Review: Machine Man (2011) by Max Barry
Dec 28th, 2011 by Ice Cream Jonsey

Each day when I come into work, I am greeted by a widescreen monitor that shows how many failed regression tests exist in the program we sell. Over the last two and a half years I created thousands of tests. I feel pride and ownership in them, which is unsettling to me, because this is supposed to be my job, and not my passion or anything, right?

We hired a guy six months ago who quit last week. He was – still is! – a brilliant automation engineer. He left the tests I made in better shape than when he started. He created dozens of new tests and I would work with him again in an instant. But there was a reptilian part of my brain that wouldn’t shut its goddamn mouth every time he made something new. It objected to the very concept of stuff I didn’t myself make. This stunned me. It bugged me. I couldn’t put my finger on any of it until I read Machine Man by Max Barry. That feeling, and many others that you experience in an engineering job, are deftly captured by Max Barry here.

Machine Man is written in the first-person and gives us an often painfully accurate voyage in the mind of a brilliant and successful autistic nerd that nobody would want to spend any time with outside of work. And even that is probably pushing it, Christ. Dr. Charles Neumann (our protagonist) loses his leg in an industrial accident and figures out pretty quickly that the prosthetic industry is a bit shit. He’s inspired to develop a kind of leg that will make him bigger, stronger, faster than before. What Barry does throughout the entire book is capture the inspiration that can consume a dork when all distractions have ceased, and you can truly focus. We (apparently I will selfishly align with Dr. Neumann when it serves my purposes) understand that being in the uncanny valley creeps everyone out. Mimicking human behavior is thrown out for all manner of robotic improvement.

It’s funny without picking on autistic people, which they pretty much deserve for ruining the Wikipedia, so credit Barry there. I can’t articulate why I am able to finish his novels in a night or two, but I got into the same vibe that I had with his books Jennifer Government and Company.

There is a kind of character that Barry does extremely well. (Dr. Neumann is characterized perfectly, and I don’t remember anything like him in one of Barry’s previous works.) The character of Cassandra Cautery is an intelligent, capable woman who gets in over her head, and I was reminded of a similar gal from his previous novel, Company. (I’m going to be honest: I can’t remember her name, but she was the woman who was obsessed with working out.) (OK, I got out my hardback of Company, and her name was Holly Vale.) Everything Cassandra said felt genuine, even though most of it was horrible, because I find myself listening to car insurance ads on the radio during my commute home, and somebody without a soul is churning those out.

What’s really stopping Machine Man from being brilliant instead of just really good is that there are many other characters that don’t feel as well-developed. I thought that the character of Lola Shanks felt less fleshed-out, because we were getting to know her exclusively through the tortured prism of Dr. Neumann, who is not all that great with women. I can’t decide if, therefore, it’s pretty cool that she was filtered that way or what. Regardless, I remembered that I became slightly attracted to the woman who did my rehab when I tore up my knee many years ago, even though I swore I wouldn’t let myself be, because I knew it was extremely cliched. C’mon son. So this is another thing that felt right about Machine Man to me. I can’t completely dismiss the nagging feeling that when Barry spends as much time with his characters as he does with his (quite fun) plots, he’s going to blow up the world.

With that in mind, the ending made my skin crawl. A couple pages that were just brilliantly written, where I was, like, scratching myself to remind my own brain that I’ve got my body and didn’t lose it or abandon it. I felt sick when reading it. In the good way. Kicking the covers so I could see my own legs, I felt ill while reading text on a page, which is some of the highest praise I can give a novel. I don’t want to give anything away, but I think the last two pages of Machine Man make an argument that its genre is horror instead of sci-fi. That’s a trick I don’t think I’ve ever seen before and wish I’d thought of myself.

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