Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Max Barry: Machine Man

Max Barry posted excerpts from his fourth novel in progress on his website to enlist his readers’ help on it. The finished product, Machine Man, bears little resemblance to a crowdsourced work of fiction, but rates as a competent, creepy parable about the drive for perfection.


Charles Neumann, a low-ranking scientist at the conglomerate Better Future, had trouble relating to his fellow man even before he lost his leg in a gruesome lab accident. Facing months of grueling physical therapy, his first concern isn’t how to distract himself from his injury, but how to design a better prosthesis than the embarrassingly crude “bucket on a stick” paid for by his otherwise-generous employer. His new project causes him to devote even more time to his work, with nights at the office devoted to impressing hospital prosthetist Lola Shanks, even though she doesn’t seem to be returning his calls. Yet instead of ostracizing Charles, Better Future throws even more resources his way in hopes of opening up a new product line of “Better” biologics—even when his desire to be the alpha tester causes him to voluntarily give up his other leg to test his state-of-the-art Contour appendages.

Charles is the scientist going mad and narrating his own madness, toward which not even lovely Lola (underdrawn, though with her own potent motive) can arrest his progress. Barry’s previous books, like Company, isolated the human element in reaction to dystopian worlds, but Charles serves as the unpredictable isotope that breaks down and infects everyone around him. Barry isn’t interested in the specifics of Charles’ new robotic frontiers, and he pulls them out of focus (except for a brief distracting moment), only showing enough to establish that, as those around him try to make clear, he isn’t as in control as he thinks he is. (Though he self-mockingly contrasts his noble experiment with the Curies’ medically dangerous blunderings.)

As to the book’s experimental creation process, Barry mentions substantial rewrites in the acknowledgements (and thanks several commenters by handle for their assistance), but his comfort inside the head of a character that can’t even recognize his own derangement is pure invention. Charles’ comeuppance involves a series of sketchily plotted high-speed chases and one unnecessary twist, but that doesn’t make his aims any less chilling; Machine Man just winds down a little too early.