The Holy Machine (no spoilers, I promise)

Review time: The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett

For those who have heard of him, describing Chris Beckett as the potential “next big thing’ in science fiction will not be surprising. As for the science fiction readers amongst us who find his name unfamiliar, well, perhaps they should sample what he has written.

I first encountered Beckett’s work through his 2009 collection of short stories, The Turing Test. It tantalised and hinted at good things to come, and with his first novel (first published 2004, but only more widely known now), Beckett has delivered something deliciously thought-provoking. It is this sort of writing that gives science fiction new life, showcasing how much more rich than the (rather juvenile) style of the old greats (e.g. Asimov, Clarke) it can be. It is this sort of writing that keeps pulling me back to science fiction, no matter the effort I put in to explore other genres, because while it is science fiction it also transcends classification into a mere genre.

That, of course, is not to say that The Holy Machine is a perfect book. Right off the bat I will admit it is flawed in some ways. For example, the dialogue is clunky at times, and on a few occasions there is heavy information-dumping. But, as a whole, this book remains a delightful read.

(Like I promised) I won’t spoil the book. The Holy Machine concerns itself with one George Simling (there is a rather amusing reason for his peculiar name),  chief protagonist and romantic hero. He is a citizen of the city of Illyria, the last bastion of science and reason in a world gone mad with irrational religious fervour. Yet, technological paradise on earth, with every physical need easily satiated is not enough for happiness. Our story follows out protagonist as he makes the difficult journey to find  meaning in life whilst dwelling in a city whose only God is blind reason, and the parallel metamorphosis from lonely misanthrope living with his mother to a fully-formed person.

This journey takes us through a varied landscape of ideas, ranging from a reconsideration of the old idea of robot consciousness, to the limitations of reason and the place for faith, and to the meaning of self and sentience. These ideas are in and of themselves not special; science fiction has always been a genre of ideas. However, what Beckett has done well is to weave these ideas into a compelling narrative with good pacing and interesting, evolving characters. And therein lies the secret to the good science fiction book: a book which is at one level a pleasure to read, and at another level a thought-provoking read, inviting the reader to pause, to consider the idea being discussed, to review it against his preconceived notions and to experience an intellectual conversation between his own ideas and the book’s.

The Holy Machine can be easily read in a single afternoon and be quite enjoyable. Taking the time to read and consider the ideas contained within, it becomes tempting to reread it immediately, or perhaps to force it upon someone, simply for the sake of having someone to discuss it with.

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