Book Review: The Machine by James Smythe

The Machine by James Smythe

The Machine by James Smythe published by Blue Door

It’s sometime in the future (although we’re not told when). England is very hot, so hot that rather than running out to frazzle themselves in the heat, these newly sun-savvy Brits opt to stay in air-conditioned rooms (an unimaginable future). Lots of bad things  (war, floods, bonkers weather) have happened, although we’re never told exactly what and why. The Isle of Wight, has – for reasons that are never made clear  – become an outpost for hooded hooligans, making it less a 1950s idyll, more a Hackney in the 90s.

Living amongst these hard-nosed yoofs is Beth, a school teacher with a secret. Her husband, Vic, was a soldier in one of those wars we’re never told about and was shot in the head. His post traumatic stress was treated with a new technology – the Machine – that was meant to wipe bad memories and replace them with nicer ones. But something went wrong, and early adopters (among them Vic) had all of their memories wiped, including those innate in us. Vic is, when we first meet him, an empty shell, who can’t remember how to be human and has spent the good part of five years in a care home. But Beth is determined to get her husband back (physically and mentally), the only problem is that the Machine, the only way of restoring Vic’s memories to him, has been banned. Can a black-market model be the answer to all her problems?

Of course, not. This is a dark tale with very little (any?) chinks of light. Written without quotation marks, the narrative is a continual, relentless barrage of bleakness. This would be OK if I felt we were getting somewhere with this tale set in our near future (which, sadly, still includes Tesco). But the story was a little stodgy and the lack of a backstory left me feeling like I was fumbling about in the dark for narrative purchase. Why was the world in such disarray? The ozone layer is mentioned once, something happened in Iran – which presumably isn’t the fault of the ozone layer, but who knows – there were floods, there may be more and London has a huge, ugly flood defence running the length of the Thames and spoiling the view from the South Bank, tsk. Why is Beth living on this island of reprobates? Why is it an island of reprobates?

All these niggles are kind of besides the point, as the real subject of  James Smythe’s tale is the age-old story of technology taking on a life of its own (think Frankenstein’s monster with an iCloud account). But The Machine only really cranks up towards the end when the boundaries between reality, truth and memory become blurred in a tense and surprising finale (the ending is great in its in muddiness, it genuinely took me my surprise and shook me out of my nonchalant detachment from the story).

I liked Smythe’s vision of the future that was believable, if frustratingly sketchily drawn, and there was hints of a great story that would occasionally spark to life only to become stuck like the spinning beach ball of doom. But I do love to be tripped up by a novel, as I was with the ending to this sci-fi tale, so the sometimes hard slog through The Machine’s internal workings had a rewarding pay off.

by Suzanne Elliott