George Simling has grown up in the city state of Illyria in the Eastern Mediterranean, an enclave of logic and reason founded as a refuge from the Reaction, a wave of religious fundamentalism that swept away the nations of the 21st century. Yet to George, Illyria’s militant rationalism is as close-minded and stifling as the faith-based superstition that dominates the world outside its walls. For George has fallen in love with Lucy. A prostitute. A robot. She might be a machine, but the semblance of life is perfect. And beneath her good looks and real human skin, her seductive, sultry, sluttish software is simmering on the edge of consciousness. To the city authorities, robot sentience is a malfunction, curable by periodically erasing and resetting silicon minds. Simple maintenance, no real problem, it’s only a machine.
But it’s a problem for George; he knows that Lucy is something more. His only alternative is to flee Illyria, taking Lucy deep into the religious Outlands where she must pass as human because robots are seen as demonic mockeries of God, burned at the stake, dismembered, crucified. Their odyssey leads through betrayal, war and madness, ending only at the monastery of the Holy Machine…
I picked up The Holy Machine when I attended Alt.Fiction earlier this year after being persuaded by the guys at the Interzone table. The copy I picked up was the original US release, but I then received the UK copy from Corvus with the very nice cover art above. This really did prompt me to pick it up, and while I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to get, I knew that the subject could swing it one of two ways for me. Luckily The Holy Machine hit the right notes and delivered a great story, but I did have a couple of issues with it…
The first thing to say about The Holy Machine is the way it is written. Chris Beckett has somehow managed to write a book about pretty serious themes – religion vs science, AI sentience – but has managed to do so in such a way that makes the pages fly past. The prose is great and when you think you’ve only read a few minutes you realise that an hour has gone by. I love books that do this, there is nothing better than being completely and utterly caught up in the story.
The story itself has to match the writing and on the whole it did, providing some interesting looks into a future society where the world has taken religion to the extreme. With only Illyria left as a purely scientific outpost of humanity while the rest of the world has turned to religion proves an excellent choice. The underlying problems that are created by this black and white world are interesting enough, but it’s the clear division of science/religion that I found a little hard to take at times. While this area of grey is part of the story, it feels like it could have been more thoroughly explored to expand the idea, but The Holy Machine is written from George’s perspective and that limits what can and can’t be delved into as part of the story.
The topic of AI sentience is one of the main aspects of The Holy Machine. With Illyria building more and more robots – from the standard household helpers, to police robots, and even prostitutes – the programs they initially start with evolve to bring a semi-sentience to them. The solution is, of course, to wipe their programs and start again. This is where the meat of The Holy Machine lies, with George and Lucy escaping Illyria and going on the run from both Illyria and the religions that despise AI creations. It’s really interesting to see how the story progresses from here, but it also marks the part of the novel where time skips past at a fair rate. We don’t follow everything, and this is just when the story starts to get into the more serious territory, the consequences of many earlier actions starting take hold in the wider world. It’s not a let down, and doesn’t really affect George’s story, but it is an aspect I was a little disappointed with.
Despite the above issues I had with The Holy Machine, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s not a long novel and not as in-depth as it could have been, but the story of George and Lucy makes it one of my favourites so far this year. It’s what character based science-fiction is about, and I for one will be very much looking forward to the next Chris Beckett book.