“The Holy Machine” by Chris Beckett – A Review

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(Corvus, 294pp, £12.99)

"The Holy Machine" by Chris Beckett
I bought this book for a few reasons, which should probably be made clear before I begin dissecting it. First amongst them, was the review of this UK release in Interzone #229, which gave a pretty glowing summary of it. Second, and related, was the quotation on the front, from the Interzone review of the US release, which gave an even-more-glowing summary. Third was the beautifully made cover (I actually looked this up, and it’s by designer Andy Vella, whose work is worth a look). And finally, when I read the first few paragraphs, in Waterstones Southend, I instantly recognised that this was a competent writer.

And a competent writer, Beckett certainly is. The bio on the back flap proclaims this as his first novel, which is a hopeful state of affairs when you start off this good. Yeah, I enjoyed it a lot.

It was a very well written story, with believable characters, a blisteringly exciting pace, and a wonderfully vibrant and intriguing world. Set in a future where the entire world (apparently) has turned religious fundamentalist (precisely which religion seems not to matter, as long as you’re verging on the psychotic with it), apart from one solitary city in the Balkans, which has become the refuge of atheism and science (for the first part of the book, at least, seemingly the same thing). Of course, in predictable fashion, it seems to be moving towards an atheist fundamentalist theocracy.

But the story itself focuses on socially maladjusted main character George, and his relationship with sex-bot Lucy, who at the same time is becoming self-aware. The whole thing culminates in a madcap flight through the theo-pathic outlands, as the two try to outrun the various different parties who want to destroy them.

The main advantage this story has is its pace. It keeps moving forward with such unrelenting action and excitement, that it becomes a difficult book to put down, even if there are rather important things you should be doing instead. And the pace also helps the plot, which if you give it any thought at all is rather predictable. But it scoops the reader up, and immerses them to such an extent that they don’t have time to see it coming (and don’t really care if they do). This really is storytelling at its very best.

There are, however, things that I can criticise. And I’m going to. The first, and most obvious, is the central idea. That people would react against science, becoming ultra-religious and anti-scientific, seems ridiculously far-fetched. It doesn’t really help that Beckett doesn’t give a particularly strong reason for said theocratic revolution, it just sort of…happens. The whole story resting on this tenuous conceit is a bit risky, and with a lesser writer would probably collapse in on itself. As it is, if you can bring yourself to look past that, the story will carry you along, and the message that Beckett is trying to get across (namely, the dangers of restricting belief, in either direction), will make up for the stretch.

But my biggest criticism, is that it’s just too short. The pace that I’ve mentioned before worked really well for telling the story, but there was so much that I felt I, as a reader, was missing. Beckett creates an endlessly fascinating world here, and it seems a real shame that he marches his readers through it at breakneck speed, with nary a chance for a look around. There were things mentioned in passing, happening elsewhere, that I would have liked to hear more about. And given that it was narrated in a past-tense first-person perspective, which a couple of times diverged to look at other sub-plots, I don’t really see why it couldn’t have done so more.

But really, it’s a fairly petty complaint, that only speaks to the calibre of this book. It gets you so into it, that when it’s done you find yourself as the metaphorical Oliver Twist, meekly asking (or maybe clamouring) for more. I highly recommend this book, as an example of good storytelling, and good science fiction. It has a message, as well as a story, to tell, and whilst many will not agree with that message, it will make you thing. And what more do you want from a book?
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