James Smythe is a fascinating young author. Three books in under three years and each unique. Where they do compare, though, is in their original voice, their imagination and their sheer audacity. There’s also the fact that each is really rather brilliant. After The Testimony (one of my favourite books of 2012) and The Explorer, we now have The Machine. As the cover suggests, there are links here to Frankenstein, and just as with that novel, the story of The Machine is less about the ‘monster’ than the humanity of those who have made it what it is.
The Machine is set on the Isle of Wight in a near future in which global warming has seared the skies. The heat alternates with rare monsoons; dry hard land, reflecting the sun, competing with floods and deluge. The heat has altered the mood. Now gangs of hoodie teens loiter and frighten, more than ever, daring each other to lunatic jumps from the sheer cliffs above the sea. School is almost uncontrollable. Beth is one of the teachers, living in flats, to all observers a single woman. One day she takes awkward and cumbersome delivery of three pieces of ‘exercise equipment’, the bits arranged by the delivery men like giant tetris. This is the Machine, an illegal object, a store of memories, once thought to be the saviour of the traumatised or the demented, a store for their memories, but instead proving to be their end. Beth’s husband Victor had been the victim of early experiments. Now she wants to use the Machine to put her husband back together.
We don’t stray far from Beth’s mind. There are no speech marks and there can be few breaks. There are shifts, both in physical and mental place. This isn’t especially easy to follow at the beginning and I did regret the loss of the speech marks. I soon got used to their absence, though. By the end I could understand why. This is, after all, a novel about Beth and her world. The outside is kept at bay. She does interact with it, not always by choice, and other voices interrupt her efforts to rebuild Victor – the Hoodies, a Christian friend and others. But she is determined in her focus. Nevertheless, the pressure of the outside builds and is reflected in storms or white heat or the hum from the Machine. There are moments of fear here. Expect to shiver.
The Machine is a clever and charismatic novel. It is a puzzle, as the cover suggests, and so the beginning makes little sense until you put more and more of the pieces together. The second half is very hard to put down and by the end I was on the edge of my seat and ready to applaud the author. Smythe deserves full credit for creating such a believable and real female protagonist as Beth. Also, the mix of the ordinary and extraordinary is quite wonderful, as are the locations. You can smell the sea, feel the vertigo on the cliffs, flinch from the heat.
James Smythe does intrigue me. It’s difficult to approach any of his books with expectations of what they will contain. The only surety is that they will be very good indeed and that science fiction will get a twist. The Testimony is such a favourite novel of mine, it’s hard for any of its successors to beat it for me and The Machine didn’t manage it any more than the excellent The Explorer did but that can hardly be a criticism. It’s more a tribute to the genius of The Testimony and its author. I didn’t engage emotionally with The Machine, I found it too consciously clever for that, but I was utterly fascinated by it.
2013 is proving to be such a rich year for books. Here is another novel that not only breaks free of its genre but demands your attention. A highlight of the year I am sure.
The Machine is out on 11 April.