Review: Machine Man, by Max Barry

>>Published: August 2011

>>Finally got around to it: February 2012

After I escorted Lola back aboveground, I returned to Lab 4 and sat on the floor beside my leg. I had thought Lola might like my leg, but you never knew. Her reaction exceeded all my expectations.

Then I felt depressed. It was the opposite of a logical reaction but there it was. I always felt like this at the end of a project. I would be frantic and determined and excited then sad because it was over and there was nothing left to improve. I stared at the leg. It occurred to me that I hadn’t escaped my bottlenecks. I had only pushed them back. I had made a leg that could walk by itself, which was okay, but I could see now that this was about as far as it could go. All improvement from here would be incremental, because the bottleneck was my body.

It was late. My lab assistants had left. I looked at my leg, the good one. Well. I don’t mean “good.” I mean the one I’d had since birth. I rolled up my pants and turned it this way and that. It was fat and weak and ordinary. The more I looked at it, the more it bugged me.

***

Charles Neumann is a scientist, first and foremost. Practical. Detached. Unemotional, to an extreme degree. When he loses one of his legs in Machine Man’s opening chapter, it isn’t the ordeal one might imagine. Oh, sure, it’s tremendously painful, but whatever physical pain Charles experiences is diminished by the opportunity for creation his sudden handicap has afforded him. When a charming prosthetist named Lola Shanks attempts to fit Charles with what she deems an advanced, unparalleled prosthetic limb, Charles sees only room for improvement. And through improvement, further cause for the artificial expansion of the human body. When Charles’ employers, the Better Future research and technological development institute, learn of his work, creating stronger, more capable artificial limbs, they see power and potential military contracts.

Machine Man is Max Barry’s deadpan send-up of science fiction cyborg culture. Charles, in his practical-to-a-fault mindset, plays fast and loose with what it means to be a human—specifically, with what proportion of organic material does a human stop being a human and become a machine. And to similar effect: does the issue of humanity being defined as a certain percentage of flesh and blood preclude the possibility of expansion into artificial realms, should the opportunity present itself, while maintaining the rights and respect intrinsic to human society?

Heady topics to be sure, but handled with a subtle, sarcastic hand. Barry doesn’t delve too deeply into the social mechanics of artificial versus organic; his approach is individualistic, for each person to define based on their desires and perceived limitations. There’s merit to Charles’ work, but insofar as it remains an individual pursuit. The speed at which it changes and becomes something larger, social, and business oriented is the larger story at play in Machine Man.

Charles is not a typical protagonist. He’s a brick wall of sorts—an unengaged narrator with an entirely self-serving reason for being. Best I can describe, he’s a science-first extrapolation of the artist Stelarc, who has been experimenting with the concept of the cyborg—of literally expanding beyond the flesh and blood self to varying degrees of sophistication—for his own purposes. However, where Stelarc is interested in the expansion of the existing organic template—using technology to improve upon what’s there, to facilitate the improvement of our already present bodily functions and capabilities—Charles seeks to remove and replace the organic with cold, purely mechanical architecture, reflecting the emotional barriers he has spent an isolated lifetime perfecting. Even his interest in Lola is, at first, one of rigidly defined benefit, as she exhibits terrific interest in his growing artificial desires. Though a stronger emotional core does evolve between the two, the extent to which they love one another as genuine individuals is never clear. The element of mechanical lust and the fetishization of bodily expansion is always present, always in question.

I enjoyed Machine Man. It offers a smart, satirical tale of self-obsession masked as self-improvement. It approaches bodily harm and self-mutilation in a more inquisitive and less exploitative manner than Brian Evenson’s Last Days, which presented a cult-like search for spiritual enlightenment through the removal of one’s limbs. But where Last Days capitalized on its grotesque, shock-for-the-sake-of-shock approach, Machine Man achieves a greater level of introspection and social commentary with a much quieter hand.

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