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Review: Through the memory hole

August 25, 2013

BETH’S husband Vic’s military career ends suddenly when he returns home suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after being severely hurt in an improvised explosive device explosion during a mission. Lucky to be alive, Vic has shrapnel removed from his skull and his arm but the trauma of the event leaves him mentally scarred, with traditional therapy unable to help. This is where the Machine comes in, a new technology that erases memories entirely, replacing them with alternate ones that do not trigger any trauma. Beth is told the treatment “isn’t sweeping. It’s cleaning. Hoovering. It’s taking a hose to the patio and washing away all the grime and dirt, and leaving it looking good as new. ... It’s taking all the bad stuff away. All these conversations we have, the dreams, the shock you’re going through: we can simply get rid of it.” And so Vic agrees to be part of the initial patients of the Machine, allowing parts of his mind to be erased and rewritten. The consequences, of course, are not at all what Beth has hoped for, and she is left with a husband who is “vacant”; a body that is completely unresponsive, Vic’s mind and personality entirely erased. It is hard to talk about James Smythe’s The Machine because there is very little I want to give away about what follows. Part of the appeal is the very act of frightening discovery that Smythe takes his reader through. Beth is left entirely alone, but admitting that “nobody dreams of a vacant shell for a husband,” she decides to rebuild Vic’s mind by taking into her home the very thing that destroyed him — the Machine, with it’s “coiled power cable ... like an umbilicus” that has been configured to work in reverse too, returning the memories it took from Vic back to him, helping him return from his coma-like state. Vic is not alone in his condition. Dozens of people go through the same treatment he does and are left as empty hulls. What went wrong with the Machine’s process is never entirely clear, with one doctor involved wondering “if the brain hadn’t had its ability to record memories wiped. As in, it had forgotten how to remember.” Meddling with human memory is hardly an exact science, and Smythe explores its dangers well, creating a frightening possibility of what could happen when a structure that is not entirely understood has pieces pulled out from it. Beth rightfully worries that “the Machine would be putting its own nothingness inside him. A computer created void. Not just nothing, but like the screen, emulating black, to approximate a state of sleep. A created emulating black, to approximate a state of sleep.” It is this sleep she is attempting to wake Vic from by bringing him back to life, as it were. The cover blurb may reference Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and be that a valid comparison, The Machine also recalls the fantastic, stifling fears at play in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, though perhaps without the element of physical body horror. The Machine is a frightening, intelligent novel, with Smythe tackling important ideas and asking uncomfortable questions, more than the ubiquitous ones about technology and playing God. The setting is not traditionally post-apocalyptic, but severe climate change has altered England a great deal, with floods having ravaged London and temperatures rising far, far above what we currently know. There is a constant feeling of threat, of danger — both in the story and the world it is set in, with even the weather often being described in violent terms: “the heat hits [Beth] like a wall,” the “sky crackles ... like fireworks” and rain “thuds” down. All of this adds to make The Machine an incredibly atmospheric, tense novel. Beth’s experiences are claustrophobic, with frequent references to the unbearable heat, to everything being stifling and oppressive. Smythe has complete control over Beth’s voice and over the plot of The Machine. This is a slow-burning, smart, taut story inducing Hitchcock levels of tension and paranoia. Smythe also controls where he wants his reader to be, aligning us solely with Beth, with no room to breathe away from her, which adds to the weight of being trapped with “just her and the flat and the Machine,” with it’s growl that “sounds like the rumbling of her stomach: morning hunger.” The reader is just too close for comfort — Beth’s determination to lock herself (and us) away from the world, her desperation to recreate what she had ‘destroyed’ and the ceaseless question of will she-won’t she that Smythe so cleverly and subtly turns into did she-didn’t she, leading up to the final, shuddering, heartbreaking reveal.

The Machine By James Smythe HarperCollins, US ISBN 978-0-00-742860-1 328pp.