It's become sort of a cliché to talk about superpowers as being like disabilities. Half the superhero stories of the past half-decade have played with that idea. But in Machine Man, Max Barry takes that idea to the next level - by playing with the line between prosthetics and cybernetics.
It seems like such an obvious idea, until you read Barry's inspired take on it and start to wonder why nobody else thought of it.
The difference between prosthetics and cybernetics seems, in some ways, to be strictly one of permanence. A prosthetic is something that you attach to your body to replace a missing limb or other part - a leg, usually, or an arm. A cybernetic replacement, meanwhile, is also attached to your body, but becomes a part of you permanently.
The border between the two - between an assistive technology and something that's a part of your own body - is fertile ground for investigation, and Barry uses it to tell one of the most memorable, thought-provoking, sardonic and flat-out nerdy books I've read in ages. Barry gives us a new kind of mad scientist, one who could fit right in with the Maker movement, and thinks like an engineer.
The other good news is, this version of Barry's novel is much, much better than the rough draft he posted on his site in 2009. It's way more polished, and honestly a more fully formed story with much more clever writing than the embryonic version you may have read a couple years back. And it gives you lots of hope for the movie version, which is now in development with Darren Aronofsky attached.
Machine Man starts with a scientist named Charles Neumann losing his cellphone, and realizing that he's totally helpless and cut off from reality without it - it's become so much a part of his life, he can't even figure out what clothes to wear or where to go, without it. And when Neumann finally figures out where he put his cellphone, the realization distracts him in the middle of working with heavy machinery. As a result, the machinery accidentally crushes Neumann's leg, destroying it.
Forced to adjust to life without one of his legs, Neumman learns to use a prosthetic leg - his company's excellent healthcare plan gets him one of the top-line models, but it's still basically a "bucket on a stick," as someone points out. His stump fits in the bucket, and the stick goes down to a prosthetic foot. There's a terrible moment when the other engineers at Neumann's company look at the top-of-the-line prosthetic leg and say it's very "Smart" - which Neumann quickly realizes is them being condescending.
So Neumann goes back to his office at the evil corporation Better Future, and starts building himself a better leg. And then a better one than that. Soon, he's got a leg that thinks for itself and has multiple core processors. As Barry writes:
When you thought about it, biological legs couldn't do anything except convey a small mass from A to B, as long as A and B were not particularly far apart and you were in no hurry. That wasn't great. The only reason it was even notable was that legs did it using raw materials they built themselves. If you were designing something within that limitation, then okay, good job. But if you weren't it seemed to me you could build in a lot more features.
The only problem Neumann faces: His new, mechanical leg is so much better than his remaining biological one, the flesh-and-blood leg seems pointless. Biological legs can't survive on their own, they're not modular, and they have "isolated points of failure." So he starts trying to figure out a way to even things out...
As you've probably gathered, Machine Man has a lot of amputation and discussion of the lives of amputees, and if the idea of being down one limb is scary to you then this book will probably freak you the fuck out. (One of my favorite bits is when Neumann, newly an amputee, hears of "amputee porn," and naively thinks that it's porn for amputees.)
It definitely conveys a very visceral sense of what it's like to be dependent on others for mobility assistance, or on technology for that matter. But the brilliant thing here is how Neumann goes, again and again, from being less able to being superpowered, depending on how connected he is to his cybernetic limbs. His superpowers come with their own weakness, because they can be taken away at any moment, leaving him with less mobility than most people.
Machine Man also gets really deeply into the sort of questions you'd expect a cyborg novel to investigate, and manages to find a really clever new spin on them. For example, how does the presence of artificial body parts change our brains and personalities? Given that our neurons are wired as an elaborate control system for a biological machine, how does it change our brains to lose some of those functions? When you start thinking of an arm or leg as "yours," how does that affect you when it's removed?
The level of geeky problem-solving and discussion in the book, and the way in which the challenges keep evolving and escalating in unexpected ways, reminded me of the best of Ted Chiang, especially his novella The Life Cycle of Software Objects. There's a lot of clever discussion of brain-computer interfaces, the limits of mechanical systems and how to overcome them, and the problems with limbs that can anticipate or interpret your decisions - even decisions that you haven't consciously made.
Readers of Barry's past work, especially Jennifer Government and The Company, won't be startled to discover that the novel's evil corporation turns out to be very evil indeed, not to mention twisted and sadistic. They see Neumann's cyborg body as an asset, and meanwhile they're trying to turn his technology into a suite of weapons as fast as possible. At the same time, in an extra layer of surrealism that just makes everything weirder, all of the people in Neumann's lab are experimenting with synthetic hormones and add-ons to give themselves perfect skin, perfect muscles and the vision of a hawk.
The combination of these two forces - Neumann's relentless drive to keep tinkering with his body and upgrading himself, and the corporation's short-sighted need to create better cyborg weapons so that it can rescue its quarterly profits - eventually results in a lot of awesome violence and mayhem. And the issue of whom Neumann's body belongs to and who controls his artificial limbs becomes more and more sticky.
Soon enough, Neumann is hacking his own brain, to eliminate feelings of guilt or shame. And the question of what's a voluntary or involuntary action gets more complicated. As Neumann tells his love interest, a prosthetist named Lola, "People are very selective about their bodies. Any time their bodies do something good, they claim it. They say I did this. But something goes wrong, it's not I any more. It's a problem with the foot. Their skin. Suddenly it's not them anymore. It's the body they're stuck in."
As Machine Man gets more and more twisted - in ways I don't really want to give away - you start to see the glimmerings of something that might be the Singularity happening. People are hacking themselves and creating interdepencies between humans and machines in ways that hint at a fundamental transformation of what it means to be human. But instead of a simple wish-fulfillment, in which humans are uplifted by A.I.s into a lovely new reality, Barry gives us a much more complex, troubling world in which those who don't understand technology at a fundamental level are condemned to be crushed by it.
And we keep circling back, again and again, to the idea of disability as the flipside of superpowers, as well as the root cause of upgrades. To the point where you have to wonder if the Singularity will be as much about human frailty as it will be about machine superiority.