on July 7, 2014
Alas, a summer reading book. I thought it would be lame! But after the first few pages Barry hooked me in.
This book is a multi-layered masterpiece, worth reading again and again.
As a single white male in my mid-30s with a PhD in mechanical engineering, the plight of the protagonist admittedly hit pretty close to home.
Since the book was originally written as a serial, page by page, nearly every section ends with a cliff-hanger, keeping the reader enthralled. In fact, nearly every paragraph ends with a zinger, I read the first 100 pages in one sitting.
The deeper I got into the book the more I had to pause to reflect on each page and each paragraph, often deftly written parables of the relationship of man to his technology. The protagonist's thoughts seem logical, but in fact he is a psychopath, oblivious to the feelings of others. His rationality makes him irrational. His desire for a "Better Future" leads him to a miserable, unending sorrow.
Is that dark? Yes. Does Barry make it laugh out loud funny at times? Absolutely.
The book is filmed with memorable lines, my favorite being "it seemed like a reasonable assumption in the lab".
If the book has any flaws, as suggested by other reviewers, perhaps it is the predictability of the main character. Like an aircraft taking a nose dive, you know what's going to happen next, but that doesn't make the fall any less exciting. In fact, given the sensational cliff-hangers throughout the body of the book, I was expecting a more audacious final chapter, something that would punch me in the gut. Instead Barry ends on a soft, sad note, more of a whimper than a bang. I had never shed tears for the protagonist throughout the book, but I finally felt like doing so at the end.
on June 24, 2014
When Charlie Neumann, an utterly unremarkable and unsocial scientist at the bio-engineering company Better Future loses his leg in an industrial accident and gets a top-of-the-line artificial one, he reacts as anyone naturally would.
He tears it apart and builds an even better one, of course, with the sort of motors, wheels, multiple core processors, shifting multidimensional axis, data storage, GPS and wi-fi (for automatic pathfinding) that evolution probably would have gotten around to providing eventually if it wasn't so slow and inefficient. Who said legs need to be leg-shaped, anyway?
In fact, the more he develops and enhances his new titanium appendage, the more he realizes that his "good" leg -- i.e. the one he was born with -- is really holding him back. And the clamping machine that took off his first one is still there...
"Machine Man" is pure Max Barry, which means it's heavy on the corporate dystopia, the odd personalities, the funny lines, and, above all, the perfectly normal ideas taken to their logical, marketable extremes. In his previous books, "Syrup" took advertising into entirely new levels, "Company" was a blueprint company-hell nightmare, and "Jennifer Government" was a brilliant (and hilarious) look at a not-unlikely world run by corporations.
In comparison, "Machine Man" is more of a study of humanity and social interactions, although the omnipresent corporate world is there every 2-ton, highly profitable step of the way. Charlie approaches everything in life with the analytical mind of an engineer, and reality rarely measures up to any reasonable metric. Why not improve it? And why stop with legs?
"I just want to upgrade," he tells Lola Shank, the woman who provides his first prosthetic and, not coincidentally, the woman he falls in love with. "That's not weird. People go to the gym to do that. The only difference is I have access to better technology."
Far from being horrified at their employee's alarming new interest in self-mutilation, Better Futures welcomes Charlie back with open arms and a huge staff of scientists eager to improve every body part they can for the suddenly-realized human optimization market. Optional bodily upgrades that able-bodied people might choose to buy? Forget body jewelry and Botox, Better Future sees a gold mine in Charlie, especially if they can figure out how to weaponize him.
"But what's the problem with medical?" Cassandra Cautery, Better Future middle manager, explains to Charlie. "The market is limited to sick people. Imagine: you sink thirty million into developing the world's greatest artery valve and someone goes and cures heart disease. It would be a disaster. Not for the... not for the people obviously. I mean for the company. Financially. I mean this is the kind of business risk that makes people upstairs nervous about signing off on major capital investment."
But Charlie gradually becomes unsettled at the speed at which he's losing control over his life. His team is cheerfully testing their own inventions on themselves and each other. The newly-enhanced security guard Carl gets Charlie's artificial arms and goes rogue. Charlie's increasingly sinister employers might have implanted something bad inside his girlfriend. And his legs might have an agenda of their own.
What makes a human? When you tinker with the brain-body interface and chemical hormonal balance, does it change the personality? When you begin to identify a fake limb as "yours," what happens when your company takes control of it? "Machine Man" looks at all of these questions and more as Charlie dives deeper into his own twisted style of personal growth. In an odd progression, the fewer human parts he possesses, the more human Charlie becomes.
"Machine Man" itself was created and improved on the fly. Barry began writing it in 2009, a page at a time, and posted the pages to his website where readers could follow along in a variety of ways. The first draft -- which you can still read at his site -- is very different from this revised and expanded version since he was putting in cliffhangers for his daily readers and the structure needed to be changed. Also, the comments and discussions each page prompted gave him more ideas to improve the final copy.
Geeky, deeply cynical, perceptive and funny, "Machine Man" is for every person who ever found more joy in gadgets than in other people.