Published earlier this year and shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award 2014 – “The Machine” is a modern take on Mary Shelley’s famous “Frankenstein”.
After returning from war, Vic, a former soldier, becomes increasingly unstable and violent due to the affects of PTSD. This has an enormous impact on his relationship with his wife, Beth, who after several escalating incidents persuades her husband to seek help. Vic voluntary enrolls himself in a new programme designed to alter and redefine memories made possible by the creation a new kind of psychiatric therapy – “the Machine”. Initially, technological advances into the manipulation of memory were seen as glimmer of hope for people with dementia, PTSD and other disorders caused by specific events – however, it is later discovered that sustained use of this technique causes almost irreparable damage to the character, mind and everyday function of patients, often rendering them unable to care for themselves.
The novel is set several years after Vic received his treatment. Like many others, he is cared for in a residential home and occupies a vegetative state of nothingness somewhere beyond breathing but just short of death. Beth has retreated into herself and lives out a claustrophobic life with very little meaningful interaction. Stuck in a bleak and unforgiving post global-warming landscape she is unable to move on from what has happened and consumed with guilt. Looking for a way to drastically change her circumstances she embarks on a mission to replace her husband’s stolen memories and rediscover her place in the world by using an illegally purchased “Machine”.
While this novel employs elements of the science-fiction and post-apocalyptic genres I would say that these serve to enhance the confined and airless atmosphere that Beth occupies, not define it. Instead, I would describe it as a slow-moving character study that uses the narrow confines of Beth’s every-day interactions to emphasise the inward looking perspective of the novel. It is an enjoyable read, but those who prefer a faster-pace and lots of action may find it too slow. Some might argue that the plot is slightly predictable or that the characters cannot be warmed to however I think that they would be missing the point – for me, this novel is, at its core, a bleak look at the relentlessness of solitude and the coldness that lies at the end of the line. The closeted and detached life that Beth outwardly leads helped me to form questions about which life might be better – Beth’s in her intangible prison or Vic’s in his physical one – and helped to blur the lines between the two characters.
Learn more about the author, James Smythe, by visiting his website.