(This review may be considered to contain spoilers.)
The city of Illyria is the last bastion of scientific reason on Earth. After the world was swept up in “the Reaction”, a global religious uprising against science and all its works, the rationalists and techno-corporations that survived retreated to an enclave in the Balkans, and there built Illyria as their ivory tower and final bastion. George Simling works as a translator. He is a second generation Illyrian, born to Ruth, a woman who narrowly escaped the religionist pogroms in the US and has been psychologically scarred by her experiences. She spends most of her time in Senspace, which is a panoply of full-immersion virtual realities.
Despite its rigid and vociferous clinging to rationalist principles, Illyria has strayed into the mindset of any embattled and besieged minority. C. Gavagahn, reviewing The Holy Machine on Amazon UK, compares this attitude to that 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”.
Illyria has also made compromises for survival that will inevitably lead to discord with its neighbours – it is dependent on immigrant labour from the religious states that surround it, but restricts the freedoms of those workers in the name of upholding its rationalist principles.
The world Beckett has built here allows for an exploration of the dynamics between religion and science as ways of seeing the world. Despite their seeming polar opposition, the similarities of their attitudes to those considered to be outsiders to the cause are carefully portrayed, and chime with the ideological antagonism that currently grips our world.
Against this charged backdrop, the drama of George is played out: his fall from grace and into rebellion against the ideals of his homeland; his disgust with the narrowness of not only religious thought, but militant rationalism also; his eventual escape from the city in the company of a robot prostitute that is incrementally acquiring consciousness; and his descent into (and eventual redemption from) guilt and madness after he judges himself guilty of her destruction.
For a novel that deals so explicitly with a classic science fiction trope, that of the ‘conscious machine’, The Holy Machine is also a surprisingly emotive and heartbreaking tale. Beckett achieves this by never shying from exposing George’s character flaws – which is a hard trick to pull off with a first person narrative, even one with a retrospective framework. George doubts not only the standpoints of authority but his own beliefs as well; he also falls victim to self-loathing, which he directs outwards towards the ‘syntec’ prostitute, Lucy.
Appalled and shamed by his idealist bid for freedom with what turns out to be a pale imitation of humanity (despite Lucy’s gradual awakening into consciousness), George ends up betraying her to a religious mob in the world outside Illyria that they are fleeing through aimlessly. He carries the guilt from this event with him until he is absolved of it in a meeting with the eponymous Holy Machine at the end of the story.
The deeper questions that The Holy Machine addresses are brilliantly handled, with sensitivity and original angles on an old conceit – what would occur if a machine began to acquire consciousness? This basic question flows out to embrace a slew of philosophical enquiries about the nature of the soul, of what it means to say something is alive, of the differences and similarities between religion and science, and of what happens to morality when authority is surrendered to dogma. Much of the story shines a light on modern life in the 21st century, with its themes of mutual incomprehension and intolerance.
Interwoven with the main story is that of Ruth, George’s mother. Once George has fled, and is hence no longer able to forcibly remove her from Senspace each night, she spends so long immersed in it that her body becomes irreparably damaged. Subsequent amputations and surgery mean that she is ironically unable to function in the normal world any longer and is obliged to spend all her time in Senspace, or projected into the real world by inhabiting a syntec robot ‘vehicle’.
Here Beckett manages to address more complicated and contentious ideas; are we our bodies, or are we our minds, or are we our souls? The use of the term ‘vehicle’ brings to mind Buddhist concepts of reincarnation. Ruth, or ‘Little Rose’, as she renames herself in Senspace, allows us to wonder whether being apart from reality is such an appealing idea once there is no way to return, and whether constantly fleeing from the past is a path that leads to happiness or despair.
The Holy Machine is a book at once complex and simple. Approached simply as a story, it is a brisk and engaging read, with sparse prose and tiny chapters that showcase Beckett‘s grounding in short fiction forms. There is no flab on the tale, but neither is it undernourished, nor concealing a mechanical body beneath human flesh like Lucy the syntec. Beckett has been unafraid to take on some very serious and contemporary themes, and treat them with the seriousness they deserve.
Science fiction is often touted as a ‘literature of ideas’, and indeed this is often all many works of sf manage to be. This work, however, manages to go beyond the whiz-bang technology-obsessions of much sf, and brings the reader back to the central question that all good literature of any genre should discuss – namely, what it means to be human. An inspirational read, and a great antidote to the barrage of militaristic techno-thrillers that are saturating the market, Beckett‘s debut novel shows promise of a future career of controversial yet enlightening work.