If you’ve never read anything by Max Barry, now’s a great time to start. I’d read two of his novels, Jennifer Government and Company, both about slightly-dystopian futures in which corporations get a little out of hand. Or a lot out of hand. (In Jennifer Government, Nike decides to give a new sneaker line some extra street cred by holding back stock … and staging some real shootings.)
In 2009, Barry tried something new: a serialized novel.
This wasn’t a finished (or mostly-finished) novel that he chopped up and released in bits. Rather, it was something that he wrote as he posted it, a page at a time, one per weekday. The novel took about ten months to complete, and as it took shape, Barry responded to reader comments, which sometimes affected the course of the plot.
Today, Machine Man makes the leap to the printed page, in a more traditional format. Because the original serial was a page-a-day story, it often felt like a series of cliffhangers. Also, because it was posted as he wrote it, it was essentially a first draft. For the novel, Barry reworked the whole thing, making it less cliffhanging and fleshing out the story significantly.
I got tipped off about the serial sometime after it had started and read the first 43 pages (which were free), but then I didn’t pay for the rest of the feed, thinking I’d get back to that when I finished up a few other books I already had in my queue. Well, that was foolish — it slipped my mind until just recently when I heard that the novel was coming out. Vintage Books sent me an uncorrected proof of the book (sans mustachioed man on the cover), and I devoured it in a few days. Now I’m curious about going back to read the serial version to see what all the differences are.
So here’s the basic plot: Charlie Neumann, a scientist at Better Futures, loses his leg in an industrial accident. So, naturally, he builds himself a new one. Then he realizes, well, his remaining leg really doesn’t work as well as this one he’s designed. What if he could have a matching set? What else could he improve? The prosthetist at the company hospital, Lola Shanks, falls for Charlie and his talk about self-improvement and advances in prosthetics. But Better Future has something else in mind for Charlie and his experiments.
It’s one part Robocop, one part Ray Kurzweil, but mostly it’s Max Barry. Charlie is a fantastic character, very much a scientist, who doesn’t really have time for social foibles. He wants things to work in the most sensible and efficient manner possible, and as a result is a bit misunderstood (and misunderstanding).
Machine Man is also a sharp commentary on technology and how it affects our lives. When the book starts, Charlie can’t find his phone — and as he goes about looking for it, thinking perhaps it fell behind the bed, or it’s out in the living room, or it must be in his car, or he must have left it at the office, you can feel his building anxiety which reflects your own over-reliance on this one little device. He feels, as we often do, entirely lost without that slight weight in his pocket.
The book also talks a lot about what it means to be human, and even as Charlie becomes less organic, he starts to become a bit more human. While so much of the book is quite over-the-top, it really works well. I hear that a movie is now in development, with Darren Aronofsky signed to direct. As Barry points out, Aronofsky was working on a Robocop remake before it fell apart, so he might just be perfect for this project.
I love the way that the book was partly crowd-sourced (not entirely, of course, but Barry incorporated some ideas from readers and took their reactions into account while writing it). Even the cover image was influenced by popular vote, picked from a group of six, which is quite unusual in the world of publishing.
And although the book is sort of science fiction and there are parts that seem outlandish, the world of Charlie Neumann might be closer than you think. Check out this video from MIT’s Biomechatronics Group, which talks about, of all things, smarter prosthetics. Hugh Herr certainly seems much more personable than Charlie, but he has some similar ideas about the state of prosthetics and how they could be improved — even including a neural-machine interface.
If you like a smart, cynical book packed with both action and very geeky ideas, check out Machine Man. You can read the original serial online or buy the book. Heck, do both. I was fascinated by the way that familiar bits from the serial appeared throughout the book, but not always in the same order and with a lot of new material worked in. Either way, it’s a fun ride. I don’t know if Barry has any plans to do a serial again, but if he does I’ll definitely sign up for the real-time updates this time around.