I’m a big fan of transhumanist fiction. Give me feathers, fur, gills, immortality, extra feel-good bits, mechanical cool and/or animal senses any time – I like ’em all.
In other words, it wasn’t just the lovely cover that pre-disposed me to enjoy Machine, (although I was diverted by the thought of the irrepressibly enthusiastic and elastic Jim C Hines in that pose. Urban art never looked so good, eh?)
Ahem. Moving right along…
Machine is Jennifer Pelland’s debut novel, published by Apex Publications and released in January this year. Her collection of short-stories, Unwelcome Bodies, was also released by Apex, back in 2008. I liked Machine enough to put it on my wishlist.
After discovering that she has inherited a unique form of early onset Alzheimer’s, the lovely but tragically vulnerable, Celia Krejewski, sets out to save her life by putting her body into stasis until a cure can be found. The year is 2092 and any possible cure is still many years away. Faced with the imminent degradation of her brain, Celia opts for a “biomechanically engineered” solution, what amounts to a “courtesy body”: an outwardly perfect copy of herself that will be the vehicle for her consciousness until her organic body can be cured.
Now, if you suspend your disbelief very firmly on a coat hook before entering the cryo unit, this solution sounds great. Celia can live, and love, and work until medical science has caught up with their backlog – at which point, the android-Celia’s memories, (her mind in other words), will be transferred back into her old chassis in order to continue her life, uninterrupted. The android will then be discontinued.
That’s the plan. However, when Celia awakes in her artificial body, the first thing she discovers is that she has been cruelly abandoned by her beloved wife, Rivka, who will not “cheat … by living with her machine copy”. With a recently deceased mother and no living relatives, a peripatetic best-friend, and a social circle that is entirely made up of Rivka’s friends, Celia soon discovers that she has also been “outed” at her work, and that the clinic’s support is inept, overburdened and self-serving. Inevitably, and very quickly, Celia begins to fall apart.
Her first independent act is one of self-mutilation, in which she attempts to transpose her grief, which can only be a programmed response, into something physical. Glimpsing the machine is a way of proving this fact to herself, but the act of cutting the skin away on her finger triggers a safety program that “locks her down”. It is in this state of helpless bondage that Celia gains an insight into her true condition. After being admonished for her “accident”, she is then released back into her unsupported, human environment.
But Celia is now set upon a determined path to recapture the painlessness of lock-down, to strip away the programmed layers that hide the truth of what lies beneath her flawless and easily repaired skin. She is both a naive young woman throwing herself into a murky underworld of fetishist fantasy, and an AI striving for self-awareness by deconstructing a carefully contrived human-personality matrix. That this self-discovery is erotically charged only manages to convey the fact that self-determination can be a very slippery slope.
If you’re looking for a deeply probing investigation of transhumanist social and technological issues, then Machine is not for you.
On the other hand, this is a well-written, character-driven story. Jennifer Pelland has done a good job integrating recognizable trends into her future setting, while paralleling those advances with an American society still in the grips of Christian fundamentalism, particularly with regard to “the soul” and “life choices”.
Celia’s journey ends as we knew it would, and it is the largely unsympathetic, secondary, character who gets to drive change (off stage), without her having taken, or even comprehended, Celia’s journey. This, I found disappointing. Otherwise, I enjoyed Machine, as the story of a displaced consciousness seeking to align its Cartesian duality.