For engineer Charles Neumann, the loss of his leg in an industrial accident becomes an opportunity to better nature’s own design. After completing work on his prosthetic leg he elects to “upgrade” the rest of his body, one piece at a time. Prostheticist Lola Shanks loves her work, but worries that her former client and current love interest is ceding his humanity in favor of his new obsession.
Machine Man is a hilarious satire and brilliant work of speculative fiction; a look at a future that is coming closer every day.
Author Max Barry recently spoke with me about his new book and how the readers of his blog helped to shape its story.
I wanted to ask you about your use of names in this book. The main characters’s names seem symbolic, to say the least: The scientist Dr.Charles Neumann (”new man”), the prostheticist Lola Shanks (”shanks” being a synonym for legs) and Cassandra Cautery (cautery being an agent used in cauterization). In one particular case, you forego a name at all for the CEO of Better Futures, having the other characters refer to him – rather ominously – “The Manager.” Still, in other cases, with minor characters you only give them first names. Is this a case of function before form – something I’m sure Neumann would appreciate – a classic case of character as signifier, or something else?
Well, it’s a signifier of me being addicted to comic book names. I should probably get control of that. It’s three out of four novels now. Part of the reason is that in fiction, a character’s name is their face: it’s the part of them you keep seeing. So I like the names to mean something.
The other part is that this story started as a web serial, and I didn’t want to do subtle. I don’t think subtle works there. So I erred on the side of ridiculousness. That changed when I finished the serial and started the novel–I figured I had more of people’s attention in the longer format, and could rely less on tricks and stunts–but I liked the names too much by then, so they stayed.
I saw the book is a cautionary tale of how technology can distance ourselves and make us something less than human, but I hear that you utilized your blog to write the first draft of the book and involved your readers in a collaborative role. In addition, you’re now using these same kinds of technology to promote your book. Can you tell me a little bit about both of these and how they might be seen in the context of the novel?
I was looking for a way to combine fiction with the internet. I love both, but I’ve never been able to enjoy reading fiction online without feeling like I need to check my email every eight seconds. I think the net teaches you a different way of reading, where you hunt down information, rather than sinking into a story and giving it your complete attention. The net is just flat-out distracting. Because it has everything.
So I had the idea of a serial where you’d get a “page” in your inbox each day, and each page would be very short: a bite-sized little scene that you could read in a minute or two, and then get back to what you were doing. It wouldn’t ask you to commit twenty minutes to read a whole chapter. And that worked out really well, I think, at least for some people.
Across your work I’ve seen a great deal of satire and humor about bureaucracies, with corporations being one of your main targets. How have your own experiences as a one-time corporate worker inform the subjects you choose to write about?
I like corporations for a bunch of reasons. One is that they function as both character and setting: things happen inside them, and those things are colored by the company’s particular personality.
The other is that corporations are naturally aggressive and soulless, so they fit the villain role very neatly. I have trouble believing that people are Just Plain Bad, but I believe that people will do bad things because that’s their job.
I laughed at how much Dr. Neumann’s mannerisms and thoughts reminded me of engineers and other technical people I’ve known. I’m sure that this is an exaggeration, but have you known any real Dr. Nuemanns yourself?
Partly I am Charles Neumann, of course. I’m a software guy; I share a lot of his geekiness. I also hang out on web sites frequented by those kinds of people, so I think I’m pretty familiar with the software engineer personality. I wanted to capture that for the novel, because it’s wonderfully awesome and funny and sad. And, honestly, I don’t think I exaggerated it for the book. I think people are like this.
While Machine Man is a work of fiction, you obviously did your homework when it came to the technologies represented in the novel. What was your research process like? What did you read? Did you speak with scientists, amputees and other experts?
I emailed, and went on forums. And I was tipped off to a few fascinating concepts by readers of the serial, which was the wonderful part of that experience: getting ideas and feedback for the story as I was writing it. For example, midway through the serial I was contacted by a neuroscience major, who introduced me to the concept of free-roaming neurons: this became a pretty major part of the story. If I’d been writing in isolation, I might never have come across that idea.
It’s so easy to find information now. Ten years ago, research meant traveling to libraries and phoning people who didn’t return your calls. I’m a hundred times more efficient now.
When I was reading Machine Man I started thinking about it as a kind of prequel to the future described in the cyberpunk novels of the eighties and beyond. All of the elements are there, although they’re filtered through your own hilarious perspective: corporations operating outside the confines of law, cybernetics, and amazing computer interfaces. I thought of it as Apple meets Neuromancer, almost. Are you familiar with cyberpunk? Is Machine Man a cyberpunk novel? Is it a parody? Something else?
Thank you for the comparison! I love cyberpunk, and Neuromancer is of course a deserved classic. I think quite a lot of us science-fiction guys tread around these kinds of areas because this future is just so obviously coming. We will soon have the technology to enhance our physical bodies: to wire in things like internet access.
And there will be an ethical debate, and much hand-wringing, and then society will just get over it. Because that’s what happens. I’m old enough to remember when people found the idea of babies grown in test tubes disgusting, morally repulsive. Today I have two daughters from IVF, and that’s common. It’s no longer an ethical issue.
Coincidentally, while I was reading Machine Man a recurrent stomach problem prompted me to visit the emergency room. I remember wishing that I could have a real-life “Better Stomach” as they fed me pain medication through an IV tube. Would you yourself ever consider cybernetic replacements or augmentations? If so, what would you be tempted to replace or redesign?
Right: at the moment we’re focused on fixing things; using technology to substitute for biology when the biology goes wrong. But we’re already seeing instances where the artificial version is better, in at least a few respects: when the prosthetic foot is faster than the biological one, for example. So we’re getting into territory where you might logically opt for an artificial part not because there’s something wrong with your body but simply because the artificial part is better.
And maybe there will be a kind of envy effect: once a friend upgrades his eyes or ears, you start to realize how basic your biological versions are. I see eyes and ears as the obvious two, and they will be desirable consumer products for the exact same reason that people upgrade their TVs and home stereos.
I’m also interested in some kind of inbuilt version of a smartphone I can’t lose.
Do you think that we’ll ever see a future like the one in Machine Man? Are we approaching one now?
We’ll see it within our lifetimes without question. We’re on the way. Today the technology is crude–in particular, the standard of prostheses given to the average person is stuck in the 1970s–but there’s tremendous innovation happening on the fringes. It will explode once prosthetic devices aren’t just for people with something wrong, but for anyone who wants something better. At that point, it becomes a huge consumer market. And that’s key, because we have a lot of the science already: we just don’t have the end user market. Once there’s money to be made, products will flow.
On an unrelated note, I’ve been hearing whispers that there are or will be movie adaptations of some of your work. Can you tell me more?
Machine Man is with Darren Aronofsky and Mark Heyman, who made the amazing Black Swan. They’re fantastic people and I couldn’t wish it to be in better hands. It’s in the script stage at the moment.
My first novel, Syrup, was filmed in July and will be coming out sometime around mid-2012.