James Smythe, The Machine (2013)

The MachineLast year, I watched ‘Be Right Back’, an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror in which a woman has her dead husband’s personality downloaded into a robot body. It was the kind of intimate, human drama that genre science fiction doesn’t seem to do very much these days (on page or screen); too often, I find, interesting ideas will be drowned out by an ill-suited conspiracy/thriller plot.

It was so refreshing, then, to read James Smythe’s The Machine, and find a work of contemporary science fiction that’s happy to be understated (tellingly, the novel is published as mainstream). We begin with Beth McAdams taking receipt of three large packages. The delivery men don’t know what they are (‘exercise equipment,’ Beth tells them, though she knows they won’t believe her); the neighbours gawp as these parcels have to be brought in through Beth’s window because they won’t fit through the door. When the whole contraption is assembled, it fills most of one wall and emits a constant whirring noise; even before Beth begins using it, the Machine has staked a claim on her world.

The Machine was originally invented as a means of treating the effects of harmful memories (such as those of conflict experienced by soldiers like Beth’s partner Vic), but it left those who used it severely brain-damaged, and the original device was banned. Later, it emerged that the Machine might also be able to reinstate the memories it took; Beth has sourced an outlawed model, and plans to use it on Vic.

So there are questions of identity to be explored – who will Vic be if his memories are restored? for example – but what particularly intrigues me about The Machine is how much it focuses on Beth. The first third of the novel consists largely of Beth’s preparations for the summer holidays, when she will be able to put her teaching job aside and concentrate on tending Vic. The second part of The Machine then begins with Beth bringing Vic home from the hospice; his unresponsive body is difficult to get through the door, and she wonders if the neighbours are watching. This is a marvellous touch, because it draws parallels between Vic and the Machine, underlining the similar position that each has come to occupy in Beth’s life. Smythe then depicts the routine that Beth has to establish, looking after Vic in his current state, and playing back his memories through the Machine. The detail is unflinching, emphasising that this is what Beth must do to achieve the end she wants – perhaps the regime that Beth’s caught up in is the real Machine.

Smythe’s evocation of place in The Machine is economical and effective. Beth lives on the Isle of Wight, the crossing to the mainland now made more treacherous by the effects of a warming climate (so Beth is partly dislocated by geography, which mirrors her emotional state). The heat frays tempers has brought about all sorts of little pragmatic social changes; we see these particularly through the tense relations between adults and young people in the novel – and, again, the technique underscores Beth’s feelings, this time her desperation.

I’m tempted to quote from The Machine, because its prose hits the mark so well. But the real effect of Smythe’s writing comes not from its individual pieces, but from the accumulation of the whole – its relentless, plain-speaking precision. Smythe portrays a situation which is as intense for the reader to experience as it would be for Beth, because we move through it in the same way, and at the same pace, as she does. The line ultimately blurs between whether Beth is doing what she does for Vic or for herself ; and maybe it doesn’t matter – maybe it all comes back to the actions, the mechanics.

James Smythe’s website
Some other reviews of The Machine: Nina Allan; Savidge Reads; Words of Mercury; For Winter Nights.


  1. Is this a Clarke award contender then? I can see why they marketed it as mainstream, since they could, but it definitely sounds like intelligent sf of a sort too rarely seen (always too rarely seen, I don’t believe there was a golden age, now past).

    It does sound very good.

  2. Forgot to say, I did bounce off his The Explorer. The science made no sense at all, just none, and it wasn’t clear that he knew that though that may be very unfair. I’m far from a science geek, but there comes a point if we depart too far from reality while remaining realist that a credibility problem arises which is why I didn’t get past about page 20 or 30 or so on that one.

  3. Niall Harrison marched me to the counter of a bookshop and made me buy this a couple of months ago, and it’s sat at the top of my TBR right now. I like the way the ordinariness of it – the Isle of Wight, nosey neighbours, summer holidays – seems to throw the sf offbeat, set it in a different light. Very much looking forward to it.

  4. Max – I’m pretty sure that Smythe has openly stated on Twitter that he knows the science in The Explorer is nonsense, and that this was a conscious decision (or a series of conscious decisions).

    Victoria – hooray for Niall! Along similar lines, I’ll be giving away a few copies at a World Book Night even next week.

    David – great review, I’m half-tempted to crib from it next week when I’ll have to explain to people why I like the book so much 🙂

  5. Nick, thanks. That makes a big difference actually, because I do keep seeing him recommended. I’ll take a fresh look.

  6. David H

    19th April 2014 at 9:32 pm

    Thanks for your comments, folks.

    Max: Yes, The Machine is up for this year’s Clarke (my favourite title on the shortlist, as it happens; I haven’t linked this post to my Clarke index at the time of writing this comment). Smythe is interesting in that he is being published in parallel as both a mainstream and an sf writer; I don’t know quite how this has come about, because conventional wisdom says that sort of thing doesn’t happen… Of his other books, I’ve read The Testimony, which was okay; but I think a more intimate focus suits him better. I tried The Explorer, but found I wasn’t in the mood for a novel set in space just then; now I definitely want to go back and try it again.

    Victoria: That’s a good call on Niall’s part (and yours!), I’d say. I think ordinariness is undervalued in contemporary sf; you’re right that it gives Smythe’s book a distinctive flavour.

    Nick: Thanks! If you want to crib, I don’t mind… 🙂

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