Despite its soft-porn cover, Jennifer Pelland’s Machine is a novel about much, much more than what sexual shenanigans one could accomplish with a robotic/clockwork body. Which is too bad, in a way, because this book might be judged by its cover. Those seeking graphic sex will leave disappointed by how little of it there is (although there is some, sort of); those put off by the promises of the cover will never have the thrill of Pelland’s layered analogies about control, gender, and identity.
Main character Celia wakes up in a mechanical body at the opening of the story after her memories have been decanted into fake flesh. This procedure is a relatively new one in Pelland’s world and is used medicinally rather than recreationally. Those whose conditions are terminal are able to freeze their living bodies and hang out in a constructed one while a cure is developed.
There are obstacles, natch. Celia’s state makes her into a second class citizen in the eyes of most of society. What she chooses to do with her body is now not in her control but is controlled by the medical professionals who made it. Also, after intentionally slicing open one of her fingers so that she can see the ‘‘bone’’ underneath, she ‘‘could see with her own eyes that she was not human.’’ This realization leads her down a rabbit hole of after-market mods and brutal sex. It’s never gratuitous, though, and the progression makes sense in Pelland’s hands.
Underneath these loftier and earthier thoughts rides a love story. Celia’s wife Rivka divorces her while she is undergoing the transition from flesh to machine because Rivka can’t wrap her head around the idea that this new Celia is the same person. Rivka’s both right and wrong. Grief saturates Celia’s decisions. Later, anger informs many, many more. But, again, the progression works.
Ultimately, Machine is a solid novel that marries both lofty ideas and gritty human drama in unexpected ways. Look past the cover.