Australian author Max Barry first started composing his novel Machine Man
as an experiment on his website. He would write one page a day and post it for free, writing a sort of serialized version of the story. In 2011, after a variety of changes, the posts were collected and published in book form. The novel is a satirical science fiction thriller that asks the question, “with everything that technology allows us, how much is too much, but more importantly, would we be able to recognize our overdependence?” Written in the first person by a mad-scientist figure slowly going mad through his own efforts to improve himself via mechanical parts, the novel seems to answer, “No.”
Dr. Charles Neumann is a low-level mechanical engineer at Better Future, an exaggeratedly menacing behemoth of a company that has its fingers in a variety of pies – including military research. The thirty-something Charles is extremely socially inept: as a child he wanted to be a train, he has no ability to distinguish human emotions, he tends to characterize the world only into “efficient” and “inefficient” systems, and he has scored zero on every social skills test his employer has ever administered. (There is no suggestion that he is on the Autism spectrum – just that he is robotic in his affect.)
As the novel opens, Charles has just lost his cell phone on the manufacturing floor at work. In the process of looking for it, he accidentally gets his foot caught in The Clamp, a large vise that is “good at holding things and not melting.” Unable to extricate himself in time, Charles loses his leg above the knee.
The company sends three different experts to deal with him: Cassandra Cautery, a Better Future manager, who mostly wants to avoid a lawsuit; Dr. Angelica Austin, a psychiatrist who is wary of the emotional ramifications of what has happened; and Lola Shanks, a physical therapist who specializes in prosthetics, who delivers what she says is the top artificial leg available.
Charles is deeply disappointed in the prosthesis – it’s basically a “bucket on a stick.” But because he is a mechanical engineer, he can do something about it: design a better one. Spending more and more hours in his lab, Charles manages to create an extraordinarily complex prosthesis. In the process, he grows closer with Lola, who is impressed with his dedication. Cassandra is also impressed with the work, and, seeing an opportunity for Better Future, the company provides Charles with more resources – whatever he creates will be the foundation of a new biologics line that can be sold commercially.
Charles is so enamored of his new leg, and so motivated by his new importance at the company, that he sets up another “accident” to remove his remaining leg in order to have two matching ones. Better Futures gives him his own research division in cybernetics, complete with a large staff of assistants who first develop new and better medical prosthetics, but then quickly move on to creating augmentations for private customers. If better legs are available, why not better eyes that can see more than real eyes? Why not better skin, hair, and muscles? One of the division’s inventions is an artificial hand that appeals to Charles so much that he stages another “accident” in order to get one.
Only Lola truly understands Charles’s love of upgrades, selflessly because she is only alive because of a prosthetic device of her own, an artificial heart, but also selfishly because she has an amputee fetish that causes her to be more and more attracted to Charles the more of his body he replaces with mechanical parts. Charles and Lola fall in love, although it is clear that readers are meant to find their emotional connection at least somewhat unsettling.
Better Futures now gives Charles a bodyguard, Carl LaRussos, whom Charles initially befriends, but who turns out to be Charles’s antagonist with a tragic backstory of his own.
The more robotic parts Charles grafts onto himself, the more he has emotional ramifications from the transformation. But it is a surprising and ironic change: while in his human body, Charles felt more or less like a robot, now that he is more machine than man, it is his humanity that starts to emerge. He starts noticing and internalizing the feelings of others around him, reads body language for the first time, and experiences deeper emotions than he ever has before. But in return, to complete the irony
, Charles is treated both by the people around him and by his company as less and less human.
Soon it becomes clear that Better Futures would like to use Charles’s inventions in a program to build robot soldiers – of which Charles would be the first prototype. Here, the novel shifts into thriller mode, as Charles attempts to first run away from and then fight against the company in a series of high-speed chases and then a violent confrontation with Carl. In a dark climax, Charles and Lola end up cornered by corporate goons, and are seemingly willing to destroy themselves rather than be willing pawns in Better Future’s game.
But this romantic gesture fails, and the novel ends with Charles Neumann living up to his name: he becomes a new kind of man, replacing analog with digital completely. His mind is removed from his brain and is uploaded into a solid state computer – he will live inside this box forever.