Monday, February 6, 2012

REVIEW: Machine by Jennifer Pelland

Good science fiction makes you think. Pulp science fiction entertains you. Great science fiction, on the other hand, makes you think while entertaining you. Such is the case with Machine by Jennifer Pelland.

The concept at the heart of the story is an interesting one, and even though it's been done before, it's never been done quite like this. In the not-too-distant future, science has managed to create entirely human-looking android bodies into which human thoughts and emotions can be copied. It's a technology that was designed for the benefit of terminally ill patients with incurable diseases, allowing them a chance to live while they wait for a cure, although it's starting to become something of a cosmetic procedure as well, despite the overwhelming political and religious objections.

The novel follows the story of Celia, a young woman with a rare genetic disease that's a low priority on the medical research front. She wakes up from the copy-over process, acting, feeling, and thinking exactly as she did in her old body. For her, there is no change, and no awareness of being different from what she was before. Unfortunately, her wife doesn't see it the same way, and Celia awakes to find herself divorced . . . alone . . . shunned by the woman she loves, who refused to cheat on the woman she loves with a soul-less copy.

D.B. Story's Fembot Chronicles, which I've reviewed her many times of the past few years, are some of my favourite stories to deal with the concept of mechanical beings and self-awareness. There, the focus on the story was on robots acquiring sentience, and fighting for rights they never had. Here, with Machine, the focus is instead on humans becoming something less-than-human in the transition, and fighting for the right to distinguish themselves from what they have lost.

On the one hand, it's a rather dark and disturbing reality with which we're presented, with Celia and her new found friends illegally modifying themselves to look less than human since society's rejection has made them feel less than human. It begins with Celia slicing open her finger to see the ceramic 'bone' beneath, and quickly progresses from there. Polished chrome skin, featureless mannequin-like bodies, and glowing eyes are the physical aspect, with the ability to suppress emotions, voluntarily go into lockdown, and play with the sensitivity of their pain/pleasure receptors is another. Like I said, it's almost heartbreaking to see the lengths to which they feel forced to modify themselves, even as we share in the exhilaration of freedoms and feelings otherwise impossible for the rest of humanity. The voluntary fetishization of their condition is oddly confusing, coming across as erotic and exciting when they fetishize one another, but disgusting and inexcusable when they play to human kinks.

As part of her exploration of what it means to be human, Jennifer does an amazing job of dealing with questions of sexuality and gender (tying in nicely to my Transcending Gender 2012 Reading Challenge). Celia, as I mentioned previously, is a lesbian, although it's entirely inconsequential in the future presented. Other than one instance where another character reminds her that her marriage would once have been as controversial as her new body, her sexuality is a complete non-issue. Similarly, we get to explore some interesting ideas of gender through Celia's augmented friends, including one who can alter his gender at will to be male, female, or a combination of the two, and another who is entirely featureless and androgynous since, as it points out, robots do not have a gender.

If I were to voice one complaint, it would be over the ambiguity of the ending, but I realised that was intentional. Celia's fate is what we make of it, and that brings us right back to the concept of making you think while entertaining you. I realise I haven't done the story justice, but hopefully I've highlighted enough of the elements handled so masterfully by Celia that you'll want to give it a read.


  1. Thanks for this review, Sally! I Love the way Jennifer Pelland's stories challenge my preconceptions about bodies an gender and identity. If you haven't read her short story collection, you might like that, too.

  2. Sally, thank you for the nice mention. I'm intrigued by an author who looks at a robot's journey in an opposite direction from my own.