LexiconLexicon by Max Barry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Words are weapons” is this book’s tagline. It’s true. Think about it: by speaking you can guide another person’s train of thought. The limits to the destination of the other person’s train of thought is only a matter of how well you speak.

Machine Man
sealed Max Barry’s greatness as a science fiction author so I knew I had to come back for more. Enter Lexicon.

Have you ever met a person who can charm you with their words? You don’t know how or why, you only know that this person, either consciously or unconsciously, presses all the right buttons to make you succumb to their will. It’s a force above and beyond what you would normally call your typical, apparently rational decision-making process; it’s a pair of hands that hacks into your brain and into your program, the one you have meticulously created for yourself, making you gladly and willingly do things you would have “normally” scoffed at. Note: I’d like to use many more quotation marks on that “normally” if I could avoid looking like a post-modern “everything goes” pseudo-academic douchebag while doing so. I’m not sure it’s possible so let’s leave it at that.

What if there was a secret organisation that was not only aware of this weakness of the human mind to appropriate persuasion methods, but had turned the whole thing into a science, an art form, something to be studied at a Hogwarts-like institution for teens with a natural talent in manipulation?

Max Barry took this idea and ran with it past the horizon. Lexicon welcomes and incorporates aspects of sociology, neurology, linguistics and the history of language, psychology and personality types, in that you have to know one’s personality type out of 200 or so, also known as “segments”, before you can most effectively persuade them. It’s smart by implying a lot that it doesn’t say, saying a lot that is interesting and makes sense, and connecting it all together by making it fast-paced and suspenseful with just the right amount of horror. Max Barry isn’t just intelligent, he can write a damn good story and believable characters I want to see walk out of all the mess alive and well.

Another thing I liked was the interjection of online articles and snips of online conversations between chapters, hinting at the possibility of the book’s reality existing in our universe too, behind the huge system of control and profiling that the internet and the web are (also) shaping up to be. Each chapter made me think, and each snip between the chapters made me think some more. The fact that I have no idea whether the articles and conversations are real or not, even though I would put money on their genuineness, is referring to what I said the book saying a lot just by implication, or even by implication of implication.

I would have given it five stars if it wasn’t for some action-packed scenes that left me wondering what had happened. Sometimes I find it hard to follow such parts in general, and I don’t think it’s my difficulty with very specific action-oriented words and use of language when it comes to reading in English, since I have the same problem when reading in Greek. It’s the same with movies when there is a rapid procession of shots in a scene, like in the duel in SW: Episode III or in any recent disaster or superhero movie. I just don’t bother to visualise the setting and follow the action. I suppose it’s a matter of how much the book has inspired my engagement. Most action scenes in books as well as movies fail to hold my interest sufficiently, or I don’t bother with the specific details of the environment etc. Hard to say why, but the effect is there. Also on why four stars and not five: the bareword. I felt it was awkward and easier to see through for being a plot device. But I won’t say more.

If nothing else I wrote above made you warmer towards the book, at least have a look at this, the Lexicon Quiz, from Max Barry’s website. It’s a variation of the quiz used in the book for determining one’s personality segment and/or if they have the talent for becoming a poet (a member of the aforementioned secret organisation). It’s remarkably clever, cross-disciplinary just the way I like them, aware of the cultural context in which it exists and… well… placing fundamental importance on the personality type distinction between cat people and dog people. It’s a very good representation of the general feel the book gives off.

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Review: Machine Man

Machine Man
Machine Man by Max Barry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was the first audiobook I ever, uh, heard. It took me 9 hours of listening to Sean Runnette’s good narration over 3 days and it was a unique experience, just walking around while at the same time reading a book, or should I say, following a story. The added layer of voice and sound effects makes it more of a temporal experience than reading the book, with all the good and bad that fact might imply.

Machine Man tells the story of a thirty-something end-all be-all nerd, the kind of person that wanted to be a train when he was a child (yes, be one), loves describing the world with adjectives like “inefficient”, replies to everyting with an “OK” and manages to score zero at any social skills test thrown at him. Give this guy mad engineering skills and an amputated leg and sit back and watch (or read, or listen).

It was very engaging after the third or so chapter, I could see where this was going, but I’d need Z-specs to see how FAR it might go. The plot follows Charlie Newman’s addiction convincingly. I don’t like giving much away when writing my reviews, but I can’t help but applaud the side characters, they are particularly strong here; the ambitious but unappreciated Cassandra Cautery, Lola Shanks (Charlie’s prosthesiologist) and maybe my favourite character in the book, Carl.

Actually, the side characters are so strong they serve to underline Charlie’s single-dimensionality. So comparatively shallow is he that it’s easy to see him merely as the character carrying the plot’s central idea, its gimmick (I don’t like this word). This is perhaps the book’s single biggest problem for me, Charlie’s actions often seem unrealistic and his thoughts completely alien. I cringed all the time when he spoke, or at least when he attempted to. It’s no accident others — even his own self– compare him to a machine even from the start of the book. Are all labcoat-donning specialists so close-minded and awkward? If so, that might explain a lot about science in our world today.

I should however cut Charles Newman’s tormented existence a little slack. It might very well be that Max Barry wanted him to be so exaggeratedly awkward and obsessive-compulsive for comic relief (the book has many dark, uncomfortably funny moments), but also maybe to indirectly comment in his own way on the very foundation of the book’s premise: “biological vs mechanical”, “inefficient vs superior” and perhaps even “mind vs body”, the kind of dualist dilemma that is very natural to follow such what ifs as the one portrayed in Machine Man. What part of us is “us”, and what isn’t “us”? Is the brain more part of us than the rest of our body? Is it, then, that houses our consciousness? These questions are the delicious driving force of the plot and the thinking it provokes.

For example, in a part of the book, Charles says that when people achieve or pull off something (obviously –but exactly because of its obviousness, often overlooked– using their bodies), it’s we, as in our self, our consciousness, that achieved whatever it is that was achieved, the body shrinking into the tool used by the mind/brain it was and has always been, whereas in our failure or when an uncontrolable situation goes bad, we become disassociated with our bodies, they’re Others, and as all typical Others receive the blame for any problem. It reminds me of Heidegger’s take on how Dasein interact with things, the difference between ready-to-hand and present-at-hand. When our body works well, it’s ready-to-hand, it disappears in the background, too obvious to consider, only working as a tool. When it fails to serve us perfectly, its short-comings made obvious, it breaks, it becomes present-at-hand: welcome for optimization, as if it never belonged to us a tall. Machine Man gives food for many such enjoyable parallels.

In fact, Machine Man is one of the most sophisticated cultural items that deal with cyborgs I have encountered and had the pleasure to dive into. It’s definitely filled with all the appropriate nerdy scientific jargon that would satisfy any sci-fi fan (I wonder how many readers will find themselves identifying, even a little bit, with Charles!). But more interistingly, it goes beyond respecting the deep ontological problems that arise from the idea of cyborgs, prosthetics, implants and bio-enhancements, and their implications, if any, for (Cartesian) dualism. It uses these philosophical connotations and gives an interesting and believable story of what meddling with all this might bring about. In other words: it’s not as simple as it looks — it never is — but this time there’s a realistic, (super)human story behind it.

I almost forgot to mention that it has bits of horror and and it’s sprinkled with romance and action and a lot of suspense. You just keep reading, wondering if Max Barry will go all the way. He goes all the way… and then some.

I wonder when that had happened, that we had started making better machines than people.

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