Chris Beckett, The Holy Machine (2004)
Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys (2011)
The two books I’m discussing today revolve around small atheist communities in worlds dominated by religious belief. Though they take their stories in different directions, both examine what kind of role faith may play in someone’s life (and what may fill a similar role in its absence), and offer fascinating studies of characters caught at the intersection of faith and non-belief.
Chris Beckett’s 2004 debut The Holy Machine is narrated by George Simling, a translator in the Balkan city-state of Illyria, a nation founded on the principles of rationalism after the rest of the world was taken over by religious extremists. George’s only company is his mother Ruth, a former scientist who has retreated from the world and now spends most of her time in the virtual reality of SenSpace. As a result, for all the material comforts in his life, George is missing true human contact (‘I spoke eight languages fluently, but I had no one to talk to and nothing to say’, p. 3).
George finds himself getting involved in radical groups who feel that, in its hard-line take on rationalism, Illyria is becoming as oppressive a place as the world’s fundamentalist states (and, indeed, the Illyrian government begins to persecute its foreign ‘guestworkers’ purely because they are uneducated). But even this does not provide him with what his is seeking; instead, George falls in love with Lucy, a syntec (a robot designed to be indistinguishable from a human) programmed for sex. Slowly, Lucy is becoming self-aware, and when the authorities announce plans to reprogram syntecs every six months to prevent their going out of control, George decides that he must escape from Illyria with the robot, even though syntecs are considered blasphemous (and therefore to be destroyed) in the outside world.
The Holy Machine examines several complex issues, and refuses to draw neat conclusions about them. One such issue is the relative merits of religion and science, and Beckett creates no simple opposition between the two; I’ve already described how Illyria is shown to be pretty much as intolerant and repressive as the religious nations of the book, but the issue is also explored through the character of George Simling himself. George is not religious, and his conversations with some of the believers he meets show how shaky the foundations of their beliefs really are. Yet George’s reaction to Lucy has a similarly flimsy basis, and his journey through the world beyond Illyria increasingly takes on the character of a pilgrimage, as he searches for the ‘Holy Machine’ of the title, a robot which is said to have a soul. ‘You’re actually just like an Illyrian atheist!’ George shouts at one priest. ‘You look at the appearance and not at what’s inside!’ (p. 221) Neither faith nor rationalism can entirely give George what he is looking for, but aspects of both are important to him.
Another key question posed by Beckett’s novel is that of just what it is that makes us human. The whole way in which George falls in love (or believes he does) and decides to run away with Lucy is clearly impulsive; he knows that Lucy is really an ‘it’ rather than a ‘she’, that the syntec will never belong to the natural world however much it comes to comprehend – but he can’t bring himself to admit this, and becomes shocked and angry when forced to confront the fact of Lucy’s mechanical nature. Contrasting with this, we have the character of Ruth Simling, who in a sense is the opposite of Lucy; whilst the syntec is a machine which at least appears to be turning more human, Ruth is a human merging with a machine – she spends so much time in SenSpace that her body wastes away and her consciousness has to be wired directly into the virtual reality. What is it, then, that makes characters human in The Holy Machine? Body? Sentience? The ‘human spirit’ championed by George’s radical associates? The question is left open.
By novel’s end, the principal characters have found a peace of sorts, and George might even have filled the gap he felt in his life. A search with a more concrete objective provides the impetus for Naomi Wood’s first novel, The Godless Boys. The Church gained political power over its alternate England in 1950, and a series of riots led to members of the Secular Movement being sent to ‘the Island’, where they and their children now live in isolation. The Malades, a gang of boys born and bred on the Island, have taken it upon themselves to root out any English spies or believers; they’ll attack the houses and persons of anyone they suspect.
In the last week of November 1986, a girl named Sarah Wicks stows away on the last boat of the year bringing supplies from England; she intends to find her mother Laura, who was involved in a church-burning ten years previously, and may have been deported to the Island. Sarah is discovered by Nathaniel Malraux, one of the Malades, who falls in love with her, and tries to keep her existence a secret from his fellow gang-members; inevitably, though, he can’t do so forever.
Wood creates a wonderful sense of place in her novel. Cut off from the technological advances of England, the Island feels like a community out of time, one that’s almost hermetic (an impression reinforced by the fact that we don’t actually see life on the mainland, nor even hear mention of the other countries in our British Isles). It’s a community where the glorious optimism of independence has been replaced by inertia (‘Now the Islanders were free to do what they wanted, and they did very little,’ p. 189). Wood evokes the drabness of this place through the detail in her prose; and her careful use of dialect words (all the Islanders speak a north-eastern dialect; as a rebellion that would have been at least as much political as religious, the Secular Movement appears to have been a largely regional phenomenon) also goes a long way towards constructing the novel’s atmosphere, in a nicely subtle way.
The issue of religious faith itself impinges on The Godless Boys in a different way than on The Holy Machine; we see much of Wood’s novel through the eyes of characters who don’t truly understand what religion is, but they do know that their parents were against it; for those young people, it’s as much a political issue as anything, or even a matter of tradition. Nathaniel emphasises to the Malades the importance of knowing their history (‘You have to go [to the Island’s museum] often…so you can ken your past…You’ve got to go so you can understand who you are,’ p. 17); but one of his fellow young Islanders, Eliza Michalka, finds the letters INRI in the Island’s ruined church, and doesn’t know what it signifies.
The only truly religious character in the novel is John Verger, one of the original exiles, who later found God whilst wandering through the remains of the very church he helped to burn down. Verger’s faith is shown to be a guiding hand and source of comfort in his life, which is elastic enough to hold, whatever the circumstances. To the Malades, in contrast, what religion really represents is the opposite of the wild freedom offered by the Island; as one of them, Jakob Lawrence, reflects:
Jake had felt sick when he’d first seen these paintings of Christ. To be so coddled, he thought, with blurry distaste, to be so watched, was as abhorrent to him as his rare imaginings of what went on in England, with its damp and girlish God, and its feeble, pandering folk. (p. 209)
As with The Holy Machine, there are pairs of characters who may be seen as opposites: Sarah comes to the Island in search of answers; Eliza yearns to leave it for the life that she wants. Nathaniel’s love for Sarah and fondness for John Verger (who brought his parents together) leads him to feel conflicted over the gang’s activities; Jake, on the other hand, takes a much firmer stance. All these matters come to a head in the finale of The Godless Boys, which is brilliantly tense.
Both Wood and Beckett create worlds through which their characters negotiate with some difficulty. Some find their way, others don’t; some get what they wanted, others don’t even know what that is. It all makes, though, for a pair of very interesting and compelling novels.
The Holy Machine
Chris Beckett’s website
An extract from the novel at Infinity Plus.
Other reviews: Michael Levy for Strange Horizons; Niall Alexander at The Speculative Scotsman; Paul Graham Raven at Velcro City Tourist Board.