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REVIEW: TELL THE MACHINE GOODNIGHT


TL,DR; a bunch of different characters (you’re bound to like one of them) trying to be happy, and also lightly sci-fi. get it at your local bookstore. it’s awesome.

Describing this book as soft sci-fi isn't quite right, but it’s as close as I can get to giving it a genre. It certainly is science fiction — it takes place in the future with all kinds of fancy technology— but it doesn’t read like a science fiction novel. As much as Katie Williams’s novel Tell the Machine Goodnight is about technology, the technology also has very little to do with it. Soft is right too; the prose is relaxed, rounded off, spoon-feeding the reader surrealism. It has the slow burn of magical realism. But putting the two words together “soft sci-fi,” in an attempt to define a genre, is not correct. Reading it is like going down a Youtube wormhole of indie movie trailers, which to some sounds like a criticism, but think about how fun that is— constantly held interest, a multitude of emotional arcs and character growth, you can, as I did, read it all in one go before you look up and realize that the day has slipped away from you.

Here’s the gist: in the future, there is a machine called the Apricity. Feed it a few of your cheek cells and it will spit out a list of things that you should do to be happier. And it’s not just something to solve your day to day inconveniences, this machine targets “deep happiness,” identifying the types of desires that are true to the core of your soul. Sounds perfect right? A world where everyone is happy? Well, there wouldn’t be a story if that was the case.

The novel tracks several different characters as they flit, trudge, and wind through each others’ lives over the years. There’s Pearl, an Apricity technician, her anorexic son, Rhett, her artist ex-husband, Eliot, his new wife, Val, Pearl’s boss, Carter, and Calla Pax, a horror movie star famous for her scream. It is not a spoiler to reveal that they are not all happy all the time. In fact, despite living in a world where happiness is supposedly one cotton swab away, they seem to be actively seeking out anything but happiness.

The machine prints out all kinds of recommendations from “eat tangerines” and “run ten miles every day,” to “cut off the tip of your left pinky finger” and “stop speaking to your brother.” For the most part (99.97% to be exact), those who follow through with the recommendations report that they are, indeed, happier. It’s Pearl’s job to insert the cells into the machine and then counsel clients on their list. At the end of every appointment, she asks her clients if they think that the Apricity will make them happier. Or, more precisely and approved by the Apricity legal team, if “[they] anticipate Apricity’s recommendations will improve [their] overall life satisfaction?” The issue with the former question was that the legal team thought that the word happier was problematic.

And it is. The heart of the novel screams “What does it mean to be happy?” And further, when we look at the two questions that Pearl asks: Is happiness the same thing as contentment, as life satisfaction?

I don't know!

Which is fine because the characters in the book don’t seem to know, and I don’t think anyone older than me has the answers either. We can look at the philosophical stuff all day— Kant versus Mill and all that good utilitarianism — but basically what the book shows, and what we already know simply from being alive, is that happiness is messy. We don’t always know what it is and we have odd ways of determining who deserves it. All we have are the little moments where we can say yes, I wish I could feel like this all the time and the people who make us think I wish I could make them feel like this all the time.

As science fiction grew to be a more legitimate genre and we blew through the initial era of space exploration, there was a sudden turn inward. Modern sci-fi often focuses on the self, on the psyche, consciousness, and what makes us human. If you read We or Brave New World, the novels bring up the same question of happiness versus contentment, but the stakes are way higher and the books are way more intense. Whereas those books argue that the extremes of emotion are what separate us from beasts who can only satisfy primal needs and self indulgence, this one focuses more on how the nuances of emotion make us human, which is pretty cool.

I have one qualm about this book. As I said earlier, the switching perspectives and storylines reminded me of a bunch of indie movies, the voice and characters reminiscent of Kevin Wilson’s novel The Family Fang or Wes Anderson’s film The Royal Tenenbaums. It joins a genre of voice, that when the work is discussed, inevitably the words “quirky” and “off-beat” come up, where tragedy and comedy blur under the surreal nature of the world. Critic James Wood accuses modern novels of “hyperrealism,” this is more like “hyporealism.” It might be the type of voice that’s needed for telling the narrative of dissatisfied, upper-middle class white people, or it’s just the type of voice and world that appeals to them. Either way, it feels familiar and a bit expected.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was a fun, fresh debut and I look forward to seeing what Katie Williams writes next.

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