Saturday, February 11, 2012

Machine - Jennifer Pelland

I received a review copy of Machine by Jennifer Pelland after a call for people willing to review the novel on Amazon or Goodreads from publisher Apex Publications. I guess this Twitter experiment I've started at the beginning of the year is good for something. Accepting the book was a bit of a gamble for me. Machine is Pelland's first novel. She has published quite a bit of short fiction but I have read exactly none of it so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. As it turned out, Machine does quite a few things I like to see in a science fiction novel. First and foremost, delivering plenty of food for thought.

Celia Krajewski's brain is threatened by a disease for which no cure has yet been found. In the year 2092, medical science and technology have come up with a way to buy Celia time until a cure can be found however. While the doctors work out a way to cure her condition, her body is put into stasis and her mind is scanned and transferred to a machine replacement body. Conditions for this procedure are very strict. Celia's body will age naturally and in most respects, her body will be human. She'll need food, sleep and companionship, and when a cure is found, she'll be forced to return to her biological body. Despite all these restrictions, the program is controversial. There is no reason why a machine would be bound to the same restrictions as a human body. The temptation to stay in a machine body that can be made to last is tempting. Many people feel that disconnecting a mind from a body makes a person loose something vital. Something that makes them human. Without meaning to, Celia is about to become the focus of this debate.

Machine is not the kind of science fiction that focuses on technical detail. How the procedure is done and how Celia's machine body works exactly are only described in general terms. They are simply not that important to the story Pelland is trying to tell. She likes to play around with the what if question though. Machines superior to human bodies is a theme that shows up in science fiction more often, and the question of how human they are is a theme no reader of the genre will be unfamiliar with. Pelland creates a lot of tension by the legal restrictions placed on machine bodies and who can get one, and the temptation to enhance and enjoy the possibilities these machines offer. The idea is threatening to a regular human. How human would we still be if we could switch off our body at will, go with minimal rest and sustenance for long periods of time, become practically immortal as long as spare parts were available and restrictions in shape and power no longer apply?

One of the things I liked best about the novel is that Celia is asking herself these questions as the story progresses. Although she means to pick up her life and continue business as usual but it quickly becomes apparent that this is not an option. As more and more people start treating her differently Celia begins to explore the possibilities of her new body. It leads to a number of disturbing scenes. On the one hand Celia acts and responds entirely human, on the other she does things to her own body that would be shocking if she had indeed been biological. The parallel with people who cut themselves seems obvious but her motivation quite different. Celia is not aiming to create pain she can control, she is trying to convince herself she is no longer human. Hurt as a programmed response rather than a psychological reaction. Her motivations are complex and evolve throughout the story. I had the feeling that I had a good idea where the story would be going after the first fifty pages or so but managed Pelland surprised me.

Whether or not Celia is human, her feelings of loss, hurt and betrayal are very real. She is caught between a desire for her old life, which grows ever more distant as more people turn away from her, and her new friends, people who, although not entirely free of longing for their own bodies, have embraced their new bodies. Some of them have extensively (and illegally) modified themselves and are no longer able to show themselves in public. Hurt as she is, Celia is ready to embrace her machine body beyond the legal limits but at various points in the story she is also pulled back. The strain on Celia throughout the novel is enormous, something that is certain to affect the reader as well.

One aspect of the novel that adds to what is already a dark tale is the sexual practices some of Celia's new friends have developed. Machine bodies that are hard to damage, almost impossible to kill and easy to repair offer all kinds of impossibilities for seriously disturbing dominant/submissive fetishes. There is always demand for such a thing and some of Celia's new friends are taking advantage of that. It's another element is the puzzle of whether Celia is still human or something else. With caution no longer quite as important, she does deeply disturbing things. They clearly stem from very human desires and fears however, not to mention the fact that the customers are quite biological.

Machine focuses completely on impact on the individual. Pelland doesn't spend time on exploring the implications of developments in the novel to wider society beyond what is necessary for the development of her character, which some readers may find a weakness. Personally, I think Machine is a very good character study. Celia is a troubled individual and her story does not make for happy reading. It's at times disturbing, at time heartbreaking and always keeps the reader on their toes. The novel offers an aweful lot of questions for the reader to mull over. So many in fact that a couple of days since I finished it, I still haven't been able to pick my next read. Not many books manage to do that. It is probably not a book for everyone but as far as I'm concerned it is recommended reading.

Book Details
Title: Machine
Author: Jeniffer Pelland
Publisher: Apex Publications
Pages: 365
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-937-00913-7
First published: 2012

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