The Machine arrives one day at Beth’s flat on the Isle of Wight, the way many things are delivered to us these days. It comes in several pieces, brought by delivery men, and some bits are so big that they have to take the windows off to get them into the flat. It’s a hot day.
James Smythe’s extraordinary novel begins with a scene of domestic banality. The Machine could be a new bed, or a flatpack wardrobe. But it’s not. The Machine is illegal. It’s a device meant to erase traumatic memories and help rebuild people like Beth’s husband, Vic, a soldier who returned physically and emotionally wounded from a foreign war. Hailed as a miracle cure, the first generation of Machines was outlawed when it became clear that they were in fact doing more harm than good. Vic himself is in a clinic in London, in a vegetative state – although it emerges that Beth herself may be responsible after misapplying the Machine’s treatments.
Now she’s going to make it right. She has a Machine, she has the recordings of Vic’s therapy sessions. She’s going to spring him from the clinic, bring him home, and rebuild him herself.
I’ve seen The Machine compared to Frankenstein, and there is something of that here. It’s also been compared to ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and there is also that story’s sense of all-encompassing dread and descent into psychosis, but what it most reminded me of was one of Nigel Kneale’s television dramas from the 1970s, or an episode of Tales Of The Unexpected. And I mean that in a good way.
It’s an intensely English book, not just in its setting but in its cultural background. If it is Frankenstein, it’s a Hammer Frankenstein. Beth’s world is unremittingly awful. Just a few years in the future, the weather in the south of England is oppressively hot. Beth lives in a run-down estate of flats terrorised by teenagers, teaches in a school where the staff have all but given up, just going through the motions. It’s a relentless book; of all the characters, only the owner of the local Indian restaurant could be said to be sympathetic. Everyone seems on the point of some kind of madness.
At the heart of it all is the Machine, an almost alien presence. It’s cold to the touch, it makes strange noises – even when it’s switched off. At one point Beth looks inside and has the sense that it’s actually larger on the inside. It broods, there in the spare bedroom, a character in its own right
This is a novel about guilt and regret and memory and desperation, and Smythe never lets up, never spares his characters. His prose is lean and precise, uncluttered, Beth’s world – the estate, the school, the cliffs along which she walks – is carefully and vividly imagined. The atmosphere of dread only deepens. Like Frankenstein, it harks back to the tale of Prometheus, and Beth’s punishment for stealing the gift of fire is a terrible one.
This is, by any stretch of the imagination, a fabulous piece of fiction and I urge people to read it, and then go and read Smythe’s other work. If there’s any justice in the world, he’s on his way to becoming a major voice in British science fiction.
The Machine is published by Blue Door, and is available from Amazon.