Thursday, May 17, 2012

100 Books #44 - Max Barry's MACHINE MAN

"You couldn't ever truly own anything you couldn't modify. I had always thought that."

Was the Tin Woodsman your favorite character in the Oz books? Do you have a secret hankering to be Steve Austin? Or Robocop? Or at least wish that some of your cyber-augmented prostheses from your last Shawdorun character could be real?

Then boy, have I got the novel for you!

Machine Man warms to its theme right away in its first pages, in which engineer Charles Neumann feels lobotomized without his phone. He doesn't know how to dress for the weather. He doesn't know what time it is. He doesn't know if maybe a war started in his sleep. When he later has the idea to call his phone to try to echo-locate it, he realizes he doesn't know its number: that's in the phone. But where some people would regard this a little sheepishly, Charles just takes it as further evidence towards his hypothesis that the human body has a badly flawed design and it's high time it was upgraded.

So when he finds his phone just out of reach in the middle of a crucial experiment, which leads to a laboratory accident, which leads to his losing a leg, he curses neither the phone, himself nor his circumstances. He instead focuses on the top-of-the-line prosthetic limb his company has bought for him, starts tinkering with it, and improves it vastly. Then he scraps that and designs a whole new leg from scratch.

Then he realizes that his new and improved leg would be ever so much better as part of a matched set...

On the whole, I don't like long narratives written in the first person, but this (and my prior long read, Embassytown) is the kind of stuff for which I gladly make an exception. Max Barry has evoked very well the engineering mindset that values efficiency and effectiveness over politeness and non-functional aesthetics, playing it for laughs even as his narrator doesn't really see what's funny about it. As he plays out the rest of his cybernetic Tin Woodsman story*, he also meets the love of his life. Who is, of course, the woman who outfitted him with that first prosthetic limb (I almost wrote "original prosthetic" but that might suggest he falls in love with a cell phone retailer. Props to Andy "Natural Born Cyborgs" Clark). Aww, mad engineer love!

But it's not all machine oil and roses: Charles works for a high tech corporation that has traditionally stayed out of the medical game because "if we made an artificial heart and then someone cured heart disease, it would be a disaster" but has started to see dollar signs in Charles' notion that replacement parts can be better (and thus more desirable) than the originals  Ms. Cautery (amusing name in this setting), the novel's mouthpiece for all things corporate, points out that people replace perfectly good smartphones every 13 months on average in pursuit of the new and shiny and sexy and naturally extrapolates that behavior to body parts and starts cheering Charles on.

But there are, of course, strings (or fiber optic lines) attached with any corporate support, isn't there? This story could have gone a very different way -- I was expecting Charles to discover that the parts he was replacing his natural ones with all had a corporate kill-switch to keep him in line and the scenario my friend Travis King explored in a short story last year, in which commercially produced life-saving techno-fixes could be shut off if the bills weren't paid, but that's not what happens here -- but the way it did go was just fine. As written, Machine Man has a nice comic book, super-heroic edge, reading like a high quality origin story, though whether Charles is going to wind up a superhero or a super-villain stays very much up in the air until the last few pages. At moments my willing suspension of disbelief was tested (rampaging cyborg destroys large amounts of city infrastructure but never draws attention from the police or the media?) but it was too much fun not to just roll with it.

Now all that's left for me to do is ponder what augmentation I would ask for first. Z-lenses? Better Skin? Better Muscles? Built-in Wi-Fi?

The last, of course.

*Seriously. His legs get Wi-Fi. I know a few people who would line up for that feature right now!

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