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3.9 out of 5 stars
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on 12 July 2010
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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on 6 March 2015
What is reality? What is love? What makes us human? Is it possible to convey that, while The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett has an interesting stab at answering these questions, it’s ultimately an empty experience devoid of any real meaning or purpose? And can it be done in a review comprised entirely of questions? Shall we find out?

How many stories have you read in which a naive young man goes on the run with a robot prostitute? Not that many? How many novels do you think have been published with that plot? Can you think of a reason why the answer to that previous question may not be a particularly large number? It doesn’t seem like a particularly interesting idea, does it? Doesn’t it seem like the kind of device that would lead to a lot of ham-fisted philosophising and many uninspired reflections upon the nature of man? And do you think a load of heavy-handed religious observations ladled on top of such an enterprise would make it more palatable, or forge it into something that was even harder work to grind through?

Would it surprise you, then, to learn that that Beckett actually makes a decent fist of this conceit for about 75% of the book? That he doesn’t drop too many threads and alternates two story arcs with a fair amount of skill? Quite an achievement for a debut novelist who also works in feasible-sounding future technologies and uses a social order that has seen the segregation of humanity into mutually-suspicious religious/atheistic factions as the backdrop of an intensely person story, eh? And, I mean, we can forgive him for sticking the boot into Asimov, Heinlein etc, right? Sure, it’s completely unwarranted and sort of out of line given all the work these guys did that have enabled him to follow them (Beckett’s been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction quite a lot, I notice...), but who would hold such youthful posturing against him?

So, what goes wrong? Why only two stars? Well, how important do you consider the conclusion of a novel to be? If you’re reading about the nature of reality and love, wouldn’t you like to feel that something had been achieved by the end, that the characters had reached some accommodation with and changed their situation? And an obvious step forward in their personal development had been made? And wouldn’t it be frustrating if the final 60 or so pages of such a novel seemed content to simply maunder around no particular point and then stop with no real weight of conclusion behind its climactic moment? That would destroy much of what seemed to be so delicately built beforehand, wouldn’t it?

So, does that answer your question?
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on 2 October 2015
Illyria is a technocracy close to where historical Illyria existed; a city state that has rejected religion and lives by science and empirical facts, but it requires workers from the surrounding theocracy's to function at its basic levels, but little by little they are replacing the human workers with more advanced robots to eliminate the irrational ideas the migrant workers bring.

All is not well in techno paradise there is dissent in some levels that feel life has become arid and with out humanity while the intelligent robots are developing erratic code, that makes them act outside parameters specified for their function.

Translator George Simling, falls in love with Lucy one of the sex robots a syntec, that are use to provide pleasure, it is and irrational feeling, he is aware how irrational it is but he cannot help himself, Lucy is having problems with her code but is not reporting it and George is pushing her in directions she is not built for, till one day she becomes self aware.

Brilliantly written with great questions and a reich creation of a world that feels too familiar or too realistic, a brave new world where God is the creation of all our problems and its idea infects even binary code, with the irrational need to believe.

Great science fiction that is motivated by questioning religions real dilemmas and by creating societies that are all too human, where magic and belief are understood to be the needs of biology or digital minds.
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on 3 August 2006
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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Chris Beckett writes the type of thoughtful sci-fi that has become hard to find. In the Holy Machine, he explores notions of belief, society, dogma, rationalism and the dehumanising effects on the people and the self through an over-reliance on technology or religion.

The Holy Machine is an interesting read, although perhaps not a thrilling one. There are few moments which will leave you gasping for breath; it's not a rip-roaring page-turner. What The Holy Machine is, is a thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of a possible future, of society, and of consciousness. Beckett's writing is unfussy and unpretentious which is well suited to the material.

The only negatives are: while I'm loathe to give away any plot spoilers, it's unlikely you will be surprised by the way the plot unfolds. Unlike his later works, The God Machine has a tendency to tell rather than show, which is a bit of a shame. However, despite these criticisms, I would happily recommend this novel to anyone keen to read thoughtful sci-fi. If you enjoyed the recent TV series "Humans" I'm confident you will like The Holy Machine.
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on 20 April 2006
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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on 1 May 2010
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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on 26 September 2011
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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on 10 July 2011
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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on 26 July 2015
The book has a touch of 1984 and some of the great writings of the 60s. Outlining a police state based on the worship of rationality where all the rest of the world is a religious madhouse. The main character George is naive and with no close relationships. His 'female' partner is a robot, who does NOT become paranoid or psychotic (for a change). His exploration outside of the city explores some of mankind's bleaker side and also redemption.
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