Friday, 27 July 2012
BOOK REVIEW: THE HOLY MACHINE by CHRIS BECKETT (2004)
Science Fiction used to be pretty much the centre of my life from about the age of 20, when I first found out how to get American imported paperbacks, up to about 35. Mind you, I can't ever remember not loving SF even before that, ever since I realised what it was. I just could not get enough of the stuff and built up a pretty enormous collection. I was also very active in SF fandom, publishing my own fanzines and writing for others. In my thirties I became obsessed with writing the stuff, well, and just writing novels per se.
But eventually I moved on with crime becoming my favourite genre fiction. I never completely lost my ties with fandom, though any connection with it these days is quite tenuous and thread-thin. Writing fiction became an occasional dabble in which I currently seem to have no interest at all, with blogging fulfilling my need to communicate and write and the main focus of my attention can be found in my other blog.
But I could never give up on SF even though I rarely read it any more and am often disappointed with what I do read. Still I keep trying the odd book from time to time like the one I'm reviewing here. This came to my attention as one recommended by Amazon following a spate of buying some Urban Fantasy books (which I keep intending to review en bloc). Don't know what it's got to with that genre but it nevertheless intrigued me and I finished reading it a couple of hours ago and, yes, the comment from an Interzone reviewer on the cover about is quite correct.
When I first started reading it I wasn't sure at all because the background scenario has to be my worst nightmare. In a reaction to secularism and science, there is a worldwide mass uprising of fundamentalism from all religions and sects (though Judaism and Buddhism aren't mentioned) sending the world back into a modern version of the Dark Ages. To counter this, Illyria, a high-tech country, is created in a region of the Adriatic which is where George our protagonist lives.
George isn't the usual SF hero, being diffident, despite being in his 20's he's never been kissed, and has a mother who prefers to spend her time in cyberspace. But, just as I briefly outlined about my life, things change. He falls in love with a human-like sex robot in whom he senses an emerging awareness not related to her programming. When the increasingly fascist government decides to wipe the minds of robots every six months, George goes on the run with her through bordering religious states which, incidentally, hate robots even more than they hate unbelievers.
This is an absolutely fascinating novel which looks at the nature of consciousness and simultaneously both the need for a belief in religion, in something transcendent (which might also be consciousness) and how (to many cheers from me) bloody fucking imbecilic and irrational religions are. It's thoughtful and clearly written which engages the reader, despite George being very much an outsider, though his life and his perceptions of the world undergo a profound change during the course of the novel.
In short, I absolutely loved this book which reminded me why I loved SF -its alternative pluralistic views of society (as well as unfettered imagination)- in the first place. As far as I can tell, it didn't win any awards which is a shame. Anyway, I've just ordered Beckett's other two novels and added his short story collection to my wish list.
This is the book that you give to people who think they don't like SF. It has a heart and a brain.