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Machine Man by Max Barry

June 1, 2015 19 comments

Machine Man by Max Barry (2011) Not available in French.

Barry_machine_manOur Book club decided to read Machine Man by Max Barry for this month of May. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but we had five public holidays in May which was good for escapades on long weekends but terrible for work since things kept piling up in our absence. I’m under the impression I jumped from April to June in one breath. Anyway.

Machine Man is a science-fiction / dystopian novel, put it in the box you prefer. Scientist Charles Neumann works for an innovative company, Better Future. He’s a pure scientist who believes in science as long as it’s not psychology, anthropology, etc. His specialty is mechanical engineering. He manages a lab in charge of finding new inventions that managers and marketing people sell or not. He’s not much of a manager and his social skills are almost inexistent. He’s never had a girlfriend; he’s not interested in socializing and he’s not really open to anything but science.

One day, he has an accident at work and his leg must be amputated. He wakes up in the hospital to face his new him. He has a rather detached attitude to the problem.

Presumably if I disconnected the saline drip, I would deflate to a husk. I was a junior high physics problem. If Charles Neumann is a human being with volume 80 liters, oozing bodily fluid at the rate of 0.5 liters per minute, how often must we replace his 400-milliliter saline bags? I felt I should have been more sophisticated than that.

That’s Charlie Neumann in a nutshell. Descartes would have been his kindred spirit: he thinks of the body as a machine. And Charlie loves machines. He loves the idea of improving machines. When he meets Lola, who works at the hospital as a prosthetist, he’s underwhelmed by the prosthesis she can show him. He’s entitled to the best as Better Future is so afraid to have a trial that they are willing to pay for everything. Charlie resumes work and decides to improve his prosthesis. He creates new legs, ones designed for performance and not to look normal. His leg is ugly but functional and in his opinion, much better than his former biological leg. And then he thinks that it’s a disadvantage to have a poor biological leg and a great mechanical leg. Since same causes produce the same effects, he reproduces the circumstances of his first accident to have his other leg removed.

That’s when Better Future steps up their game. They realise the potential of money in these improved body parts. They give Charlie and his team carte blanche to create products to enhance the human body.

Follows a high-paced story with lots of twists and turns about inventing new parts, testing them before selling them and opening a brand new market of scientifically enhanced body parts. Charlie and his team are like children in a candy store. They have access to all the spare parts and materials they want. They’re free to invent whatever they want without being bothered by ethics at all since their boss’s opinion is:

Don’t pass moral judgment because cause produced effect. We’re biological machines. We have chemically driven urges. You inject a nun with a particular chemical cocktail, she’s going to start swinging punches. It’s a fact.

With that kind of attitude, you can excuse everything. Just as I was reading Machine Man, I listened to a radio program about Transhumanism and the ethical questions raised by new technological possibilities for our bodies. It’s not a theory I’m familiar with but it was interesting to hear about it right when I was reading Barry.

And this is where Machine Man is flawed. It’s a novel with a fantastic potential. It could be to Descartes’s vision of the body as a machine what Candide is to Leibnitz. A philosophical tale, funny but deep. Machine Man raises fascinating questions. Do we develop these technologies enhancing the human body? Do we provide them only to disabled people to improve their everyday life or do we consider that anybody should decide what to do with their body and if they want to cut their leg to have a mechanical one, who are we to intervene? Who’s in charge of the related ethical challenges? Rabelais said Science sans conscience n’est que ruine de l’âme. (Science without conscience will ruin the soul)

Where does Machine Man stand in that respect? The answer is Nowhere, unfortunately.

I have already read three books by Max Barry: Company, a hilarious and yet spot-on novel about corporate crap, Jennifer Government, a dystopian novel where brands have taken all the power in the world and Syrup, a fast-paced novel about a marketing genius who invented a new soda. All three managed to combine a high speed, page-turning plot with deep thoughts about the corporate and marketing worlds. I loved the three so I was looking forward to reading Machine Man.

I was so frustrated by it. It lacked depth, stayed on the surface of things. It’s still a fun read but I wanted more. I expected more from Max Barry. I wanted some thoughts about how Better Future captures science for its own profit. I wanted more thoughts about the ethical debate related to what Charlie was doing. I also thought he was too much of a caricature. Nerdy, low social skills, wary of psychology…scientists are more than that.

For another take on Machine Man, read Guy’s post here.

PS: If you work in the corporate world, have a good laugh and read Company.

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