The best science fiction takes our world and spins it on its axis, borrowing some aspect of existence as we know it - some culture or technology or mode of thought - and blowing it out with imagination and the irrevocable progress of time to a point that often seems inevitable, when you think to think on it. The Holy Machine has as its high concept the swell in contemporary times towards religious extremism: nowhere is the dividing line between stark rationalism and such blind belief more evident than in Illyria, the gleaming city-state of Chris Beckett's first novel. Illyria is the last bastion of empirical ideologues in a world overpowered by religion eternally at war with one another, a "cathedral of science" packed full of holographs, virtual reality, gravity-defying architecture... and robots.
Robots - or synths, as Beckett has it. "Coated with a layer of living flesh... they were virtually identical to people, except... they did not have the virus of irrationality and superstition which seemed to have infected ordinary uneducated folk throughout the world." Most synths are simple labourers. Much to the government's glee, synths have largely replaced the guestworker population - which is to say immigrants, and thus (the train of thought goes) the religious, and therefore potential terrorists. Illyria has already expunged Greeks, Arabs, Albanians, Indians and a host of other nationalities from its borders, and thanks to the availability of cheap and reliable old robots - I guess synths don't strike - the government hopes to soon be rid of the remaining foreigners in its midst.
Of course, synths come in all shapes and sizes. On the more affordable end you have household robots - George Simling, our tour guide for the duration, affectionately calls his broken-down early model Charlie. Higher up the food chain there are beautiful syntec receptionists, and, of course, robot prostitutes; legalised sex-syths programmed to satisfy your every desire, however horrifying, with a smile and a gentle touch. George, a naive young professional translator whose mother all but sleeps in SenSpace - a virtual world a la Second Life extrapolated into something much less, umm... rubbish - falls in love with one such synth.
Her name is Lucy, and she is to change everything.
The Holy Machine is not your run-of-the-mill cute robot story. On the outside, perhaps it seems that way; in fact, to begin with, perhaps it is. We meet George, observe his awkward, bumbling ways, watch knowingly as he falls for a machine, and for a brief moment it seems like this will be another one of those narratives. Quite the opposite, in fact: Beckett is merely establishing a false sense of security, a status quo to shatter, as he does in short order. When the government announces that due to a few issues with the AI controlling the syntec's behaviour evolving, they'll be wiping each and every robot at six-month intervals, George takes off on an eventful and eventually ill-conceived escape to beyond the Illyria's lustrous confines. He breaks Lucy out of her hallucinatory robot bordello, abandons his mum to the virtual reality she seems to prefer to real life - with grave consequences - and takes to the Outlands, where synths are dismembered on sight as "demonic mockeries of God" (one God or the other, it doesn't seem to matter which).
After a bit of a trite start, the wheels of The Holy Machine finally get to turning, and from there on out they're always in motion. You sense that this story is going somewhere, somewhere wordlessly significant, and indeed, it is; it does. What begins as an apparently innocent endeavour, a book to take lightly with a G&T one balmy summer evening, ends as a bittersweet cautionary tale, a rich sci-fi fable whose prosaic simplicity belies many layers of depth. Questions of xenophobia, religious bigotry, the implications of technology, maternal responsibility and humanity itself are asked and, by the close of Beckett's debut, largely answered. When the curtain is turned back, the undemanding concept that appears to be the driving force of The Holy Machine is but a guise for the big ideas actually behind it.
Now then. People keep calling this book Orwellian, and they've had plenty of time to: another publisher brought The Holy Machine out to a sad lack of notice in 2004. But Beckett's debut, since superseded by last year's Marcher and The Turing Test, a collection of short stories, isn't half so hopeless as all that. And I don't know that is has such gravitas as your 1984s. A couple of clunky infodumps - a television programme which happens to educate us on the pertinent details of synths singlemost amongst them - and a bit of short-story syndrome are its downfall during such comparison.
Enough about what it isn't, though: it is a very fine novel, deceptively thoughtful and so dark as to surprise, full of valuable social commentary and unafraid of the issues much genre fiction would shy away from. It is an underappreciated gem in the vein of The Windup Girl. The Holy Machine is, in short, a great debut, and I for one will be watching to see what Chris Beckett does next.