One of the greatest literary injustices of recent years is the fact that Chris Beckett’s novel Dark Eden (review here) is almost completely unknown on this side of the Atlantic. Dark Eden was my Top Read last year and is one of the best books I have ever read. Once I finished it, the only reason I didn’t rush out to grab his debut novel, The Holy Machine, right away is because I try not to review works by the same author consecutively. Once sufficient time had passed, however, I tracked down a copy of The Holy Machine and eagerly dove in. Sadly–but perhaps unsurprisingly given how incredible Dark Eden is– The Holy Machine is not even in the same class.
The Holy Machine is set in twenty-first century Illyria, a Mediterranean refuge of science and reason that was founded as a sanctuary from the religious Reaction that swept the rest of the globe. George Simling is a resident of Illyria who falls in love with a robotic prostitute who shows signs of emerging consciousness. The prevailing rationality of Illyria would not tolerate (or even believe in) a sentient machine and so George decides to take her outside of its strong walls, but the superstitious zealots outside of Illyria despise robots for completely different reasons.
Anyone who has read Dark Eden will not be surprised to see Mr. Beckett tackling themes likes the ones addressed in The Holy Machine, but he does so much less successfully in this earlier novel. To put it bluntly, the book shows many of the markings of the frequently encountered Imperfect First Novel. These include the oversimplification of complex phenomena to the point that the story loses basic credibility (both the rationalism of Illyria and the religiosity of the outside world are overly simplified in the extreme), fundamental failures of worldbuilding in the sense that the reader is asked to believe that the world is large but that it nonetheless inevitably yields a neverending supply of convenient chance reunions between important characters, and failures of characterization in the sense that nearly every character encountered shares a myopic focus on the exact philosophical issues that the author wants to address.
Ultimately, these flaws wreck the novel. Having said that, though, I am always glad when authors are interested in addressing these issues as directly as Mr. Beckett has and wish that more authors would attempt to do so. Furthermore, what it really boils down to is that if Mr. Beckett had to write The Holy Machine in order to be capable of writing Dark Eden, then I am glad that he wrote it. My advice, though, is to skip The Holy Machine and go straight to Dark Eden.
The True First
The Holy Machine was first published in 2004 by Wildside Press. There were apparently a few hardcover copies printed but these are pretty difficult to locate at this point.
[This review was not based on a review copy]