The Daily Monocle

Critical book reviews from a literary skeptic.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Machine Man by Max Barry

Posted by J. P. Wickwire

This review first appeared in issue #6 of Bull Spec magazine. It appeared in a collection of half a dozen or so interviews by yours truly, and you should really go check out the magazine. It's pretty spiffy. :D

Also, be sure to check out our video interview with Max!

What is it that makes us human? Is it our collective parts, or our collective self? Is it our emotions and intellect? Is it the things that we do, and the people we love? Max Barry lets readers decide for themselves as they rip through the pages of his latest novel, Machine Man.

Charlie Neumann is emotionally as mechanized and industrialized as his job as an engineer at mega company, Better Future. But when Charlies loses one of his legs in a machinery accident, he takes it upon himself to build a better prosthetic--a biological upgrade--and suddenly finds himself wired into a world on the cusp of creating cosmetic prosthetics and weaponized limbs. And the more in touch he becomes with the people around him, the more fantastic and illusory reality seems.

Max Barry’s dark comedy Machine Man takes Charlie’s prosthetic journey and turns it into something that’s a superhero/comedy hybrid with a character drama on the side.

Plot-wise, Machine Man is at once terrifyingly believable, and utterly absurd. And that’s what makes it magical. The dynamic characters--complete with likeable Prrostheticist Lola, anxious middle manager Cassandra, and insecure security guard, Carl--keep things fresh when the plot slows. Charlie grows from a cardboard engineer/inventor, into a living, breathing creature of the page.

Stylistically, Barry’s writing is bizarrely minimalist and technical, but still humorous and personable--a fact that becomes particularly clear when readers realize that under layers of comedic gold, Machine Man is an emotional story. One that questions not only ethics, but the definition of humanity. Where do we draw the line between mostly-man and mostly-machine? And do these lines change our perceptions of those around us?

Riveting? Yes. Absurd? Yes. Original? Heck yes. Max Barry’s Machine Man is a biting near-future tale that seems all too realistic to discount. We’re living on the cusp of the science-fiction age, my friends. And though literature continues to toe the line between fact and fiction, that line is more and more easily blurred.

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