Back to Human – ‘The Machine’ by James Smythe

the machineThe Machine. Where to start? Author James Smythe is causing something of a stir in the world of books, or at least he is in the bit I frequent. His previous two novels (The Testimony and The Explorer have been understated, strongly thematic literary science fiction (whatever that is?). I loved them both.

The Machine is probably the least accessible novel of his I’ve read, but it’s also the best. It’s packed with themes and ideas, and delightfully, the story is nested inside itself, turning the reader’s understanding of the novel on its head.

Set in the near future, in a decaying Britain, Beth is taking delivery of three large parcels. There is something clandestine about this. The parcels are marked ‘exercise equipment’ but this is not what’s inside. On the black market Beth has bought The Machine. We learn that these machines were miracle cures for dementia patients and traumatic stress sufferers. The Machine can manipulate memories; it can take them away, it can put them back.

The machines were heralded as medical marvels, but something went horribly wrong. Now they are outlawed. Victor, Beth’s husband fell victim. An ex soldier, he suffered traumatic stress after being injured in the field. They tried to replace his memories. Instead they wiped his brain. Now Beth hopes to put those memories back.

Smythe’s first two books were not without their detractors. I’ve seen reviews pooh-poohing his involvement in creative writing courses (Smythe teaches the subject), effectively accusing him of putting style over substance. This is not an opinion I subscribe to, but The Machine is unlikely to bring any of these people back into the fold. This is a highly stylised piece of writing. There are no speech marks to delineate dialogue, often there isn’t even a line break. This gives the novel a stream of consciousness feel, which takes some time to acclimatise to. It’s a very deliberate decision on the author’s part and initially it’s hard to see its justification. All I can say is that by the novel’s close the choice is fully justified.

The opening half of the novel, is slow, almost bumbling. Beth is preparing the machine, her flat, her life for the arrival of her husband. It’s like watching somebody fiddle with the place settings before an important dinner party. Of itself, not terribly interesting, but it’s hugely telling. Smythe uses this time to set his scene. By the time Vic has returned home, we understand Beth’s world, her loneliness, her isolation.

This book will inevitably be compared to Frankenstein (indeed the back cover of my copy does so). There are undoubted parallels, and it is from here, thematically, that the story bursts into life. There is an amazing scene where Beth is using the machine to refurnish Vic’s memories and the electricity is cut off. This inversion of Frankenstein’s Monster’s animation, is inspired, particularly when combined with the raging storm outside. These two pages alone make The Machine worth reading; they stopped me in my tracks. The written word at its most powerful.

But the author is not merely content with reworking a classic, he has plenty of themes of his own to explore. Though completely different in style to one other, The Machine unifies Smythe previous two novels under a thematic umbrella. All three novels explore isolation, faith and belief. The use of the machines, is considered (by some) as ungodly; messing with the soul. Which links into the novel’s main questions, What makes us human? Are we an aggregate of our experiences? Are we defined by our memories?

Part of the novel’s appeal, is that anybody reading it can relate to its central premise. Who hasn’t wished they could remove a terrible memory, who wouldn’t like to repaint a fading reminiscence of a happy event? Needless to say, Beth’s plan to regain the man she loves does not go well. Again this provokes questions. Does she love the man, or her memories of the man? With different memories, is he the same man?

As things deteriorate, it’s impossible not to read on in grim fascination. By this time novel’s style is irrelevant, the story is utterly compelling. Much like The Explorer, as The Machine hurtles towards its conclusion Smythe pans his lens out to reveal the bigger picture. Once we can see everything, we realise nothing has been left to chance. Every choice Smythe made was deliberate, the structure of his novel meticulously planned. The finale is as breathtaking as it was unexpected.

I thought Explorer was good, but The Machine is staggering. Buy it, read it, then buy copies of it for your friends, because you are going to want to talk about it.

Thanks to James for sending me a copy of the book. He can be found on Twitter as @jpsmythe

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