The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett

Corvus, 2010, 294p.

In a phenomenon known as The Reaction, governments worldwide have become theocracies. The religious stripe varies from place to place, Protestant fundamentalist in the US, Roman Catholic in South West Europe, Orthodox in most of the Balkans, Muslim in the Middle East. Even Japan has succumbed, though whether to Shintoism or something else is not stated. The only outpost of rationalism left is the scientists’ state of Illyria, carved out of a small part of the Balkans opposite Corfu. There, all the developments of technology are given free reign; domestic robots and other syntech abound. Even prostitution is provided by androids. (Far less trouble than real women, apparently, and so more highly prized.)

Illyria is of course the most powerful state in the region, hated and feared by its neighbours – who are nevertheless fascinated by it – but it is not an idyll. Despite a large number of guest workers carrying out those mundane tasks not yet performed by syntech, only people with scientific training are allowed to vote and the disenfranchised are restive. The most advanced robots are able to learn by experience but the odd one is prone to breakdown, either wandering off into neighbouring states or at worst killing people. There are proposals to wipe these self-evolving robots every six months to prevent this sort of thing.

The narrator, George Simling, is a relationship inadequate, bound to his mother Ruth by her dependence on SenSpace, a virtual environment she enters to try to escape her fear of persecution due to the memories she has of her suffering in the former US when The Reaction took over. George has fallen for the android prostitute, Lucy, and the novel follows their adventures outside Illyria after he has spirited her away from the brothel. The inevitable consequences of this – Lucy’s uncovering as a syntech creature – drive George to a life spent as a tramp in the southern Balkans, his only aim a desire to meet the Holy Machine of the title, a robot which is the focal point of a new religion.

A front cover quote from Interzone describes this book as incredible, which is perhaps too hyperbolic. But even though George Simling’s narrative voice does not always strike the correct note The Holy Machine is certainly readable – despite a blizzard of typos and omitted words – and goes down relatively smoothly.

With its close attention on George, the world events that might have been the focus of a different author’s take on this scenario happen off stage, a reminder that in a crazy world the troubles and activities of little people are worth a hill of beans.

The Holy Machine was first published in the US in 2004 but only in 2010 in the UK. Its discussions of religion and illustration of the irrationalities that give rise to it, not to mention the closed-mindedness of many of its adherents, might suggest that order would have been reversed.

While the characterisation of a self-evolving AI is always going to be somewhat flat, Beckett does well enough. Some of the humans could also have been more rounded though. Nevertheless Beckett is one to seek out.

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