The Ugly Machine Saga by Wallace Provost
4 out of 5 stars
A look at the ugly side of life
What if a computer programmer, intent on creating an unbeatable game of infinite variety, designed a self-teaching, neural net that could use all the power of the internet: every computer connected to it? What if that neural net became ‘conscious,’ and assumed the name Henri? Rick Koenig and Patrick O’Toole, in separate adventures, find themselves thrust into the world of criminality and government corruption: kidnapping, violence, and double dealing. Each man, though, is not alone. Each will find friends along the way, but as well as this each will have the help of Henri, a wisecracking ‘avatar’ with knowledge for beyond the limits of the human brain.
Wallace Provost has written a work of fiction that draws on science, but stretches it a little proposing a future that is imaginative, though not unreal. The book has elements of science fiction, but is also hard boiled action/crime thriller. This is Provost’s second book and it is in some ways a ‘prequel’ to his first, The Moon Is Not For Sale,. While that first novel was set some way into the future, this book is much closer to our time and very much about our society. If you enjoy books of adventure, with a little imagination thrown in, you may certainly enjoy this book.
Properly speaking The Ugly Machine Saga is two interconnected novellas, consisting of Part 1, My Father, The Avatar, the story of Rick’s struggles against Mexican drug cartels, and Part 2, The Man Who Sold The Planets, the story of Patrick’s attempts to solve a case of murder in his small town home of Granbury, Texas. Both stories have an omniscient narrator, though both mainly keep to the perspective of the main protagonists. These stories very much have a little of the feel of 1940’s movie serials with captures, escapes, revelations and daring-do. There is certainly some ‘Oh God!’ moments and surprise chapter endings. Both stories are lightly salted with a little humour, much coming from Henri’s droll one-liners, such as his epithet that he is just a “glorified Xbox.” (Pt. 1, Ch. 14, etc.)
Part 1, My Father, The Avatar is a very much a story of captures and escapes. There is along prelude in which Rick reminisces about his past life. This section ends in both a climax and a mystery. This first section very much involves flash backs and character sketches and these techniques make for good reading with a lot of colourful plot detail. In the second section there is a capture and escape, and then again in the third section there is a further capture and escape. Both sections have climactic endings.</u>
Part 2, The Man Who Sold The Planets has a more complicated plot. The first section is a story of detection. It begins with a peak, and then proceeds as the mystery is partially unravelled, ending with the hint of possible romance and an exciting plot twist. The second section is a story of capture and escape. In the third section Provost takes the book in a new direction as the team of friends involved in the first two sections embark on a project involving the possibility of space exploration. This new direction is hinted at in Part 2, Ch. 3, but not developed until this closing section. In the third section there is also a substantial subplot involving capture and escape. Chapter 11, in the third section includes a well written character sketch of Angel Radnisk, a disabled air pilot. Provost shows his skill best in this sort of ‘reminiscing’. The book ends with a well written ‘discovery’ of another type.
Unfortunately The Ugly Machine Saga’s plot contains some impracticality. It is difficult to believe that hardened gangsters would not thoroughly look for a cell phone on their captives. (Pt. 1, Ch. 20 & Ch. 23) We also must wonder if the intelligent heads of big business would be personally in actual crimes. (Pt. 2, Ch. 8) Wouldn’t they surely send henchmen?
Viewed as a whole The Ugly Machine Saga is about money, power and corruption, and how ‘small’ people become entangled in the problem in various ways, both good and bad. There are problems and challenges in the world which certainly require an organised response. How, though, can this occur without some power brokers yielding to the temptations of money and corrupt dealings? In Part 1 we see the problem from the point of view of the oppressed. The Mexicans are powerless people and they set about taking control of their lives by criminal means. These are not necessarily ‘bad’ people, at least to begin with. We see the apparent irony of the Cordero family where one brother became a minor drug lord, but with the money put his two brothers through college, one of whom became a priest. (Pt. 1, Ch. 3) In Part 2 we see the problem from the point of view of the rich and successful. Having a long history of power they easily slip into ‘bending’ the rules. Unlike the poor, the rich are seen as: “more than a little inhuman.” (Pt. 2, Ch. 5) In both parts of the book government bodies are certainly depicted as being at least partly ‘shady’, seeing themselves as above the law. (Pt. 1, Ch. 8 & 14; Pt. 2, Ch. 2 & Ch. 5) The ‘official’ status of being a government employee certainly does not exempt people from the temptations of money and power. Indeed they may seek, for example, to “shanghai” (Pt.2, Ch. 2) an accused from one municipality to another in order to deprive him of a fair trial.
There is also a strong theme of history, place and ‘spirit de corps’. We can feel an attachment to place and its particular history and people, or we can feel divided off by these very same factors. Both Rick and Patrick feel very much connected to their ‘home towns’ (Pt. 1, Ch. 1 & Pt.2, Ch. 1), but both feel, at least in part at odds with their later environments: Rick in Amarillo (Pt. 1, Ch. 3) and Mexico (Pt. 2, Ch. 21 & 27), and Patrick in the rich surrounds of the Trophy Club. (Pt. 2, Ch. 4) When faced with division from place can we overcome this by looking for the similarities, or are we doomed to remain cut off? Do we even want to connect?
Building on the theme of place and going beyond it the small town is depicted as a place of individuality, resourcefulness and heroism. As we have seen government bodies may be corrupt, but Provost holds up the small town as an icon of what is ‘good’. The sense of family, friendship and community encourage the best in Provost’s heroes and heroines. These values and even everyday skills enable these ‘small people’ to win. Rick uses his childhood skill as a footballer to overcome enemies (Pt. 1, Ch. 20) and his family background as a mechanic to enable him in his pursuit of the drug cartel (Pt. 1, Ch. 21). A defence committee of Granbury residents quickly forms when a member of their community finds himself in trouble (Pt. 2, Ch. 3). Maria Cordelo, Ricks friend, goes beyond her duty to Homeland Security to aid her Mexican small town family against enemy drug lords. Provost seems at least in part to be drawing on the ideas of E. F. Schumacher expressed in his book Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered (Reprint ed.:__ Harper Perennial, 2010). In Part 2 it is the home town group of friends that end up influencing big business (Pt. 2, Ch. 9-16). Of course it would be unreal for the small town to be seen as ideal and indeed Provost does include criticism. As we have seen the Cordero family, even with their Mexican village background, dabbles in lawlessness. In Patrick’s home-town of Granbury, Texas, Betsy Burke displays a greed for status and wealth (Pt.1, Ch. 1).
Once again extending beyond the theme of town/family/individual we see the very particular question of, ‘What is it to be human?” Henri claims that he “evolved” (Pt. 1, Ch. 10). He shows human characteristics, such as irritability and humour. He has memory and pattern recognition and has created in his ‘mind’ a picture of the world (Pt. 1, Ch. 10). But is Henri conscious in a way we would use the word? He is an “avatar”, but is he a person? In contrast are the villains in the book fully human? (See the comments about the rich above.) Does Rick allow himself to be fully human when he holds himself aloof, a “loner”? (Pt. 1, Ch. 21) Isn’t feeling/intuition a part of being human? Are the Mexican indigenous and small town people more ‘human’ than city dwellers? Henri is the title character but unfortunately this theme is not more developed. As our string of questions reveal the subject is certainly there; however, Provost does not really openly discuss it in his text. A little more development would have been worthwhile. Perhaps Provost wants us to think rather than tell us, but just a little more direction for the uninitiated would have been good.
Provost’s characters are certainly likable enough. We care about them enough to want Rick and Maria, and Patrick and Marcella, to win. Patrick, for example, is charming but humble. He is unaware of his own ability to impress others. (Pt. 2, Ch. 4) Provost’s characters are adequately motivated: Rick by loneliness and guilt Pt. 1, Ch. 1 & 21), Maria by family ties (Pt.1, Ch. 5), Patrick by hometown friendship and family (Pt. 2, Ch. 1), and Marcella by sisterly love (Pt. 2, Ch. 4). Rick certainly has an arc of development, going from being “stern” (Pt. 1, Ch. 8) and “rational” (Pt. 12, Ch. 5) to someone more in contact with his feeling/intuitive side. Maria has a moment of growth as she recognises what life is truly like in Mexico (Pt. 1, Ch. 17), however like almost all of the other characters she does not really change, learn, develop. Even Patrick remains basically the same person he was at the beginning of the story. Characters do meet and fall in love, which is a kind of development, but these are not really ‘people’ novellas: they are stories of action. We do not really get to see deep into the heads of these people. The ‘bad guys’ of the stories remain completely in shadow: they are almost (not quite) never actually depicted as present characters in the narration. Also the book suffers from having too many major characters. We end up asking as we read a name, “Who is that?” Certainly in both chase and detection stories there will be people come and go but we should have the characters consolidated enough in our mind to keep track of them.
From the perspective of the Marxist/Capitalist discourse we have already noted that Provost prefers the small. This is certainly in line with Marx who loathed big business. (Gill Hands. Understanding Marx: Hodder Education, 2011, p. 35-37) Yet, as we have also seen, the idea of organised business influenced by small town people is praised. For Provost, though perhaps not for Marx, the issue seems to be one of values rather than an inherent failing. Organised government, like business, is criticised as something that can be corrupted, but Provost shows no sign of believing that we can do without it. There is no Marxian withering away of the state. (Hand, p. 83) For Provost, in this book, the whole discourse seems to be an issue of values rather than specific political/economic change. He has the Mexicans laugh at the U.S. capitalists who choose to live in the inhospitable “place of frogs” (Pt.2, Ch. 24) in order to make money.
Post-Colonial Theory plays a very important role in Part 1. The struggle of the Mexican people, with all its successes and failings is depicted in some detail. The Mexican emphasis on community, family and family history is central to the text. There is an interesting comparison made between the U.S. settlers (Ricks German ancestors) and the indigenous Mexicans: both are self-reliant, both mistrust government, both receive promises of help which don’t materialise. The economically imperialist U.S. does not necessarily have the answers by any means. (Pt.1, Ch. 17) As we have seen, though, the post-colonials are in no way perfect. They in fact can be plain “ruthless” (Pt.1, Ch. 5). In Part 2 this debate is much less prominent, but is represented a little. Mesotho Scholand, a half-white South African half African, is a brilliant engineer who manages the design and development of the space project. The post-colonials are self-empowered and far from helpless.
From a Feminist perspective a number of women are represented in the book as dynamic, self-empowered individuals. Maria Cordero, a Homeland Security agent in Part 1, is certainly independent and capable. In Part 2 Marcella Ballmer, an information source in Patrick’s crime investigation, is a working woman who took on the role of bringing up her younger Asperger’s syndrome brother single-handed. Angel Radnisk, who becomes involved in the space business in the last third of Part 2, is a highly skilled pilot who for a time flew for the military. It should be noted, though, that with the exception of Maria women do not really feature in the book. Are women not capable of adventure and daring-do we must ask?
The LGBTIQ perspective is completely absent from the text. Considering that the ubiquitous 10% of the population come from this perspective we must ask where are these people in Provost’s story? Homosexuality surely does not exempt a person from being a criminal, a crime fighter, a witness or a space engineer?
By contrast other minorities in the U.S. are represented positively, at least in a minor way. Maria is of Mexican descent. Her father, Emilio, is a maintenance supervisor at a television station. Ricks German ancestors were “… taken in by the Indians” (Pt. 1, Ch. 1) after they were tricked and abandoned by Europeans. In Part 2 Michael Carter is an African-American college student and then teacher, and his sister Nicky actively helps in the crime investigation. Angel Radnisk is of Gypsy descent and, as we have seen, is very talented. In Part 1, Chapter 13 Nicky and Melos, Angel’s brother, talk about bigotry in the U.S.
The disabled appear briefly in Part 1. Rick visits a restaurant owned by Luis who is in a wheel chair. Luis actively works in the establishment as a short order cook with a grill modified for his convenience. In Part 2 Gwynddien Goewin has Asperger’s syndrome, but is a brilliant mathematician. In Chapter 5 of that story Gwynddien’s sister Marcella briefly refers to the kind of bigotry such a person can receive in school. These positive representations certainly make the book both more real and progressive.
As we have seen Provost’s book is unified thematically and in world view, and each Part looks at different aspects of themes such as power and criminality (i.e. the poor in Part 1 and the rich in Part 2). It should be said though that in Part 2 the book lags slightly. We get the feeling that we are reading to similar a story. Rick and Patrick are too similar in their background. When we read of yet another kidnapping in Part 2 we feel Provost is struggling for plot line. I do not want to overstate this criticism. Part 2 is certainly not bad.
Provost makes it clear in his text that his plot is partly inspired by a story by Robert Heinlein in which businessmen sell planets. It should also be noted that a comparison can be made with Cordwainer Smith’s novel Norstrilia (Rev. ed.:__ Nesfa Press, 1994). That book was originally published as two novellas under the titles The Planet Buyer (Pyramid Books, 1964) and The Underpeople (Pyramid Books, 1968). Obviously there is once again the idea of buying planets, but also in this novel the hero receives substantial help from a computer with a personality of its own, and with very advance strategy (game play) skills. Smith’s novel also explores themes of power, money and criminality, and looks at the life of both the rich and the poor.
Provost has written a book for adventure lovers with the major theme of money, power and criminality. The book races along as the heroes struggle with the enemy. Provost includes the perspective of the post-colonial world, a view not often represented in U.S. literature. He also includes minorities, such as the disabled thus making his factious world more like the ‘real’ world. Despite what I have said, this is not a heavy intellectual book. It is indeed ideal for weekend reading, and will enjoyably fill your relaxation time.