Machine Man by Max Barry

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.

  1. June 2, 2015 at 12:39 am

    Ah, it does sound like this book isn’t for me but that Company might be! Fortunately I no longer work in the corporate world but I can still laugh at the poor souls who do.


    • June 3, 2015 at 10:03 pm

      There’s a billet about Company on my blog. And yes, I laughed a lot.


  2. June 2, 2015 at 9:22 am

    What a shame this one turned out to be a bit of a disappointment compared to the other three you’ve read. A real missed opportunity by the sound of things…

    I’ve yet to try this author although I’m sure I would relate to some of the ideas in Company and Jennifer Government.


    • June 2, 2015 at 8:58 pm

      I meant to add…further exploration of the ethical issues could have been very interesting – societal pressure to look ‘normal’ vs willingness to accept diversity, for example.


      • June 3, 2015 at 10:20 pm

        Yes. Exactly. Nothing’s really explored on that side. The “legs” that Lola shows Charlie aim at looking “normal” more than being efficient. Charlie wants efficient, not pretty or normal. In that sense, he’s remarkable because he doesn’t care about other people’s opinion. But at the same time, the way he doesn’t care is unhealthy. It’s not being an independant thinker, it’s totally lacking interest in human interactions. He doesn’t care because what they think doesn’t matter, as “they’re not important enough / worth enough for their thoughts to matter”.
        Although Charlie is endearing with his undying faith in science, he’s not a very nice character. Not someone I’d like to meet.


    • June 3, 2015 at 10:07 pm

      Company & Jennifer Government are witty and funny. And spot on. What they describe doesn’t exist but you feel like adding “…yet”. Company is closer to reality than Jennifer Government but this one translates on paper and in a literal way what’s happening between worldwide corporations and how marketing has taken over.


  3. June 2, 2015 at 9:29 am

    I remember you recommending Company, but this one doesn’t sound quite your favourite (despite the great premise). I’ve often found that to be the case with satirical novels – they start out well but don’t quite go deep enough. Perhaps because it is easier to grumble and criticise rather than have a meaningful debate and alternative ideas?


    • June 3, 2015 at 10:12 pm

      I wouldn’t day Max Barry writes satires. He doesn’t have that cynical tone that I associate with satires. He’s got a candid approach, the way children do sometimes. They point the obvious in a charming way and are dead right about a lot of things.
      He invents stories where the characters live metaphors or images. You think that people are attached to a brand? Max Barry makes brands their identity and his characters take the name of the brand they work for. And they may be literally attached to it.
      Jennifer is named Government because she’s a civil servant.


  4. Tredynas Days
    June 2, 2015 at 11:29 am

    Hadn’t heard of this writer – always good to learn something new. There’s quite a genre of ‘corporate satire’ novels – the recent one by Dave Eggers comes to mind: The Circle.


    • June 3, 2015 at 10:15 pm

      I didn’t know about The Circle, so I looked it up. It seems a lot more serious than Company.
      Have you read it?


      • Tredynas Days
        June 3, 2015 at 11:58 pm

        I listened to the first chapter of The Circle on a podcast: can’t say it intrigued me too much, though the concept was interesting.


  5. June 2, 2015 at 4:16 pm

    Emma: Max Barry’s work has changed direction. Wait till you read Lexicon. It’s brilliant conceived but I miss the humour. I don’t think that many authors can write a humorous book as well as Max does, so in a way it’s a shame to see him depart from those roots.


    • June 3, 2015 at 10:16 pm

      That’s sad, indeed. I was thinking he reminded me of writers of the 18th century. I wonder what Voltaire or Montesquieu would write about our corporate world.


  6. June 3, 2015 at 6:58 pm

    Transhumanism’s been a hot topic in SF for a while now, but a lot of the novels fail to really engage well with the ethical issues, being more excited about the science (Charlie probably reads them).

    This though sounds a bit of a missed chance, because as you say these are fascinating questions. Should we let people “upgrade” themselves? If not, why not? If we do though, what happens to the people who can’t afford to be better humans and what if the tech isn’t as advertised? There’s an ocean of ethical issues here as you rightly say, and satire is a great way to engage with them.

    Also, nerdy scientist is a bit underwhelming. Have we really not moved past that yet?


    • June 3, 2015 at 10:35 pm

      I thought about you when I skimmed through the article on Wikipedia. I owe it to you to be able to recognise the SF writers mentioned there. (Not that I’ve read any of them but at least I know they exist)

      We already have let people upgrade themselves. Boob jobs? New noses? Coloured contacts? It’s just the same but pushed to the extreme, like here when Charlie cuts his other leg. That’s what Barry does : he takes an idea, pushes it until it becomes funny, silly and slightly frightening. Proof by the absurd.

      There are lots of ethical questions about that. As you say, what happens when it goes wrong?
      I don’t know if you’ve heard of this but there was a big scandal in France about dangerous breast implants. They caused a lot of damage and the saddest of all is when it happened to women who had them put after they survived breast cancer.

      I was disappointed by the nerdy scientist, to be honest. I’m not very interested in science but when I hear a scientist on the radio, he/she is usually able to explain rather clearly complicated matters and I find them bordering on philosophy at many times.


  7. June 7, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    The lack of depth that you mention seems so disappointing.

    As you allude to this book sounds like it had so much potential. The ethical implications are indeed great food for thought. In addition the quote regarding the nun and other aspects about this work that you mentioned get to some really fundamental issues about what makes us humans. I am fascinated by this stuff.

    Barry’s other books sound very good.


    • June 8, 2015 at 10:19 pm

      It was disappointing because it had so much potential. I would have liked to see Charlie progress in another way that the one he persisted in. His belief in science is as dangerous as a zealot’s belief in religion.
      It’s a fascinating topic that questions our humanity.

      As for his other ones, Company is really a fun read.


  1. November 1, 2019 at 9:13 am

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