Machine Man, by Max Barry
Having read a couple of the author’s books a couple of times already , I was somewhat prepared for the approach the author would take here. If you have read any of the author’s works, you have an idea of what to expect. There will be some sort of corporate shenanigans, as well as an unlikely love story. Both of these are to be found here, as well as a concern over the relationship between the individual and the company as well as the company and the larger society. You can expect that people will go too far and that business will trespass legal boundaries as well as whatever social contract exists between employees and employers and that there will be consequence. And that is all the case here. One thing that is notable about this book, though is just how small the world seems. In stark contrast to previous works which brought together real companies and a large and expansive look at culture, this book is a much more modest affair. To be sure, the stakes of the plot are immense and the questions about what makes people human and what role technological development has in self-improvement are fascinating and deep, but the plot is confined to a very small area and the life of the main character in particular appears extremely claustrophobic, even.
At its heart, this is a story about two misfits who fall in love and face the question of how far they are willing to go to live better lives. Charles Neumann is a socially awkward scientist who hasn’t had a date in more than a decade and whose absent-mindedness causes him to lose a leg in an industrial accident. There he meets Lola, a lovely young woman with an artificial heart. The two form a sweet and awkward relationship that involves Charles and his coworkers working ever harder to develop more capable artificial parts that in some ways are more superior to their biological ones, involving them in dangerous cultural politics as well as company ones, and Charles finds himself dealing with deadly enemies who want to turn him into a weapon and destroy the humanity that he has only recently found within himself. The book functions as a fable in many ways, showing how a man becoming slowly less biological in his structure becomes more human as he realize how important it is to develop genuine love and human connection with others, especially prosthetist Lola Shanks.
There are, of course, a few serious layers of discussion within the madcap plot. There is a psychiatrist who thinks that the main character ought to be treated as a psych case but who herself is a crazy dog lady with a large amount of nippy dogs in her house. There is the protagonist’s contempt for natural parts and human biology, which accounts for at least some of the lack of respect that many people have for the complexity of biological design in the scientific world. Ironically enough, as is the case often in this sort of novel, the author’s strenuous effort at replacing natural parts with artificial ones only demonstrates the trade-offs and complexities of biological designs . Likewise, this book follows the author’s previous work faithfully in demonstrating the lack of scruples that companies have concerning their conduct, and the way that this only works if they are able to keep their conduct secret and avoid exposing things to public scrutiny and awareness, as is the case here. Ultimately, this book is a touching story of love and technology and corporate malfeasance and about what it means to be human that makes for a pleasant read and would make an excellent movie as well.
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