Thursday, August 2, 2018

Machine Man

Machine Man
© 2009 Max Barry
277 pages

Who knew crushing your limbs in the industrial machinery at work could be so addictive?  When Charlie Neumann accidentally crushed his leg in a fit of absentmindedness and was fitted with state-of-the-art prosthesis, he could only stare in dismay. This was state of the art?  Combing his engineering mind, his company's resources, and his ability to fixate on a project beyond all reason, Neumann promptly built a better leg. Then, realizing it would work better as a pair, he decided to recreate his accident and crush the other leg.  When his employer, a research-and-production firm caught on, they didn't fire him and sue him for abusing his insurance and using company materials to make himself a pair of super-legs. Instead, they promoted him.   This has potential, they said. An entire product line. Better Legs! Better Skin! Better Eyes!   We can rebuild him, WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY!

Too bad they were kind of evil.  Machine Man is the fourth book by satirist Max Barry, who has previously had fun with novels mocking corporate culture and advertising.  Machine Man definitely has humor, primarily in its main characters' utter obliviousness to social cues and his often deadpan responses,  but it's not absurdist fiction like that that PG Wodehouse. Instead the humor softens what otherwise might be a somewhat horrifying tale of a man who serially butchers himself, awakening the interest in a morally dubious company and empowering them to get even more dubious. Things get rather out of end, with one of the endgame chapters involving a fight to the death between two cyborgs, both of whom are increasingly schizophrenic.  One character winds up as a brain-in-a-box, which takes us to "I have no mouth and I must scream" territory.  While I'm labeling this science fiction, given the contents and transhumanist interest,   I don't know if the nerve interfaces mentioned here were based on any then-current research;  the first that I know of was announced in 2016.

All in all,  I enjoyed this. Of course, I like the author -- I've read most of his previous novels, albiet ten years ago.  I have a certain fascination with the idea of 'augmented humanity', even as most of my being recoils at the idea of it. Barry's combination of humor, emotional drama, and the able use of the company as an amiable villain made it a swift and engaging read. 

Latest developments in prosthetics, from The Independent

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