Science fiction and fantasy                                            


by Douglas Thompson


There are some things I've come to expect from Douglas Thompson's writing: ambitious ideas, a willingness to experiment, and a commitment to challenging the reader. Even so, Mechagnosis is more wtf than usual. The main character, Scott Malthrop, is a murderer who has given his entire house over to a unique machine. The story is set in 2020, but this isn't some tiny, shiny gizmo with a name like the Quantum Positronic Matter Transponder, run by a computer so self-aware it runs its own counselling service on the side. No, Malthrop's machine is pigeon-powered. He's a jeweller, and with its wheels, pistons, cogs and levers the machine seems almost clockpunk.

So this aspect of the story requires a certain suspension of disbelief, because the device is essentially magic. It uses items of sentimental value to recreate memories, or at least that's what it seems to do. Scott straps himself into a control point with bindings made of hair, and when he switches it on he could be in there for days at a time. He's never entirely sure whether or not the device will end up killing him.

We tend to think of machines as our tools, but the author turns this on its head at several points. There's the "distilled futility" of the gym machines used by Scott's girlfriend Melanie, or the vacuum cleaner mania practised by his houseproud mother. The machine taking up Scott's whole house appears purposeless, more of an art installation than a practical tool, but is it so different from other industrial devices?

The narrative skips from different points of view somewhat. There are two angels, drawn to the machine by its disruptions of the fabric of spacetime. Then there's Wroclaw, an old detective who suspects Scott of murder. Wroclaw has a hard time arresting, or even finding, the elusive jeweller, but he's convinced Scott has something to do with a number of recent disappearances. The detective develops a doomed May-December attraction to a young woman involved in his investigations, in spite of the fact that he's already married. So he's more likely to be tempted by the machine's nostalgia than most people. But will it get the better of him and swallow him up in his workings?

I quite liked Wroclaw and his junior officers Lynn and Brian, with their amusing banter. I wasn't so keen on Scott though. He is obsessive, and creepy with his love of birds and corresponding disdain for other forms of life. He's not entirely illogical, but neither is he likeable so it's odd that we spend quite a lot of the story seeing things from his perspective. The imagery reminded me of Brendan Connell's Unpleasant Tales in its perversity and horror. However it's not just about shock value, the weirdness does all end up making sense.

This is a densely-written story, only 144 pages, but it's nevertheless a very deep consideration of machines, memory, and our lack of control over mechanisation. The ending doesn't waste any words, and although it seems a bit abrupt that's mainly because Douglas Thompson isn't insulting the reader's intelligence by explaining the obvious. Mechagnosis is clever, if a little off the wall, and it left me with lots of interesting things to ponder.

15th October 2012

Book Details

Year: 2012

Categories: Books


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