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Barry's "Machine Man"
Originally published in 2011, Max Barry's futuristic science fiction novel "Machine Man" was first made available to readers as an online serial, before being updated and collected into a full-fledged book. Barry bucked publishing industry protocol and posted excerpts from his "Machine Man" to his personal website, imploring his regular readers to submit criticism and feedback in the hope of collectively shaping his creative vision. As one of the first literary works to be "crowdsourced" in terms of content, the version of "Machine Man" which emerged from this collaborative process is, much like its conflicted protagonist, an amalgamation of various constituent parts which comes together to form a harmonious whole. Barry's thematic thrust with the novel -- which tells the tale of Charles Neumann, a subordinate scientist working for a military research conglomerate known as Better Future -- is humanity's ceaseless pursuit of perfection, and the consequences awaiting those who refuse to accept the concept of limitation. The tale of Neumann is one of alienation among humanity, as the lowly lab worker struggles to relate to those around him during the book's introductory passages. When the aloof Neumann reveals to the reader through first-person narration that "I am not a people person. Whenever I'm evaluated, I score very low on social metrics. My ex-boss said she had never seen anyone score a zero on Interpersonal Empathy before ... If anyone is having a party, I am not invited" (Barry 6), the confession serves as both character development and foreshadowing. After admitting that he is not a "people person," Neumann undergoes a transformative process intended to turn those prophetic words into reality, as a gruesome injury forces him to systematically replace the parts of his person that make him like other people.
When Neumann's leg is severed from his body in a laboratory accident, the reader is provided with a telling glimpse into this utterly unique man's psyche, as the grievously wounded man analyzes his newfound handicap in disturbingly cold and clinical fashion. As Neumann observes "I was a junior high physics problem. If Charles Neumann is a human being with volume 80 liters, oozing bodily fluid at the rate of 0.5 liters per minute, how often must we replace his 400-milliliter saline bags. I felt I should have been more sophisticated than that" (Barry 13), the implication is that his sense of humanity has long since been fractured, with the loss of his leg serving only to confirm what he already knew about himself. Neumann's subsequent strive to rebuild himself, as something superior to his previous incarnation, fusing his form with metal gears and pistons to surpass previous capability, forms the foundation of Barry's narrative structure. Thus, readers are allowed to observe as Neumann stoically accepts the impact of his injury and sets to work improving on the standard prosthetic limbs proffered by an ostensibly concerned and conscientious employer. Hospital prosthetist Lola Shanks is introduced as a foil to Neumann's steady advancement, because even as he works tirelessly to improve the functionality of the outmoded device he derisively refers to as a "bucket on a stick" (Barry 31), his efforts to impress the woman remain futile. Throughout the early chapters of "Machine Man" the reader is exposed to Neumann in terms of his pursuit of perfection, a rhetorical choice on the part of Barry's which appears to be intended as a scathing rebuke of modern society's ceaseless striving for artificial improvement.
A constant theme throughout "Machine Man" is the unrelenting sense of restlessness which pervades Neumann's attitudes and interactions, and even as he succeeds in crafting an innovative system to replace his obsolete prosthetic, Barry is intent on revealing the depth of his discontent. When Neumann narrates a particularly sober assessment of his situation by saying "it occurred to me that I hadn't escaped my bottlenecks. I had only pushed them back. I had made a leg that could walk by itself, which was okay, but I could see now that this was about as far as it could go. All improvement from here would be incremental, because the bottleneck was my body" (Barry 38), this insight into his mindset is meant as both an individual revelation, and an accusation launched against the modern ethic of overindulgent self-improvement. Barry wrote "Machine Man" in 2009, during the height of personal glorification via social media, and clearly Neumann is positioned as a reflection of the generation to emerge during the online age, both impersonal and intensely self-centered, intent on achieving an unrealistic state of perfection no matter the departure from their original form. Thus, the reader bears witness to Neumann's Quixotic quest to surpass the boundaries of his physical form, and when he confesses that "I pulled my prosthetic leg apart. I didn't mean to but once I got started I kept seeing more things I could make better & #8230; I could rebuild this" (Barry 39), the line separating ambition and obsession becomes irrevocably blurred.
Confronted with such a stark vision of Neumann's insatiable drive to tinker with his own body, one is reminded of the pervasiveness of plastic surgery for the sake of beauty, the ingestion of illicit substances in the pursuit of enhanced athletic performance, and any number of accepted behaviors undertaken by people hoping to exceed themselves. At one point a despondent Neumann examines his remaining natural extremity, consisting as it does of vulnerable flesh and bone, and he reflects on the discrepancy between this limb and his robotic enhancement by noting "I looked at my leg, the good one. Well. I don't mean 'good.' I mean the one I'd had since birth & #8230; it was fat and weak and ordinary. The more I looked at it, the more it bugged me" (Barry, 39). This hypercritical appraisal of one's own body may appear at first glance to be an exercise in literary parody, Barry simply skewering the modern aesthetic of enhanced beauty with a satirical aside, but in actuality this ready acknowledgement of weakness on the part of Neumann serves as a crucial insight into the thematic foundations of the novel itself. The fact that Neumann is so quickly repelled by his human form -- compared as it is so clinically to the advanced capabilities and performance of his homemade prosthetic enhancement -- is suggestive of relatively modern mental illnesses such as body dysmorphic disorder and anorexia, wherein those afflicted are unable to derive satisfaction from their current physical form. When one considers contemporary research which indicates that "body dysmorphic disorder is characterized by extreme dissatisfaction and preoccupation with a perceived appearance defect that often leads to significant functional impairment & #8230; (while) among patients presenting for cosmetic treatments, 7 to 15% may suffer from body dysmorphic disorder" (Crerand, Franklin & Sarwer 176), the comparisons between this modern diagnosis and Neumann's insistence on improving his body via mechanical means, it becomes clear that Barry intended "Machine Man" to serve as an allegorical indictment of the modern mindset.
Another critical thematic element to consider upon a close reading of "Machine Man" centers on the age old struggle to exert control over one's own destiny. As Neumann continues to refine his prosthetic enhancements -- eventually calculating that his surviving human limb is expendable in the name of advancing his research -- the reader is presented with several clues suggesting that he believes himself to be in control over increasingly tenuous circumstances. For instance, after he has made and executed the decision to rid himself of his remaining human limb, Neumann contemplates the absurdity of humanity's ongoing efforts "to control our baser instincts," remarking on how "it made me think what a bizarre situation that was, a world of polite, smiling men and women one serotonin drip away from savagery, pretending that they weren't. It seemed to me that situation could be improved" (Barry 68). Although the detachment of this sentiment is entirely understandable considering Neumann's scholarly approach to life, the sheer hubris of this hope to master the inexorable pull of biological impulse is indicative of his precipitous psychological decline. Barry's use of irony to underscore his thematic objective is strikingly effective throughout the latter stages of the narrative, because even as Neumann continues to expand the scope of his physical augmentation, his mental stability continues to deteriorate unabated. Once again, Barry positions Neumann as a reflection of modern society, laying bare the fallacy that physical perfection equates to emotional satisfaction.
As the novel careens towards a thrilling conclusion, readers are slowly but steadily exposed to the depths of Neumann's growing derangement and depravity. As Neumann's psychological impairment continues to creep slowly into focus, Barry pens an especially chilling passage in which the ostensible protagonist coldly describes the processes by which he was adjudicating the life and death of fellow human beings. When Neumann observes to himself that "a man in a suit gave me a surprised look. Not security. That was lucky, because I was agitated and not making completely logical decisions. If…[continue]
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