‘I must not say: “Would you like a hand relief?”’

The Holy Machine, by Chris Beckett

Chris Beckett’s latest novel, Dark Eden, won the 2013 Arthur C Clarke award, generally a good guide to what’s interesting in contemporary SF. It’s also attracted a fair bit of attention on the blogosphere, including from reviewers who don’t typically read the genre. Long before that though came Chris Beckett’s interesting 2004 debut novel, The Holy Machine.

Perhaps I should start this story with my escape across the border in the company of a beautiful woman? Or I could begin with the image of myself picking up pieces of human flesh in a small room in a Greek taverna, retching and gagging as I wrapped them in a shirt and stuffed it into my suitcase. (That was a turning point. There’s no doubt about that.) Or, then again, it might be better to begin with something more spectacular, more panoramic: the Machine itself perhaps, the robot Messiah, preaching in Tirana to the faithful, tens of thousands of them clutching at its every word?


The narrator is George Simling, a 22 year-old translator from a new Balkan state named Illyria. We’re a few decades in the future and the world has fallen into a fractured web of fundamentalist religious states following a sort of anti-enlightenment. Only Illyria still puts science ahead of faith, or ahead of religious faith anyway.

George Simling spends his days assisting trade discussions with Illyria’s fundamentalist neighbours. Every one of those neighbours despises Illyria as a haven for godless idolators bound for hell, but then Illyria despises them in turn for being blinded by dogmatism and superstition. Still, Illyria needs food and immigrant labour, and they need the high technology that only Illyria still produces. When did mutual hate ever stop business?

George’s lives with his mother, but she spends as much time as she can locked into a virtual environment from which she can shut out the frightening real world. His work isn’t interesting and he doesn’t have a girlfriend or much of a social life. He does though have Lucy, one of a new range of robots each of which is designed to look and feel exactly like a human being. Lucy is beautiful and charming and available for hire by the lonely for an affordable hourly price.

Lucy is programmed to learn from experience so that she can better please her customers, but learning is double-edged. Lucy, like others in her range, starts to show signs of developing behaviours that weren’t planned for. The machine starts to develop a ghost:

Swallow. Make random choice from post-oral option sequence OS{O-78}/7: caress.

NB: Attention! Subject pushes hand away. Switch to option sequence OS{A-01}/4.

Remark: ‘Would you like me to get you a drink or something?’

But who is this voice? Who is it that speaks these words?

NB: Attention! Subject getting dressed very quickly. Facial reading: FM-77/09/z5. Agitation.

Interpretation: Do not impede departure! This is situation PV-82! Adopt abbreviated closure option sequence from OS{AC} series…

Smile (type 3 [V73]). Remark (R-8812): Hope that felt good. ‘Hope to see you again soon, dear.’

Illyria passes a law requiring that the new robots’ personalities be wiped every six months to stop them getting too independent. For George this is devastating. He loves Lucy, or in any event loves her body and her flattering responses. He doesn’t want to lose her. Soon the two of them are on the run, and the only place to go is outside Illyria to religious states who if they realise what Lucy is will immediately destroy her as an abomination.

The novel’s setting is, let’s face it, pretty unlikely. It’s hard to imagine everywhere save one country becoming a religious dictatorship. It broadly works though because Beckett uses this world as a vehicle to explore questions of faith, of how we choose to give our lives meaning, and of the dangers of absolutism.

Illyria considers itself to be rational, but is becoming increasingly intolerant and autocratic (it follows a rather aggressive Dawkins-esque approach to atheism). Religious faith is seen as dangerous (which to be fair it is given how the rest of the world has gone) and it’s increasingly important to be unquestioningly loyal and right-thinking.

More than twenty thousand guestworkers had come out onto the streets. They had demanded the usual things: religious freedom and full citizenship of Illyria, where they formed the majority of the population but continued to be treated as foreigners. The police had ordered the demonstration to disperse under the Prevention of Bigotry Act.

Prior to his flight George finds himself involved with a dissident group through a young woman named Marija who seems potentially attracted to him, but a relationship with a robot programmed to please you is easier than one with a woman full of human complexities. It’s one of many ironies in this novel.

George feels out of place in Illyria with its relentless certainty and increasing atomism. He sympathises with those seeking religious freedom, freedom of thought, though that becomes a little trickier once it becomes clearer to him what they actually believe (another irony):

‘Let me get this straight! You’re saying that what happens to me for the rest of eternity all hinges on whether or not I believe that certain specific events took place back in the days of the Roman Empire? That’s – what? – more than twice as long ago as the Norman conquest of England?!’ Janine nodded serenely.

Lucy meanwhile, given room to grow, becomes increasingly what frightened George in Marija – a person existing independently of his needs and desires. This leads to much of the book’s comedy as Lucy tries to understand the world using the skills and conversation given to her, and to question her own nature:

‘I… am… a machine. I know I am a machine,’ she began. And then: ‘Maybe you’d like me to dress up as a treat. What about my red stockings? You know how you like me to…’

George wants to give Lucy the opportunity to truly become herself, because he loves her, but the more Lucy develops the more it’s evident his project is utterly misconceived. What George loves is a physical form and some programming designed to appeal to young men like him. In the novel’s ultimate irony it becomes apparent that what George loves isn’t Lucy at all. Lucy isn’t a woman, Lucy isn’t even human. Lucy is a machine, an it, and it begins to become more interested in questions of existence and meaning than pleasing George. It becomes an ontological, theological, machine. The more George succeeds, the less Lucy is what he wants her to be.

Lucy then is a machine that seems human, but isn’t. George’s mother is a human who wants to leave her flesh behind and to exist within a machine. The faithful believe in souls separate to bodies, and in their own ways both Lucy and George’s mother are trying to transcend the bodies they were given. George wants to save Lucy, or more accurately to save his idea of Lucy. Lucy wants to be itself and to understand why it exists. Everyone is struggling with faith in one form or other, and with the collision of belief and inconvenient fact.

The Holy Machine is very much a novel of ideas, and that’s both its strength and weakness. There’s plenty of adventure here: both before the flight as George gets involved with increasingly extremist groups; and once George is on the run as he tries to present the dangerously innocent (but seductive) Lucy as his wife to those they encounter. That though is the sugar which helps the philosophical medicine go down, and perhaps fittingly the result is a rather cerebral novel where Beckett’s real interest seems less in what happens to his characters as in the arguments and positions they represent.

I’ll end with one final quote, chosen partly because it illustrates the issues the novel explores and partly because it rather resonated with me:

But there is one problem about being religious. You are taught that the supernatural exists – miracles, angels, the resurrection of the dead – but for some reason it always seems to happen off stage, either somewhere else, or somewhen long ago. You actually have to live in exactly the same boringly unsupernatural world as do the unbelievers. It must be hard work believing in things which never actually happen.

So I don’t think it’s surprising that religious folk sometimes erupt in excitement over a statue that appears to weep, or a fish whose lateral markings spell out the Arabic letters for ‘God is great’, or an oil-stain on a garage forecourt that resembles the Virgin Mary…

For another view of The Holy Machine I can’t do better than point to David Hebblethwaite’s review here, which also links to several other fine reviews. If you’ve been tempted by Beckett this isn’t a bad place to start. It’s an interesting and intelligent book even if perhaps sometimes a little too prone to infodumps and a slight obviousness in its themes. It’s easy though to draw analogies on a number of fronts with our own world, not least that what’s best and most challenging in other people is the fact they exist beyond our ideas of them.


Filed under Beckett, Chris, SF

12 responses to “‘I must not say: “Would you like a hand relief?”’

  1. It sounds like an interesting book but a little dry.
    Dark Eden was a novel of ideas too but it’s strength was the wordlbuilding and the strong imagery. I didn’t get the impression this is as strong image-wise. As much as I appreciated Dark Eden, I think I’d rather explore another writer first.

  2. Alastair Savage

    It sounds slightly similar to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice which won last year’s Arthur C Clarke Award: a story about machines struggling to make sense of their AI programming whilst puzzling out their role in a totalitarian society.
    One thing that’s always bothered me about robots in SF is: where and when do they recharge their batteries? My beaten-up mobile’s battery runs out after a couple of calls, but C3P0 and R2D2 can spend years trundling about without ever needing to top up theirs.
    Does Beckett deal with this in the story of the robot on the run? Do they need to constantly find places to recharge?

  3. Thanks for linking to my review, Max. I always have time for Beckett – at his best, I think he’s one of the sharpest voices in contemporary SF. Yes, he’s a writer of ideas over style; but you could say that about a lot of SF, and he’s better on both counts than most. His story collection, The Turing Test, is well worth a read (though I think only available in ebook now).

    Having said all that, I wasn’t really sold on Dark Eden; I’m not sure that a space setting suits him.

  4. The second quote put me off.
    Overall the plot made me think of the film HER. Perhaps this is a bit of modern interest or a trend–virtual sex, robotic sex.

    You seem to be reading a lot more SF. Am I right?

  5. As s/f was my first love when it comes to reading, but a genre I’ve lost touch with now, I’m always looking for suggestions of interesting authors. Sounds like Dark Eden would be the place to start, though.

  6. Caroline, that sounds fair. Dark Eden is a later novel, so one might reasonably expect it to be stronger (though noting David’s caveats).

    Alastair, I don’t recall clearly now but I think the charging issue is addressed actually for once. It’s not though a book about the science, it’s much more about the philosophy. Still, more attention is paid to practicalities than usual.

    I plan to read the Leckie, possibly later this year.

    David, I think a focus on ideas is one of the key attributes of SF, so I don’t see that as a criticism, though I did think here at times the ideas showed through perhaps a bit too plainly.

    Guy, that’s the benefit of including two or three quotes. There’s nothing wrong with putting someone off a book that they won’t enjoy after all.

    Sexy robots have long been a thing in SF, though Her did it more interestingly than most. Sexy female robots that is, off the top of my head I can only think of one SF novel with a female protagonist who makes use of a sexy male robot. It’s almost as if there were a demand for images of perfect yet compliant and unchallenging women among some of the genre’s fans.

    Beckett to be fair is pretty expressly subverting the whole concept – in that sense George is an SF fan faced with the reality of that particular (and rather dodgy) fantasy and finding as ever that people in the flesh (even when the flesh has metal under it) have their own thoughts and desires. In that sense it’s perhaps a sort of coming of age novel, with the young male protagonist realising that women don’t exist just for him.

    Re more SF it’s partly coincidence. I used to read SF over Christmas as it stands up well to the interruptions of the season in a way literary fiction tends not to. I remembered that this year so read a couple of SF novels in short succession. I have some more planned in due course, but still only as a smallish subset of my overall reading and probably still less than crime.

    1st, you could do worse than Chris Beckett certainly. Alastair Reynolds is one of the big beasts in terms of space opera/hard SF. What kind were you into?

  7. It’s interesting that Guy mentions the film Her as your comments about George and Lucy’s relationship made me think of Alex Garland’s film Ex-Machina (which I saw last week). Have you seen it, Max? I liked it very much, partly because it focuses on one or two central ideas and runs with them. The problem I think I’d have with Beckett’s Holy Machine is the number of ideas at play. Based on your review, I wonder if there’s too much going on here (too much for my little brain, anyway, as I’m not a big reader of SF)?

  8. I haven’t seen it, though I probably shall. I have a slight allergy to be honest to sexy robots, though realistically I’m quite sure as soon as we can make them we shall.

    The core ideas here are relatively few when you boil it down. It’s really a novel about the dangers of certainty, of projecting a simple narrative onto a complex reality. The religious here are all fundamentalists, but the atheists are Neo-Darwinian hardcore atheists of the sort who knock on your door on a Sunday to tell you there isn’t a god, George’s mother believes in redemption through technology and George believes Lucy to be what he needs her to be. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to a non-SF reader because it is very much SF, but it’s less a lot of ideas than a reasonably thorough exploration of a particular one.

    I think really the book is arguing for the importance of uncertainty, which I actually have some sympathy with.

  9. Okay, that makes sense and the importance of uncertainty idea is interesting…I think I’ll pass though as I’m more inclined to go for that other SF novel you recommended, Roadside Picnic.

    Let me know what you make of ExMachina if you get around to seeing it. Actually, reversing the genders might have made it even more interesting: a female human being with a hot male robot.

  10. Roadside Picnic is one of the all-time greats, so good choice.

    Will do re ExMachina. Reversing the genders would probably have killed it with the teen male crowd. The idea of a perfectly compliant everhot female appeals to them, the idea of a perfectly compliant everhot male however I think they’d find distinctly threatening…

  11. Alastair Savage

    On the topic of male vs female robots providing these services, remember that Jude Law plays a gigolo robot in AI, showing there is an exception to the rule, even if AI is an appalling film (I wanted to leave the cinema midway…)

  12. Good point Alastair. I’ve still not seen AI, it tempts me, but it’s so bloody long. I have Satantango which is seven hours and one of my favourite films is Doctor Mabuse which is about four and a half and silent, so I don’t object to length but I do need there to be some good reason for going over 90-120 minutes.

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