No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

2014/12: The Machine -- James Smythe

The Machine contains all that is left of who he once was. Already it’s processed his story, the speech-to-text system inside it turning his spoken, quivering memories into data and patching them. Filling in the cracks in his story. Somewhere, inside the Machine, are the exact constituents of what – who – Vic will be. [loc 1726]
I read this because it's on the 2014 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which I was discussing at Eastercon.

Beth's soldier husband Vic isn't on a tour of duty abroad, though that's what Beth tells people. He's confined to a care home in London, helpless and silent, after an experimental treatment for PTSD went horribly wrong.

A teacher's salary has condemned Beth to a solitary, frugal life on the Isle of Wight, while every spare penny has been saved up for an illegal Machine -- an obsolete model of the device that stole Vic's painful memories and stored them as data. Beth is determined to get her husband back. After all, his current state is partly her fault.

Life on the Isle of Wight is not a pleasant experience. Gangs of feral teenagers roam the streets; climate change has baked the landscape to desert. Beth swims in the sea every morning, the only way she can cool down. She's been planning Vic's return for a while, stockpiling food and supplies: soon the school holidays will start and she can put her plans into action. The Machine, huge and black and impenetrable, looms in the spare room, waiting. But her new friend Laura realises that something's afoot ...

The Machine is well-paced, deals with PTSD sensitively, and is horribly accurate about the unease which a woman alone might feel when verbally abused by a group of teenagers. The sense of imminent doom increases gradually, and the desolate landscape outside Beth's window is a good metaphor for the aridity and emptiness of her life: she might as well be in the desert with Vic. But when I'd finished reading and started reflecting, the novel seems somehow empty. Having Beth as the sole narrative voice is very effective in terms of suspense, but it's harder to suspend disbelief when certain plot twists become clear. And it's ultimately a very depressing story.

(Irritatingly, the last 15% of the Kindle version is taken up with notes and an excerpt from another book: so, just when you think you've reached the final twist, you 'turn' the 'page' and realise the novel's over.)

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