My rating: 1 of 5 stars
There are two novels here, bumping against and getting in the way of each other, the one great and the other not so good. The great novel is a quite wonderful dystopia focusing on a UK ravaged by climate change, with the focus on deteriorating social cohesiveness and increasing anarchy as a result.
The not-so-great novel is a muddled psychological study of the impact of technology on human relations, which quickly devolves into a rather icky horror story that skips over the science in favour of lurid thrills and scares.
Given that the world depicted by Smythe is so constrained by the problems of climate change and crumbling social order, I found it difficult to comprehend how such a society could develop a technology as advanced as the Machine. Or what purpose it could serve.
And what is this war that the protagonist returns from so ravaged by? I think Iraq is mentioned vaguely at one point – it might have made more sense if the war had been of galactic origin, to be honest, with maybe the Machine a spoil of this interstellar conflict.
And what exactly does the Machine do? I am still unsure, having finished the novel. A lot of reviews point to Frankenstein as an exemplar, but this is much more a zombie novel. I thought the bits alluding to a separate consciousness or dimensionality of the Machine, such as when Beth peers inside its workings and only sees endless darkness, was an attempt to elevate the novel to Lovecraftian mystery, but this is so disconnected from the main narrative that it hardly registers.
I also did not understand Beth’s connection to her abusive husband, and why she would want to resurrect him in the first place. Of course, the meta-ending throws everything that has transpired into question (this is not a spoiler, actually), but it turns out to be far more of a cop-out than the hard-boiled ending demanded by the initial rather straightforward narrative.
Ultimately this is a curious blend of Ballardian dystopic ennui and Stephen King gross-out horror that does not quite gel, and is quite emotionless to boot, and consequently more heavy-handed and distasteful than effective and fashionably depraved.
Still, Smythe is clearly a talented and adventurous writer, and I will definitely be on the lookout for his other books to see how he has evolved and matured.