The Holy Machine (Book, Chris Beckett, 2010)

From SFX 198.


Chris Beckett/Corvus/ 294 pages/ £10.99

ISBN: 978-1-84887-656-9

God really is in the machine.

Call SF literary and it’s off the hook; reality can go hang. A characteristic of such books is the ‘one big idea’, implemented somewhat unsubtly. Here the ‘big idea’ is that religion has become murderously resurgent worldwide, and the last bastion of reason is a glittering Balkan city state known as Illyria. As is sadly often the case with SF loved by those who do not love SF, it’s hard to see how this state of affairs could come about.

We say literary SF can accommodate philosophical sweep and SFnal world building, one only has to look at Orwell or Adam Roberts at his best to see that. Books like this, on the other hand, are the highbrow version of zombie fiction. Once you’ve bought into the unlikelihood of zombies, you can mostly enjoy the ride, but it niggles.

Not that realistic prognostication is the point of such stories. The book’s fundamentally unlikely fundamentalism is an allegorical frame for a beautifully written tale that muses on faith, self and soul.

The Illyrian George is a language geek, useless with women, who falls in love with a robot prostitute. The robot is becoming self-aware, so George rescues it and together they go on the run in ‘The Outlands’, both undergoing a realisation of self as they do so, their travels described in prose attaining lyricism.

As Beckett mercilessly contrasts the neo-Medievalism of his pluralistically zealous world with the soulless Illyrian paradise of virtual reality and sexbots enjoyed by George’s mother, neither faith nor reason gets off lightly. Go too far either way and we are undone, becoming savages on the one extreme, children at the other. Hardly ground-breaking, but very elegantly done.

Did you know?

Chris Beckett won the 2009 Edge Hill short story competition (very lit), beating Booker and Whitbread winners to do so.

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