I don't want to say anything about the plot since anything beyond the publisher's blurb would be a spoiler - but, for once, the publisher has got it spot on: this really is a Frankenstein for now... but Mary Shelley's original Frankenstein with its epigraph from Milton's Paradise Lost, not the trashy film versions.
This is an eerie and menacing story that is written with a light but very assured touch. The claustrophobic setting suits the grim plot perfectly, and the narrative itself is beautifully controlled - small things that we notice but don't dwell on come back to haunt us, and it's not until the shocking ending that everything falls perfectly into place.
It's not often that I'm surprised by a plot but this one really did creep up on me. Not that this is just an `all-about-the-twist' book - it's far denser than that. The intellectual probings about the relationships between man-machine, mind-body-soul, about the nature of love and how far it should go, give this an intellectual weight but one which never takes over from the understated emotions at play or the pure grip of the story.
This is a book which I finished in the small hours of the morning because I couldn't think about sleep until I'd finished it - and once I did, despite the satisfaction of a perfectly-tied-up story, I still wanted to re-read it immediately.
So this works beautifully on all levels: intellectual, emotional, literary. Read it - this is brilliant!
on 12 July 2013
'The Machine' was my first James Smythe novel, and I was drawn to it as I have been following his excellent blog on The Guardian website where he has been re-reading Stephen King's novels in chronological order.
I thought 'The Machine' was a fantastic read. Extremely claustrophobic and atmospheric, it tells the story of Kim and her husband Vic, who has been physically and, more importantly, mentally damaged whilst serving with the Army during a war in Iran. To say any more would, in my view, spoil this well crafted story. What is so enjoyable about 'The Machine' is the skilful way Smythe reveals only tiny details of the narrative (and, more crucially, the back-story) chapter by chapter. It serves to heighten the tension and generally uneasiness that you feel as you read the book - and whilst I would not classify it as either "science fiction" or "horror" writing, it certainly has been inspirited by those styles and I was left constantly feeling something bad or uncomfortable was going to happen on the next page. To sustain such tension over the course of a whole book is very skilful indeed.
Overall, I thought 'The Machine' marks Smythe out as a very clever and imaginative writer, and I will now certainly be going back read his previous two novels.
on 24 February 2014
Beth wants her marriage and husband back. Returned from war mentally damaged, she agrees to let the Machine heal him by purging his memory of the horrors of his experience in the war. Complicit in the treatment he now remains in a home for those left in a ‘vacant’ state following the treatment. Machines were scrapped following the controversy of the side effects after use. Beth has a plan and buys an Machine illegally to restore Vic her husband.
I like how Smythe has set this story on the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth because it brings a realism to the tale as I know both areas well.
This is a complex book written in simple layers using language that makes you think about its meaning. It questions the mind and memory, it brings a fear of the future and how in creating ‘healthy’ minds danger of what could be created instead.
At first I was eager to read and absorb the story, but Beth draws you into her world and then I wanted to explore the narrative more thoroughly.
The environment, society and personalities are depicted in such a plausible manner that I could almost feel the tiredness of such heat.
The school trip with reluctant teachers and pupils to “the Barrage Exhibition Centre, built in what used to be an art museum above a McDonald’s” is such a brilliant line. (There is a real Museum of Communism which is next door to a casino and above a McDonald’s in Prague that I have visited!)
I can completely identify with Smythe’s vision of the future and his irony.
The final chapter of the book is a surprise.
I would recommend this book as an excellent read, one which will leave questions in your mind after you put it down.
I had a curious relationship with this book. Whenever I picked it up, I was hooked - but I struggled to pick it up. Ironically this was because of its biggest strength - the creepy, downbeat atmosphere which Smythe skilfully weaves with his believable portrayal of a world suffering the effects of rampant global warming. His descriptions of the titular machine are equally unsettling. As wonderful as it is to experience a book so well crafted, it engendered feelings which I wasn't in a hurry to re-create by picking it back up.
I hope I'm not giving the wrong impression because it's well worth the time to read. I also had the same issue with Atwood's masterfully crafted Year Of The Flood which is no doubt because the dystopias that both books outline can be seen on the horizon, whereas the familial devastated nuclear landscapes or zombie hordes which are rife within the genre of dystopic sci-fi seem further away & more OTT by comparison.
Fusing elements of sci-fi, horror & noir, The Machine coldly oozes oppression in a manner reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft. As is often the case with noir-esque fiction, the main character is, arguably, not particularly well developed as she has tragically become a slave to her desire & subsequent obsession with seeing it realised. So while I generally prefer to have well-rounded characters, her inaccessibility is, arguably, kind of the point.
It feels strange to say it but despite its suffocating gloom, I would thoroughly recommend this book!
The Machine is unquestionably the best book that I've read this year. Billed as a Frankenstein for the 21st century, I'd go further than that, because The Machine combines the best of Frankenstein, The Monkey's Paw and Pet Sematary in a near-future exploration of the cost of playing god with the human spirit.
I've been a fan of James Smythe's writing ever since I read his claustrophobic sci-fi novel The Explorer. He has a knack for capturing the human element in every situation - the more fantastical concepts in his fiction are grounded by believable, three-dimensional characters.
Set in a believable dystopian version of the UK where climate change has wreaked havoc on the environment, life goes on for the survivors, and a wife dreams of rebuilding her husband's fractured psyche after a traumatic event that leaves him a broken man. Science and religion collide spectacularly as the narrative progresses, but never heavy-handedly, and the real stars are the characters, whose frayed relationships are tested by loneliness and deprivation. There are hints of Camus and Orwell here, dressed in a story that's effortless to read and lingers long after the last page.
As with The Explorer, this is a dark novel, filled with foreboding and loneliness, but it's also a brilliant one, and anybody looking for a British author that's set to inherit the landscape previously dominated by writers like Stephen King and Richard Matheson should look no further than James Smythe and The Machine.
James Smythe's first book, The Testimony, was a gripping faux-apocalyptic tale, telling the story of what happened after what may have been the voice of God spoke to everybody on the planet. After that I was greatly looking forward to The Machine - and it more than lived up to expectations.
On the Isle of Wight, beset like the rest of the world by the effects of global warming, Beth takes delivery of a Machine. That at least is certain.
Beth is a teacher whose husband was seriously injured during fighting. Something known simply as 'The Machine' wiped his bad memories, and replaced them with happier ones that were not actually his, but designed to improve his mental state.
The book is told from Beth's point of view, and tells the story of her struggle to repair her husband, and to get him back to being the person who she got to know and married. This sounds relatively simple (in sci-fi terms), but there's an air of unreality about the whole thing. Beth's position is unpleasant, and this makes for a rather depressing read - and rather a puzzling one, as one is left wondering whether all is really as it seems. I don't think it gives away much to say that the ending is not as I expected, although the outcome perhaps was.
A pretty depressing read, but not in a bad way - it reminded me in some ways of the bleakness of Kafka, combined with the other-worldliness of Arthur C Clarke. A great read, and one that will stay with you for some time afterwards.
This review originally appeared on [...]
The Machine was my first foray into the work of James Smythe, and as such I didn't know what to expect. What I discovered was one of the most interesting, compelling and affecting novels I've read in some time...
Beth lost her husband Vic to the Machine, a device designed to remove selective traumatic memories from his time in some unknown war. Instead it stripped him of everything that made him human, leaving him vacant, a shell. Now it's the only think that can bring him back.
It's not a happy tale, let's make that clear right now. There's a fog of despair that seeps into every aspect of the plot, from Beth's guilt and pain of loss, to the flood ruined, globally-warmed near-future in which she lives. There's very little happiness in the world. And that's like cat-nip to this reviewer. Smythe could have set the story at any time or place, and Beth's struggle would still have been touching, but the fact that the state of the world at large directly reflects Beth's own personal plight resonates strongly. Her quest to bring back her husband is the only slight glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak and friendless world.
The plot is insular, as well. It rarely strays from Beth's quiet life at home in her unloved flat or the school where she is overworked and under-appreciated. This too is mirrored by the setting, with Beth living on a version of the Isle of Wight that resembles a slum more than a holiday resort, cut off from the rest of the world by swelling water.
And that's what The Machine is about. Distorted reflections. Beth may get her husband back, but will it ever truly be him? Or just some copy, close but never quite right. Hollow. Broken.
It's a surprisingly brutal story as well. Not so much with violence - though it does feature towards the end - but with the harsh truths of life. Beth's role as Vic's carer is detailed with no holds barred. We experience everything it involves, from cleaning him after he has soiled himself, to how she views him, this vacant shell that she used to love. It's intimate and personal, and Smythe never holds back.
It's a credit to Smythe's writing that he can address these tough themes - from global-warming to street gangs, from care work and social responsibility to religion and the nature of the soul - in such a frank and emotional way, yet keep the book so readable. And it really is: I devoured the 328 page novel in a couple of days, compelled to discover more Beth and Vic, more about the world they inhabit, and, most of all, more about the Machine.
Ah yes, the Machine. I love it when authors create a character from inanimate objects or buildings, and Smythe did a great job with the Machine (never referred to as anything other than the Machine). It's a constant presence, huge and over-bearing in Beth's spare room, humming and whirring, radiating its presence, never allowing you to forget that it is there. The source of Beth's pain, but also her only comfort. There's something so ominous about it, something intangible, something... alive.
The Machine by James Smythe is a dark, dreamlike (or maybe that should be nightmarish) delight to read. There's something ineffable about it, yet so grounded in reality. Smythe is undoubtedly a talented author, and I look forward to appreciating his work again soon.
on 25 June 2013
On the Isle of Wight, beset like the rest of the world by the effects of global warming, Beth takes delivery of a Machine. That at least is certain.
Beth is a teacher of increasingly unmotivated students, but she has much more than teaching on her mind. Her husband, Vic, a soldier injured in action and suffering nightmares and violent spells, was put on an experimental regime in which his bad memories were wiped and happier ones put in their place. Sadly he, and others involved in the scheme were left alive but without their minds.
The action of the story takes place over a summer, when Beth tries to undo the damage caused by the Machine. Her struggles are hard but eventually seem to be having a positive outcome, but is anything what it seems?
I liked the style of writing, it fitted this story very well, adding to the sometimes dreamlike (or nightmare) atmosphere. Questions arise: what is actually happening, is the Machine actually sentient?
Main characters are few: Beth herself carries the book, bewildered but utterly determined in her fight to save her husband; there is fellow-teacher religious Laura, apparently offering friendship but fighting her own corner, some near-feral teenagers, and of course, looming over everything and everyone, The Machine.
As others have said, the ending was heartbreaking.
I recently read, and thoroughly enjoyed The Explorer by this author. A very different book but with the same qualities of rising dread. I must look out The Testimony.
In a world that seems to be in the not-so-distant future from now, people get on with their lives. But it seems to be a world with increasing problems from global warming, flooding, heatwaves and droughts. Beth lives quietly on a housing estate in a not very good area near the sea, and makes a living from her teaching. But she avoids questions about her husband, about her marriage. For Vic, an ex-soldier and her husband is in a vegetative state in a home - and Beth wants to rebuild him from the Machine. The Machine - big, black, ugly and unfathomable - sits in Beth's house and hums and whirs. And all the while Beth just wants her husband back, the way he was. But she can tell no-one about this, or about him. For what she wants to do cannot be done. The Machines are dangerous, and they are forbidden. COMMIT. PURGE. REPLENISH.
This author's works are becoming more intriguing with each book. The Testimony was, I thought the germ of a good idea but not executed as well as it could be; The Explorer was brilliant; and this book is absolutely brilliant. I'm extremely glad I stuck with the author and read more of his works. Believe me, they are rewarding. I'm very excited by the note in the back of The Machine that the Explorer is the first in a quartet of books, and the second one is due out in 2014. I shall be very eager to read that.
In this book, the style of writing is fluid, yet unusual - there are no speechmarks around character's conversations, they are just written into the narrative - for example:
Friday, I promise, she says. I just need to get past this stuff.
It's fine, Laura says.
Friday we'll go out and have more drinks.
I could imagine readers having issues with this style, but it seemed right somehow for the book and for the material. It gives an immediacy to the narrative, which serves after all to bring to the reader Beth's consciousness, and that's all. All that we see is through her eyes, as she relates the story. And again that's necessary for the story itself to be `true'.
This is a great story, and wonderfully told. The ending is shocking, all the more horrifying in that you feel it's not so far-fetched in this world of ours. Totally recommended.
James Smythe is a fascinating young author. Three books in under three years and each unique. Where they do compare, though, is in their original voice, their imagination and their sheer audacity. There's also the fact that each is really rather brilliant. After The Testimony (one of my favourite books of 2012) and The Explorer, we now have The Machine. As the cover suggests, there are links here to Frankenstein, and just as with that novel, the story of The Machine is less about the `monster' than the humanity of those who have made it what it is.
The Machine is set on the Isle of Wight in a near future in which global warming has seared the skies. The heat alternates with rare monsoons; dry hard land, reflecting the sun, competing with floods and deluge. The heat has altered the mood. Now gangs of hoodie teens loiter and frighten, more than ever, daring each other to lunatic jumps from the sheer cliffs above the sea. School is almost uncontrollable. Beth is one of the teachers, living in flats, to all observers a single woman. One day she takes awkward and cumbersome delivery of three pieces of `exercise equipment', the bits arranged by the delivery men like giant tetris. This is the Machine, an illegal object, a store of memories, once thought to be the saviour of the traumatised or the demented, a store for their memories, but instead proving to be their end. Beth's husband Victor had been the victim of early experiments. Now she wants to use the Machine to put her husband back together.
We don't stray far from Beth's mind. There are no speech marks and there can be few breaks. There are shifts, both in physical and mental place. This isn't especially easy to follow at the beginning and I did regret the loss of the speech marks. I soon got used to their absence, though. By the end I could understand why. This is, after all, a novel about Beth and her world. The outside is kept at bay. She does interact with it, not always by choice, and other voices interrupt her efforts to rebuild Victor - the Hoodies, a Christian friend and others. But she is determined in her focus. Nevertheless, the pressure of the outside builds and is reflected in storms or white heat or the hum from the Machine. There are moments of fear here. Expect to shiver.
The Machine is a clever and charismatic novel. It is a puzzle, as the cover suggests, and so the beginning makes little sense until you put more and more of the pieces together. The second half is very hard to put down and by the end I was on the edge of my seat and ready to applaud the author. Smythe deserves full credit for creating such a believable and real female protagonist as Beth. Also, the mix of the ordinary and extraordinary is quite wonderful, as are the locations. You can smell the sea, feel the vertigo on the cliffs, flinch from the heat.
James Smythe does intrigue me. It's difficult to approach any of his books with expectations of what they will contain. The only surety is that they will be very good indeed and that science fiction will get a twist. The Testimony is such a favourite novel of mine, it's hard for any of its successors to beat it for me and The Machine didn't manage it any more than the excellent The Explorer did but that can hardly be a criticism. It's more a tribute to the genius of The Testimony and its author. I didn't engage emotionally with The Machine, I found it too consciously clever for that, but I was utterly fascinated by it.
2013 is proving to be such a rich year for books. Here is another novel that not only breaks free of its genre but demands your attention. A highlight of the year I am sure. I'm grateful for my review copy.