Sunday, February 07, 2010

Book review: Chris Beckett "The Holy Machine"

For our October 2009 meeting, Center For Inquiry Austin book club read "The Holy Machine" by Chris Beckett, a novel that fit perfectly the science and religion in fiction theme of our club. Unfortunately, instead of our usual attendance of 4-5, we had only 2 people, one of which was me. So instead of a usual discussion writeup, I'm posting my own review. (The other guy mostly agreed with my opinion. :-))

"The Holy Machine" portrays a world completely dominated by religious fundamentalism, except for one secular state, Illyria, the only country still pursuing science and technology. Having the best-equipped military in the world allows Illyria to coexist in uneasy peace with militant fundamentalist states. But trouble is brewing within this secular paradise. Having witnessed violent religious uprisings that caused mass murders of scientists and rational-minded people in other countries, Illyria won't tolerate any religion within its borders. Even peaceful expressions of religion are persecuted. It also limits immigration from the outside world, since immigrants bring their faith with them. It grudgingly tolerates low numbers of guest workers, though, because somebody needs to perform menial jobs. Even so, it manufactures trainable androids with the eventual goal of replacing imported labor.

Yet none of this goes smoothly. Immigrants demand a right to peacefully practice their religions, and a growing number of native Illyrians support them, as they become dissilusioned by the lack of freedom of speech in their country. Meanwhile, robot training goes awry. As robots learn to better interact with humans, they quickly go insane. Their designers propose to counteract this with the only way they know how: by wiping robots' brains clean every 6 months, reinstalling the original program. This, however, means that any learning will be lost, making it impossible for robots to ever become ubiquitous, skilled, undemanding servants.

In other words, the premise of the book is a metaphor, though a highly exaggerated one, for the current state of the world. Aging populations in the developed world necessitate import of guest workers for low-skilled labor, and those workers usually come from poor and highly religious countries, bringing religious intolerance with them. Much has been said about threats to democracy posed by the influx of Islamic fundamentalism into Europe. I liked that "The Holy Machine" addresses several hotly debated issues of today, among which I count the unexpected consequences of artificial intelligence. Combine these issues, and you have a kind of novel most people in our club would like to read.

The plot revolves around a shy, socially inhibited 20-year-old named George Simling. To escape his sheltered, lonely life, he gets involved with a robot-prostitute named Lucy, and starts teaching her to become human. He falls in love with her, abducts her and skips the country. As they roam from one small town to another, their lives become increasingly endangered, since androids are considered abominations in religious fundamentalist countries. George tries to pass Lucy off as human, which, paradoxically, becomes harder the closer she comes to developing human-like intelligence and emotions. It suffices to say that of many things that happen to George and Lucy, few are good.

What I liked about this coming-of-age story is that it does not offer any fluffy, heart-warming, predictable lessons. George gets disillusioned in his idealism. Religious people, of who he imagined himself a champion, turn out to be close-minded and terrifying in their dogmatic beliefs; Lucy the sex robot whose stunning beauty, desire to please him all the time, and lack of human complexities caused him to fall in love with her, turns out to be less than ideal companion in the real world. As she can't relate to his shock and inner turmoil, he ends up feeling emotionally alone. He does not handle it well, and ends up in very bad circumstances.

Some of this book's science-fictional plot treads, such as Lucy the robot's first slow, faltering steps towards consciousness, are more convincing than others. A certain transformation at the end that resulted in the birth of the Holy Machine did not seem credible. Maybe because we, as readers, did not get to witness it at the same level of detail as Lucy's awakening, it appeared to be tacked on at the end in a Deus Ex Machina fashion (no pun intended).

Lucy's coming into consciousness is the most engaging plot thread in the book. Her sex-robot programming was directing her behavior in ways that were both comically inappropriate and very creepy, especially as they put the couple in danger. This particular mixture of comedy, horror and suspense kept me turning the pages.

The ending was anticlimactic. It's not clear what happened to Illyria, except that it got into even worse trouble than it already was; it's not clear whether The Holy Machine changed the world even in a minor way. Basically, at the end of the book things are worse than they were, but nothing is really resolved, at least not on a global scale. For George, the main character, his horrifying adventures resulted in hard-earned maturity, so in that sense the book delivers.

1 comment:

Squid said...

I finished the book myself yesterday, and I enjoyed reading your review!

I rather liked the ending, though. True, nothing is resolved, but I don't think this could have expected in a book under 300 pages. This leaves the future wide open, however bleak it may be...

Too bad the author didn't concentrate on how the Holy Machine came to emergence after the her first lapses into awareness, but this also helped the plot by focusing on how George could repent for his sins.

If you haven't already read it, I recommend Greg Bear's Queen of Angels for the missing part about an AI's rise to consciousness.