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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Bittersweet Cautionary Tale in the Vein of The Windup Girl
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...
Published on 12 July 2010 by Niall Alexander

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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Robot takes exfoliation to extremes!
This novel was a disappointment, as I'd read good things about Chris Beckett. His writing style is, to me, rather lifeless and bland. Perhaps he wanted the story to take front stage and the prose itself to be transparent. Unfortunately the story is also rather lifeless and bland. Beckett deals with themes that have been covered before, and with much greater aplomb, by a...
Published on 1 May 2010 by sft


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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Bittersweet Cautionary Tale in the Vein of The Windup Girl, 12 July 2010
This review is from: The Holy Machine (Paperback)
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.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars sf that asks interesting questions about human needs, 20 April 2006
By 
G. Gibson "gary gibson" (scotland, united kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Holy Machine (Paperback)
It's a remarkable thing to stumble across a book of quite such quality published by a small press company that, if it hadn't been recommended to me, might well have escaped my attention. Without repeating the positive sentiments of the previous review, I can add that this book is a reminder that at times British sf writers can create a vision of the future at once both bleak and beautiful. The book is a remarkable journey through a near-future environment quite literally born of nightmare, and reminded me that in an era of cookie-cutter sf it is still possible to produce work of high quality. Recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A tale of a rational dystopia, 29 Oct 2009
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A. J. Poulter "AP" (Edinburgh) - See all my reviews
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This is a first novel and feels like it. At first things are described in detail but later more and more short 'chapters' appear which move the story forward but with minimal detail. It takes on big themes. The world has split into two, the majority of countries being ruled by squabbling religious regimes of various types which ruthlessly impose their own orthodoxies. One country stands out, Illyria, a refuge for science and those of a rational outlook. It uses androids to perform a range of mundane tasks, because Illyrians themselves do not want to do them and importing workers from the religious regimes is not popular: they are known as 'squiffies' and regularly riot over conditions and lack of access to their religions. The central characters are the Illyrians George, a software engineer, and his mother Ruth, who spends all her time in virtual reality. George does try to interact with the real world but is painfully gauche. He eventually flees Illyria with an android prostitute he has fallen in love with and most of the story is about his adventures. Ironies abound. Illyria is no less repressive than its religious neighbours. Its concentration on rationality implies losing contact with reality. Outside Illyria, life appears to be dull, brutish and short, albeit tempered by faith. In Freudian terms Illyria is the ego, the others the id. Both fear the development of intelligence in androids, but for different reasons. The title reveals this irony: an intelligent machine may be more rational that its makers and more able than its detractors to see God.
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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
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C. Gavaghan "CJG" (Scotland, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars triumphant yet cautionary tale of good vs evil with a relatable twist, 10 July 2011
This review is from: The Holy Machine (Kindle Edition)
the following review contains some information about the story and what happens

I loved that this book was so brave in its message of good vs evil, yet spinning the common idea of good vs evil on its head. I agree that Becketts writing style seems quite bland, but please take note that the book is written in first person narrative, and remember the history and environment of the protagonist, who has been surrounded by the hard cold face of scientific fact all his life in Illyria. I think that the writing style serves a purpose in this way, and only makes the reader more emphathetic with Georges story.

In a world where the fear of religious fundamentalism is very real and the disasterous results of which have affected thousands in the west, one could see how it might be easy to fall into a reactionary, defensive fundamentailsm, which we recognise in Illyria.

The fact that Georges mother (who has suffered horrendously at the hands of religious fundamentalists) is so unhappy with her life in Illyria she employs the drastic techniques to escape she does is a powerful message; the idylic state of Illyria may not be all it seems.

It seems that the state free of fundamentalism has its own laws and practices, which becomes more and more apparent with (a) Georges dissilusion with his lack of 'spiritual' understanding and (b) the treatment of Lucy when she becomes defective (which ultimately George succumbs to and participates in.

Throughout the couples flight Lucy's importance a as character serves only as a vehicle in which George assesses himself. However, the ultimate central role the robot plays was a revelation to me, which i thought was very brave of Beckett considering the controversial ramifications of writing a robot as a deity. However, the irony of Lucy being initially a man made object (and a hedonistic sinful symbol) to becoming a self-thinking moral and intelligent organism I found delightful and enjoyed Lucy's journey (albeit through the eyes of george) as much as Georges himself. I particularly enjoyed the almost religious symbolic 're-birthing' Lucy endures when she is burned by the religious mob.

I believe that this book is much more than a Sci-Fi novel, it has moral, biblical and philosophical undertones that will be applicable to everyone, and therefore should be read by everyone, religious or scientific. The main message that is evident is one of moderation, questioning the realities of dangerous and parocheal values, which is somewhat of an important message in todays society.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a little gem, 10 Feb 2011
By 
Joanpau Rubies (London UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Holy Machine (Paperback)
The problem with much recent SF is that it often depends of recycling the genre's tired cliches, all of which were first explored decades ago. Now, a story about falling in love with a machine is not exactly new (Philip K.Dick comes to mind when reading The Holy Machine), and yet this book does it so well that it must be taken as an exception to the rule that recent SF lacks genuine novelty. The book is made totally relevant not only because it is subtly constructed and nicely written, but also because it convincingly portrays very contemporary tendencies, especially (but not only) the clash between religious xenophobia and rationalist intolerance. The novel should have got more attention than it did, but I believe that it will grow in stature with time, and you cannot say that of many modern SF novels.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Fantastic SF Debut, 16 Nov 2014
This review is from: The Holy Machine (Kindle Edition)
George Simling is a young man living in the future state of Illyria, a state of scientists founded in response to the Reaction, a global social event that called for the extermination of rationalists and the installation of theocratic regimes. When he falls in love with a 'syntec', a robot designed to simulate human behaviour, George plans to flee the country with his self-evolving lover and try their luck in the wider, hostile world.

Science fiction is the genre of ideas. Harlan Ellison suggests that science fiction is a means of testing the human condition against emergent technologies. How would we use it? How would we abuse it? What the answers say about us? Because the genre is much affected by escapist fantasy like 'Star Wars', it is refreshing to read a book that dares to pose ideas. 'The Holy Machine' deals with artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and political activism. Great stuff.

Most impressive about Mr. Beckett's book is that he manages to balance a respect for rational enquiry with a regard for religious belief. In an era when the New Atheist movement is vilifying the faithful, Mr. Beckett dares to suggest that a 'rational' state would be no better than a religious one, albeit for different reasons. Whether or not he is right is for the reader to decide. This is only another strength of the novel. 'The Holy Machine' asks questions, but gives no final answers.

In summary, 'The Holy Machine' is engrossing, entertaining, and educational. It comes highly recommended.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Robot takes exfoliation to extremes!, 1 May 2010
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This novel was a disappointment, as I'd read good things about Chris Beckett. His writing style is, to me, rather lifeless and bland. Perhaps he wanted the story to take front stage and the prose itself to be transparent. Unfortunately the story is also rather lifeless and bland. Beckett deals with themes that have been covered before, and with much greater aplomb, by a number of SF writers. The venerable Philip K. Dick especially comes to mind, as he spent much of his writing career discussing "what is human?" along with various religious themes. Unlike Beckett Dick delved very deeply into these subjects, creating several masterpieces around them. In The Holy Machine, Beckett fails to create a believable or compelling world. The characters are irritating, often one-dimensional, and not particularly interesting. He poses no new questions and offers no new answers to old ones. Come the end of the book I cared very little about what had gone before. Having said all this I have read worse so it squeezes a slightly reluctant 2 from me.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best SF novels of the start of the 21st century, 18 Jan 2006
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This review is from: The Holy Machine (Paperback)
One of the best SF novels of the start of the 21st century, if not one of the best novels, period. It describes a near future where religious fundamentalism has swept the world. Those who refuse to accept the beliefs of their new leaders are tried for blasphemy. Those found guilty are tortured, or worse.
There is a heartbreaking pathos and beauty to George’s, descent from the grace of Illyrian society as he tries to connect with the developing intelligence of a robot prostitute. Beckett does an exemplary job of making sympathetic and believable the characters that George encounters as, cast adrift in a world of superstition, he moves towards his final encounter with the Holy Machine of the title.
I can’t recommend it highly enough. Buy this book!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not a cute "robot has a concience" story, 26 Sep 2011
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This review is from: The Holy Machine (Kindle Edition)
Believable science fiction usually works in a not too distance future where just a few small changes and shifts creates quite a different world of life for the people. This does just that.

You can imagine if things had turned a little bit differently after something like 9/11 you could be here. Basically a wave of religious fundamentalism has swept the work and the city-state of Illyria sees itself as an oasis of science in the middle of it. They don' allow religion but they almost worship science itself.

Robots are used int he homes and they now have synths - robots with real skin that you can't tell from human). The highly sophisticated synths fill many roles in this society, including prostitution. There is a known problem though, which is known throughout the cuty, that some roberts seem to be developing self-awareness so there is a prgramme lanched to wipe their robot minds regularly to stop this spread.

Along comes George who falls in love with Lucy - a synth. He decides to rescue her and escape to the world outside of the city where robots aren't exactly feared, but hated. The story really evolves from this point. Lucy can't really escape her programming and George is disappointed by how things start to work out, or not work out for him and Lucy. The events take a real turn for the worse and George continues to life his life in the Outlands until he hears of the Holy Machine - a sort of myth of a holy robot travelling around the world.

Great book that shows how our fantasies of life can be sadly miss-directed.
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The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett (Paperback - 1 Feb 2011)
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