs. Simling, a scientist who was deeply traumatized by the Reaction, leaves home only to go to her job (which she gives up part way through the book), is completely self-centered and spends nearly all of her free time in SenSpace, Illyria's well-developed virtual reality environment. Ruth has become almost entirely dependent on her son, counting on him to get her out of SenSpace before she develops bedsores or dehydrates, expecting him to feed her, protect her, and put her to bed at night. It makes sense, perhaps, that George, who has never really known his mother's love, is terrified of women, and has become devoted to robotic prostitutes, or rather to one specific prostitute, Lucy, preferring the robot even to a potential relationship with an attractive young woman named Marija, a coworker who may have radical political connections.

The most sophisticated Illyrian robots, called syntecs (a word which evokes a variety of possible puns and allusions), are mechanical, but covered with synthetic flesh which makes them very lifelike. They are also self evolving, able to learn from their interactions with the world. This is both a strength, because it allows them to react in a very life-like fashion, and a weakness. Most syntecs eventually begin to act in ways that seem irrational (some have been known to attempt to escape across the Illyrian border even though they will be destroyed by the Outlanders) and there is public debate over how frequently their personalities need to be wiped. Among the most fascinating chapters in The Holy Machine are those written from Lucy's point of view when we see the robot analyzing its decision tree and making operational decisions concerning how to act with its clients:

"You're not really here are you? You look so pretty and sweet, but there's really nobody home."

Check. Identify remark type. Make facial reading.

Yes, this a non-specific observation. No specific verbal response is required.

Smile (type 3[V43]—submissive). Make randomised selection of remark from OS[G-21]/7/

"You're a really nice-looking guy you know."

(Attention. Check. Make facial reading.) (p. 68)

Equally fascinating is the gradual and very slow development of Lucy's self-awareness, as for example when, while engaged in a sex act with an anonymous client, the robot begins to question who the client is in fact having sex with:

"Me? Nice-looking? Well that proves it, I'm afraid sweetheart. There really is nobody home! Still, leaves me free to dream, I guess. Open your legs a bit wider. Let's have a feel!"

This is situation GE-80. Response: option sequence OS{GA-22}/8: shallow breathing, gasps, hip movements . . .

Who is this? Who is this with the subject?

NB: Attention! Subject climbing on top. Note: Subject is above average weight. Make standard W+ adjustments to all option sequences.

This is situation SO-21.

Supplementary note: repeated internal questions of new type noted (Example: `Who is this? etc') Is this a symptom of a fault? Should this be notified to House Control? . . . (. 68)

Although founded as a type of consumerist utopia, Illyria is in fact a fairly sterile place and many citizens find that their lives lack meaning. George is frankly bored with his rather stripped-down existence and spends significant time either worrying about his mother or hating her for her dependence on him. On one occasion he leaves Illyria as the official translator for a trade delegation to the pocket nation of Epiros and learns firsthand how much his people are hated by the religious zealots who surround them. A group of guestworkers from Epiros just happen to stage a demonstration in Illyria while George is out of the country, demanding the right to practice their religion and, when the demonstration turns into a riot, several of them are killed. Anti-Illyrian rioting immediately breaks out in Epiros, and George and the rest of his trade delegation barely escape with their lives. This trauma, combined with his general unhappiness with life, cause George to act increasingly irrational. He becomes more and more obsessed (or perhaps in love) with Lucy, recognizing that the robot is beginning to become self-aware, something more than just a mechanical sex toy. Through Marija he becomes involved in radical politics. The last straw occurs when the Illyrian government, hoping to decrease its dependence on guestworkers, but concerned about the increasing undependability of syntecs, decrees that all robots will be brain wiped twice a year. George, intensely paranoid and concerned that the government has somehow deduced his radical connections (although he has not yet done anything that would count as more than a thought crime), induces Lucy to leave the bordello for the first time and then absconds with the robot across the Illyrian border, entering the Outlands, where Lucy is liable to be destroyed by anyone who discovers the robot's true nature.

It's clear to the reader that George's love for Lucy (and whatever the robot might feel for him, if "feel" is even the right word) is doomed from the start. Lucy may be becoming increasingly sentient, but is still not even vaguely human, is not even really a "she" (and while proofreading this review I've gone through it carefully to make sure that I never use female pronouns in reference to the robot without italicizing them). The affection Lucy shows for George, the robot's continuing willingness to have sex with him, is mere deep-seated programming, the least sentient thing about it. When George tells Lucy to "be herself" the robot's face goes slack and it speaks without inflection, asking increasingly serious epistemological questions in an emotionless voice. Even back in the bordello, Lucy had taken to reading the books placed in the bedroom as part of the stage set (including, in a sly move on Beckett's part, Edward James's Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century)and this practice accelerates while George and the robot are on the run across Southeastern Europe. Each night, while George sleeps in some roadside inn, Lucy inhales whatever print media are available, including the Bible. Despite growing self-awareness and an increasing understanding of the world, however, the robot cannot really give George the love he needs and eventually, when he drinks too much in the wrong company, disaster ensues.

Beckett, who is a lecturer in social work by profession and the author of a number of textbooks on ethics, child protection, and related topics, explores a variety of very important issues in The Holy Machine, among them the possibility of utopia in an imperfect world; the dangers of intolerance, whether based in religion or in what passes for reason; the nature of sentience; and the appropriate balance between reason and faith. Upon completing the novel, my first impression was that he was arguing that reason alone is inadequate, that some form of spiritual life is also necessary. Marija, the most sensible character in the book, is religious after all, and the robot Lucy, eventually transformed into the holy machine of Beckett's title, founds its own religion, one centered on an understanding of human limitations and an appreciation for the wonders of "self-evolving cybernetics." Lucy even goes so far as to suggest that "perhaps the true purpose of the race of humans is to build the race of angels" (p. 261). On his website, however, Beckett makes it clear that he himself is not religious (though he admits a love for biblical imagery), and, borrowing from the SF writer Neil Williamson, states his personal creed to be the very limited (or perhaps very profound) "There is a world, and I am in it."

In the end, it seems clear that what Beckett dislikes most is absolutes of just about any kind. Social workers, after all, live in a world full of compromises, balancing concern for their clients against the needs of society, their own moral sense against laws that can both empower and disenfranchise. There are very few sureties in The Holy Machine. George, Lucy, Ruth and Marija all undergo profound changes, some of them quite unpleasant, but, by the end of this very fine novel, each character has achieved some measure of both agency and joy.

Michael Levy teaches English at an obscure Wisconsin university and is a past president of both the Science Fiction Research Association and The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.



Michael Levy teaches English at an obscure Wisconsin university and is a past president of both the Science Fiction Research Association and The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.
One comment on “The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett”

I couldn't read this book without thinking about Bladerunner, in which the android girl starts to become "human" and the hero starts to appear as an android. The Holy Machine is by far the more subtle and thoughtful work . . . but Bladerunner is a better novel because it has that quality of dramatic narrative that lifts it above mere plot and character. Beckett's novel is certainly a provocative read, and a good example of this genre, but doesn't it really re-hash old themes?

 

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