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C. Gavaghan "CJG" (Scotland, United Kingdom)

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The Holy Machine
The Holy Machine
by Chris Beckett
Edition: Paperback

19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A bitter-sweet gem of a book., 3 Aug 2006
This review is from: The Holy Machine (Paperback)
Chris Beckett is better known for his short fiction output, but this, his first novel, shows that he is capable of developing his themes and his characters into longer and richer tales. His treatment of that SF staple `machine consciousness' is more sensitive and believable than most. While a lot of modern science fiction seems to leap from nothing to Skynet (today, Big Blue; tomorrow, the Singularity) Beckett's conceit is that we'll first have to confront the question of artificial intelligence in a context where the putatively aware machines are dependent & weak, struggling with fragments of nascent consciousness, vulnerable in the face of human bigotry and brutality.

But it's the reflections on and observations about normal, 21st century human relationships that are most poignant. How elderly or damaged people will cope with radical technological and social changes is a vastly under-discussed area in SF, maybe because such people tend not to be as glamorous as sexy young extropian cyber-things in self-aware jumpsuits. I suppose it's a clichéd observation that Beckett's social work background may have heightened his awareness of life on the margins of society, but it's important that someone is writing about this stuff.

The city-state of Illyria was an interesting conceit. The obvious contemporary parallels are with post-9/11 USA (or even post-7/7 Britain) but it made me think more of Israel - a state not only surrounded by enemies, but with a defensive mindset shaped by horrendous persecution, a mindset that is at once understandable & self-destructive. The most awkward & challenging questions, though, are posed by the protagonist's relationship with the robot prostitute, Lucy, a relationship that invites us anew to confront our assumptions about sex and love, but also about the human capacity for wilful self-delusion, and what Kim Stanley Robinson has referred to as `the illusion of intimacy'.

Recommended for anyone happy with books that pose more disurbing questions than comforting answers.
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