Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

30 Mar 2012

(Novel) Machine Man by: Max Barry

(Reaction) The calculus of self mutilation by: Antonio Conejos

Machine Man is about, as its title advertises, a man who thinks and acts more like a machine than a man. Naturally this man's impulse is to become physically more like a machine, to go beyond what his biological parts allow.

This quest to at first augment, then supplement, physical body parts results in an ironic contradiction. On one hand, Dr. Neumann (his name is already a not so subtle indication of the doctor's bent to replace biology, Neumann is literally a new-man) becomes more and more human as he replaces more and more of his body parts. I mean human in the sense that he begins to empathize more with others and care for the thoughts of other people. Ironically, as Neumann grows more and more human, the people around him treat him less and less so.

In the beginning Neumann is the stereotypical introvert scientist, I was on my sofa playing with my phone when it rang. I didn't know what the hell it was doing. Yet this crucially changes when he becomes convinced that he must replace his puny biological parts. After the intentional amputation of his good leg, Neumann suddenly becomes aware of the people around him. He can infer the nurse's anger towards him, he engages in conversation with Carl. This sudden empathy for others is best seen in his reading of Dr. Angelica, right before he is discharged without her consent, Her bearing sagged. She was going to go home after this and sip red wine and stare at the wall, I could tell.

This is a startlingly change from the Neumann at the beginning of the novel. After Charles begins his quest to become less biologically human he ironically becomes more emotionally and socially human. This progressive understanding of, and interaction with, other people, reaches its climax in his relationship with Lola. Of course, the closer he gets to Lola, the more of his biological parts he cuts off.

Yet as Charlie becomes more and more human, the majority of the people around him begin to treat him less and less like a human. They treat him as they seem him, more thing than person, more machine than body. The more Charlie's body is commoditized the more his consciousness (his personhood, if you will) is commoditized as well. As such, at the end of the novel Neumann loses his humanity and individuality all together and is merely described as a thing, part of an asset diversification process.

Ultimately the novel asks if man is more than the sum of his parts (and thus who we are is not dependent on our biological hardware) or if our parts are greater than the whole (and thus man's utility lies in his appendages and skills, rather than something innate to the individual).

Society at large tends to be a believer in the latter proposition. Thus Lola's father bet his family's financial future on the cold calculus of self-mutilation. Each part is more valuable once taken away from the whole. Or at least that's what the disability pensions and insurance valuations taught him.


A fun read which deftly handles some of the interesting themes it raises. The characters are believable and act appropriately given the sometimes extreme scenarios raised in the novel. Lastly, Charlie's personality, the precision of the engineer and the loneliness of the gifted, really shines in the first person narration point of view, There is something about me that is repellent. I don't mean disgusting. I mean like magnets. The closer people get the stronger their urge to move away.

Machine Man made me think of Flowers for Algernon, I think mostly because both use the first person view so effectively. In Flowers, Charlie's intellectual rise and fall is genuinely affecting; while in Machine Man, Charlie's obsession with perfection elicits laughter and hand-wringing from the reader.

As reported by the BBC, something like Machine Man might not be so far off.

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