Beth lives alone on a desolate housing estate near the sea. She came here to rebuild her life following her husband’s return from the war. His memories haunted him but a machine promised salvation. It could record memories, preserving a life that existed before the nightmares.
Now the machines are gone. The government declared them too controversial, the side-effects too harmful. But within Beth’s flat is an ever-whirring black box. She knows that memories can be put back, that she can rebuild her husband piece by piece.
Like so many novels published throughout the year, the release of James Smythe’s The Machine has come and gone without much discussion. There have been reviews, for example this one by Niall Alexander on Tor.com and Simon Savidge’s very positive review on his blog. In fact of the six and a half reviews* I found in my three minute skim of the internet, all were lavish in their praise of the novel, noting that this was Smythe’s best books and one of the best novels of 2013.
And I agree. While I can’t say with any certainty that it’s Smythe’s best book – I haven’t read his three other novels – The Machine is one of the strongest novels I’ve read this year. It’s the sort of book that should be featuring, ad nauseam, on all the major awards list next year. But other than the Clarke Award and possibly the BSFA, the book is unlikely to get much award love.
If I was the ranting type I’d go on and on and on about how the lack of buzz for books like The Machine is precisely why Science Fiction as a genre is floundering. But I’m not sure I really believe that. Yes, there’s a case to be made that the current crop of writers still haven’t escaped the gravitational pull of Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein. But the fact is that while books like The Machine might come and go, making only the smallest of ripples, they still get published. And for me, above all, that’s what’s important. That there’s still a market for books that don’t fall into the well worn groove of third person omniscient and linear narratives and deal with difficult, uncomfortable issues.
The Machine is written in present tense. It doesn’t use quotation marks for dialogue. It deals with issues of memory loss and identity and the friction between science and faith. The setting is bleak – a future Britain that’s suffering from the effects of global warming. And it’s unrelenting. Claustrophobic. Your stuck in the head of the main character, Beth, privy to her obsessive need to give her husband, currently in a vegetative state, back his memories.
Take the following paragraph:
The class are almost completely silent as they watch the video: there’s a naked woman, comedic in all other respects (unfit, flabby, unattractive), climbs a fence, to the top of her kitchen extension, and then scrambles, sobbing, to her roof to escape the flood; but, mercifully, none of the class laugh. The bodies of dogs and cats in the street, floating down. The dead being dredged out onto boats. When the video ends there’s only minutes until their first class and they leave quietly. Beth goes to lunch and sits alone, on a table at the far end. She sees Laura, who makes a beeline for her. Laura doesn’t ask to sit next to Beth – and why would she? They’re not children – but Beth finds it strange, how relaxed Laura is immediately. She starts talking about her life, how she argued with her boyfriend the previous night.
As Niall Harrison puts it, it’s that switch between the ‘startling nuggets of information’ – the flood – and the ‘mundane’ – sitting down to have lunch with Laura – that defines the style and intent of this novel. As Beth burrows further into the rabbit hole, that intense focus somehow narrows further. This should be off putting, close to unreadable, and yet Smythe somehow pulls it off. It’s because you feel for Beth. Her anger and frustration, her desperate desire to use The Machine to re-create her husband like he was before he went off to war, before he was shot in the head, before he came back to her wounded both physically and psychologically, before he became a test subject for The Machine. You want her to succeed. You want her to find some sort of peace in a world that’s going through a gradual apocalypse. You can’t turn away.
But more then just sympathy for Beth, the world she lives in feels more then just a cobbled together thought experiment. It feels real. This sense that life will go on, the mundane will still occupy most of our lives, even while everything goes to shit. And while the Sfnal mechanics of The Machine is never fully explained – at times it feel more organic then mechanical, the idea that it’s actually alive – this doesn’t undercut or undermine the stark reality of Beth’s claustrophobic environment.
In a perfect world, there would be buzz for this book. We would be talking about the themes, about Smythe’s deliberate narrative choices, about the fractious relationship between Beth and Laura, Beth and her husband, Beth and the community. And maybe if the book appears on peoples end of year lists or gets nominated for the odd award next year there’s a chance at a second dip. But whatever the case I’m just glad that complicated Science Fiction novels like these still get published.
I’m not sure whether I’ll have time to dip into Smythe’s backlist but I’ll certainly be looking forward to whatever he writes next
* The half refers to Niall Harrison’s brief thoughts on the Strange Horizon blog.