[This funny, character-driven cyborg novel is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Max Barry

2011, Vintage

Filed under: Literary, Sci-fi

Machine Man began its existence as a kind of blog through which Max Barry sent readers one page a day of the novel in progress. Those readers, who had to pay after the first 43 pages, gave Barry feedback that he sometimes incorporated into the plot of the novel. He even let the cover be decided by popular vote.

This sounds crazy. I mean, crowd-sourcing a novel? That’s a train wreck waiting to happen. That backstory made me skeptical of the book, to the point that I almost didn’t read it. Luckily I eventually did, and the novel itself overcame my skepticism and won me over in a big big way, because the end result, Machine Man the finished product, is delightful.

For the record, I have previously used the word “delightful” zero times to describe a book, but it’s been a long time since I’ve read one that comes together this well. Machine Man has a fascinating plot, outstanding (and hilarious) writing, and one of the all-time best sci-fi protagonists ever. It’s easily one of the two best books I’ve read this year. Let me tell you why.

Charlie Neumann works for Better Future, a shiny, evil corporation of the type that seems to be Barry’s hobbyhorse (his last novel, Jennifer Government, took place in a world where each citizen takes the name of the company he or she works for as their own surname).

Charlie’s very smart and entirely socially stunted. That sounds perhaps like an overused character model, but the way Barry writes him—Charlie narrates as well as playing the hero—makes him unique and engaging and a blast to follow.

Here’s how Charlie describes himself:

I am a smart guy. I recycle. Once I found a lost cat and took it to a shelter. Sometime I make jokes. … I have a job. I own my apartment. I rarely lie. These are qualities I keep hearing people are looking for. I can only think there must be something else, something no one mentions, because I have no friends, am estranged from my family and haven’t dated in this decade. There is a guy in Lab Control who killed a woman with his car, and he gets invited to parties. I don’t understand.

Charlie’s a bit like an alien species or a shoddy human clone: he sees and understands emotions and social signals, but he can’t quite do the subcutaneous algebra required to fit in. Nor he does particularly care to.

All this makes him perfectly suited to the story in store for him. One day, at the corporate lab where Charlie works, he gets his leg crushed in a clamp and they have to amputate it. He gets the best prosthetic money can buy, and finds it woefully inadequate. (Meanwhile, he falls in love with the prostheticist.)

He decides that he can build a much better prosthetic himself, and he does, but then his biological leg is holding him back, because it can’t keep up with the robo-leg.

So Charlie crushes his other leg.

Better Future hears about his project and decides there’s a lot of money to be made. Things get weird and hairy quickly, and the relatively short course of the novel holds an impressive number of twists, surprises, and treats.

In the midst of gleefully over-the-top complications, Barry manages to explore the philosophy and ethics of technology use (along with the philosophy and ethics of being human) without ceding a moment of entertainment. Largely because Charlie tackles ethical and philosophical questions like a socially stunted engineer, which is pretty funny.

Here’s another snippet, in which Charlie is discussing with an assistant what would happen if he used a drug to anesthetize his ventromedial prefrontal cortex (or VMPFC), the part of the brain responsible for manufacturing feelings of guilt. Charlie speaks first:

“So if my VMPFC were suppressed, I’d feel less guilt, but otherwise be the same.”

“A lot less guilt.”

“Right. A lot less guilt.”

“And/or regret. They both lit up the VMPFC.”

I pondered this. “Is there a difference between guilt and regret?”

Jason stared blankly. “I don’t … think … so.”

“I guess one is …” I shook my head. “Lost it.”

“Emotions aren’t really my … area of expertise.”

“Let’s assume they’re the same.”

This kind of thing makes Machine Man a pleasure to read, not only because it’s both funny and thought-provoking, but because it’s driven by characters, mostly the character of Charlie. Like The Sisters Brothers, this is a thoughtful, witty, insightful, and entirely overblown adventure story that takes a little bit of work on the part of the reader, but offers great rewards.

Don’t miss it.

Similar reads: The Dream of Perpetual Motion, by Dexter Palmer; The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt (the other best book I’ve read this year); Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (I’ll be reviewing Ready Player One soon—it’s not nearly as good as Machine Man, but they are very similar)