The Machine by James Smythe

The Machine is an eerie read that questions not only our faith in the mindlessness of computers, but also our faith in our safety as we mindlessly use computers. Set in a not too distant future, the world has been ravaged by climate change and England, devastated by flooding, now endures the intense heat and monsoon type rains of a tropical climate.

Beth, the main protagonist, has moved to the Isle of Wight to escape the prying eyes and unwanted sympathy she received on the mainland. Her husband, Vic, came back from a war in Iran with severe shell shock and was offered the miracle memory cure of the machine. Like so many others with post-traumatic stress syndrome, Beth and Vic were desperate to improve their lives and like all the others who tested the machine’s new therapy, they come to regret opting for the machine. The treatment wipes bad memories from its subjects’ minds and replaces the gaps with cover stories (in Vic’s case they even doctor wedding photographs in an attempt to wipe out his memory of being or even wanting to be a soldier, and they change the way in which Vic and Beth met), but along with the bad much else is wiped as well. Vic, as with all the others, becomes a hollowed out man, barely even able to remember to breath let alone speak. He is in a special hospice lying on rubber sheets.

Not surprisingly, these failures cause huge outcry and the machines are banned, even for restorative use – they had thought they could be used to help patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s. A large religious lobby attack the use of the machine as playing God and claim that its victims have been stripped of their souls.

But when we meet Beth, she has spent many years working on a plan to get Vic back, PTSS and all. She poured over websites and saved money and the book opens with the arrival of the machine, delivered to her flat and masked as exercise equipment. With the machine and the hard drive of Vic’s memories, Beth plans to replenish Vic. But can replacing those erased memories really bring back Vic? What about all the other memories that weren’t programmed into the machine, the ones that disappeared with the others? What about the false cover stories? Unsurprisingly, once the machine has been switched on, her plans unravel and are expressed through clever use of the unreliable narrator. The humming of the machine pervades Beth’s world, vibrating through her at a pitch that shatters her life.

To say more about the plot would ruin reading the book, I think. And thought-provoking as it is, The Machine didn’t take me as far as I imagined it could perhaps because it was all too worryingly believable, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Experimenting with soldiers is nothing new, nor is our desire to use machines to alter our experience of the world.

This would be a great contender for adaptation into a film for the Channel 4 Black Mirror series because it uses technology to question what it means to be human, but I’m not sure that I would award it the Arthur C Clarke Award, though to say that with any authority I’d have to read the rest of the short-list. Perhaps I will…

Next week I’m reading The Trick Is To Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway (unless it is lost in the post in which case I’ll swap to the following week’s book), then This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes, followed by Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. As always, please feel free to make book suggestions for future weeks.

One thought on “The Machine by James Smythe

  1. Thank you for recommending this disturbing book. As a psychologist, questions of memory are deeply interesting to me. And as the mother of an ex-soldier who completed traumatic tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan (safe and well now, thank God) I am very interested in treatments for Post traumatic stress disorder – how to rid our soldiers of disturbing memories, without impacting other memories? As you say Rebekah this book is disturbingly realistic, especially given the current state of research on these issues. I found the book compelling, well written, but of course, very dark. I was a little confused by the ending, but for me it was the concept and the story that mattered – this is a book that could have no happy ending. It would make a very good film, I agree. Great review!

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