James Smythe’s Clake Award-shortlisted The Machine is like a wedding: it sports both something borrowed and something new. As refreshing as its focus on characterisation, mood and style can be when stood next to something as generically lumpen as Ancillary Justice, it also has as its McGuffin a device we’ve seen many times before: a contraption which can erase a person’s memories, reach into their subconscious and reshape it around a new story. Indeed, The Machine goes further in its weird resemblance to stories we’ve read before, asking questions not very dissimilar to those posited in the 2004 Michael Gondry film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: who are we without our memories, and how do we know we won’t make even worse mistakes without them?
Smythe’s answers are much grimmer than those offered by Gondry and his co-writer, the not usually sunnier-than-the-next-man Charlie Kaufman, and it is in the dour determinism of his novel that we can find the best argument for reading it. The Machine is in many ways a taut and tantalising horror story: the machine itself, fittingly resembling in its faceless opacity Arthur C Clarke’s own monoliths, is a classically implacable monster, squatting in the spare room of the novel’s lonely female protagonist, Beth, a schoolteacher based on the Isle of Wight. The gizmo’s mechanics are not understood either by her or the reader (and in this sense the novel isn’t science fiction at all, since the Machine essentially operates by magic); there is a constant nagging implication that it has its own purpose, its own agenda, and that it will pursue that goal remorselessly.
Beth has illegally purchased her Machine, since it and all other devices like it have been banned by the authorities following a series of disasters resulting from their use. Beth’s own husband, Vic, is one of them: now practically comatose in a specialist facility established for victims of the Machines, he was a soldier returning from the front with memories that tortured him. Like others, Vic opted for them to be removed – and, like others, emerged from the treatments a vegetable: “they’re more like the dead. There’s nothing inside them.” Beth blames herself: she rushed the treatments, she believes, in a desperate bid to get her husband back. The engine of the plot, then, is this guilt, this tragic weakness of the narrator (again, we think of horror).
Beth intends to undo the effects of the Machine on her husband by undertaking the Machine therapy in reverse. In one of the novel’s wittiest turns, she learns how to do so by logging onto internet forums resembling the ones we might search today if we wished to root our phones (this might immediately suggest to any reader unfortunate enough to have followed the wrong online instructions that matters will not go well). The first third of the novel, then, involves Beth’s preparations: the delivery men turning up, being given the excuse that the huge boxes of equipment contain a home gymnasium; their removing Beth’s window to get the parts into her flat (the first of many hints that Beth hasn’t entirely thought this process through); Beth whiling away the end of the school year until she can begin her project in earnest.
That so large a chunk of the novel is spent on build-up gives a sense of the languid pace at which Smythe tells his story. This gives him plenty of space for gentle, unobtrusive worldbuilding. Beth’s near-future is one in which global warming has made summers intolerably stuffy, and economic malaise has turned the young against the older, schools sharing the metal detectors and security guards of the American heartlands that “people the world over [once] laughed at as something that they would never need themselves”. There’s something woozy and dream-like about Beth’s world, since she drifts through it distracted and others stagger through it sweating; but it is also punctured by shocking acts of violence, of the estate’s feral kids threatening the local takeaway restaurant, or Beth herself, or being attacked in turn. Something simmers in Beth’s world, but Smythe’s story is not about the boiling point.
Instead, he moves on. First to the treatment: Beth plans to remove Vic from the centre, since “inside the Machine [...] are the exact constituents of what – who – Vic will be.” This is a painful process, physically gruelling and psychologically taxing; Smythe does not spare his reader the details, maintaining the careful spacing of incident in order fully to dwell on Beth’s own state of mind and on the costs of the Machine’s reverse therapy (“hasn’t she already decided that she’s going to live with him and his temper and – if they start again – the dreams?”). Of course, the Machine remains unknowable – and, Beth comes to think, not entirely to be trusted: “I didn’t put some story about you going back to war in you,” she says to Vic, “That’s from the Machine.” At one point during this painfully drawn-out period, she thinks of Greek statues, wondering how they were crafted: whether artists filled in the “seemingly unimportant parts – the flats of [the subject's] backs, or the flattened plateau of an inner thigh” – from memory or imagination, and whether that matters to the final likeness. The Machine is compared by its publishers to a modern Frankenstein, I suppose because Beth isn’t sure what it is she’s creating. But in a real way she’s worse than that other Vic, Frankenstein: he at least understood the process of creation, the body parts and the electricity; Beth simply has a Machine with a hard drive.
Perhaps it’s this uncertainty which leads to the novel’s slightly unbalanced final third: suddenly, Things Happen and all must be revealed, if not quite understood. An unfortunate catalyst for this change is one of the novel’s few mis-steps, Beth’s accidental best friend, Laura: another teacher at the school, Laura also turns our to be a caricatured evangelical, who hollers at Beth, as she plays with Vic’s soul, that she is bound for Hell and Damnation. “This is creation, Beth,” she rants (later she will pound on Beth’s door, spitting and snarling at her. “You don’t mess with creation, as it is the purview of our one God, Beth.” Leaving aside the fact that few people actually talk in this way, Laura’s fire-and-brimstone might reflect a theological turn in this otherwise successfully sketched-in future, but also seems by-the-numbers and crude, much like another scene in the novel’s final third, in which Beth takes clippers to her hair before a mirror. The familiarity of Smythe’s core conceit begins to re-emerge, then, as soon as he moves away from lingering on Beth’s perspective, her contorted vision of and relationship to her husband and his trauma. The novel’s final twist, though devastating, feels tacked-on and over-neat; there is a real fumble here in the final furlongs, as if the novel strolls nonchalantly and productively away from its borrowed elements for much of its length, and then, like Jim Carrey barrelling through his memory palace, sprints back towards them in order to find the exit.
Smythe’s spare and thoughtful prose may have here been better suited to a shorter length: at times, The Machine felt like a superb novella stretched, in that final third, a tad too far. It is in that prose, however, that The Machine more than earns its keep. Smythe turns a world as well as a phrase gently and yet powerfully, and this is a stylist’s trick often in short supply in a genre which conversely often lives and dies by the subtlety of its infodumping. If The Machine doesn’t quite spit out a product perfectly fashioned from those initial raw materials, watching it working is a pleasure.