Machine Man: a discomfiting novel about the antihuman side of transhumanism

Max Barry's Machine Man is a disarmingly funny and light-feeling novel about an antisocial engineer who decides to create his own prosthetic leg after he loses his own in an industrial accident. Charles Neumann is an antisocial, technology-dependent scientist at a top secret military contractor's skunkworks. Dissatisfied with the prosthesis he is fitted with after he accidentally crushes his leg in a materials-testing machine, he sets out to create a better leg -- a leg that's so good you'd chop your own off to get it (this is also the battle-cry of the real-world open-source prosthetics movement). Which is precisely what he does.

What unfolds is a superficially simple, absurdist tale about a misfit geek who pursues a relentless and seemingly logical program of amputation and replacement. Barry uses this narrative to smuggle in a sly and insightful critique of the anti-human edges of the transhumanist movement, the place where transcendence of nature meets mortification of the flesh.

As with all of the best thought-provoking sf, Machine Man pulls this off without slowing down the action -- which involves some properly cinematic cyborg duelling and such -- and without sacrificing characterization. This is a really fantastic read and a thought-provoking one, too -- a great companion to such books as James Hughes's Citizen Cyborg.


  1. This a great book, and a fun part is it was originally written a page at a time. Each page was posted on the author’s website, and readers got to give critique and respond as each page was posted. It was fun to read it in that form, and the modified version shown here is also great. 

    I’m so glad to see Max Barry get some more exposure. He has some other fun novels in the absurdist vein, but they’re not all SF.

  2. reminds me of the old cyberpunk role playing game from r. talsorian. for each artificial prosthesis characters got grafted onto their bodies, there was a chance they would fall into “cyberpsychosis.” 

    but this one sounds like fun.. i’ll have to pick it up.

  3. I enjoyed the one page at a time edition, also. I’m real tempted to get this but the Kindle edition is only 15 cents less than the ship to your door, hold in your hand, lend to a friend, sell it someday edition. Nuts!

  4. I did enjoy the 1 page at a time version, but it petered off near the end. Barry made it clear it was a first draft only, and it felt like one. He would publish the pages as he wrote them and that was fun, but I’m excited to see what his edited redrafted and polished version is.

    Can I just say I adore his first book, “Syrup” even though it’s technically a bad novel? It’s so unrealistic and forced, but it’s also a BLAST to read.

  5. Maybe, just maybe, if human body was not so crammed with bugs and limitations and was just a bit more upgradable/extendable on its own and without the gradual performance degradation and limited service life, such “anti-human” approach would not look so “controversial”.

    An engineer’s job is not about asking if going past the limits of “human”, or even casting it aside in the process, is right or wrong or what the definition of “human” is. An engineer’s job is to just do it, without slowing-down doubts. Then the wannabe philosophers in his wake will babble and squirm and moan how “wrong” it is that he dared to stray “too far” from The Herd, aka the Society that for some odd reason usurps the right to decide what is “acceptable” and “human”.

    After all, if a feature is missing or performance is limited, what’s the difference if it is because of an injury or because it is a “norm”? Would it be “wrong” to repair the ascorbate producing biochemical pathway and become independent on external sources of vitamin C, just because all other humans have that pathway broken too? What’s the difference from gene therapy of less common metabolic disorders – when the technology is the same? 

    Extended to prosthetics, why make a difference between upgrading an underperforming limb (or eye, or another organ) because it is nondeveloped or injured, vs because it is “normal” but with worse specs than an available alternative?

    1. RTFB. That there are contexts in which one could make a perfectly rational and justified decision to progressively self-modify this way does not imply that this holds in all contexts, or the present or average one. Nor does it entail that influences on transhumanist thought and culture that stem from other sources – in this case, a sort of ascetic antihumanism founded on a spirit/flesh hierarchy – are nonexistent, or not worth considering in narrative and conversation.

      Every potential criticism is not a veiled threat if you don’t consider yourself with reference to the potentially perfect. That also helps with getting rid of creepy, unscientific teleological-eschatological beliefs about the onrushing technocalypse and natural hierarchies of god-like intellect. A lesson for transhumanists.

      1. It however also does not imply this DOESN’T hold in the present or average one. The illogical reaction of the society to the second leg replacement means only an emotion-based disapproval of The Herd. MANY such problems disappear when the “what will the others think about it” question is not asked; and it is definitely not worth asking the average member of the Society, guessing from the content of mainstream-aimed advertising (an indirect descriptor of the target group psychology, as big-brand advertising includes a lot of research of what sort of people responds emotionally to what stimulus).

        I admit I did not properly understand the rest of your comment, nor did a friend whom I asked for a consultation. (I prefer spending my time reading about molecular-oriented approaches to the reality, and other (dis)provable testable fields, than wasting it on nebulous hand-waving also known as philosophy. The crucial answers, like what is consciousness, won’t come from philosophers anyway; if such answer exists, it will come from a lab.)

        As of teleological-eschatological beliefs (took me a while to decipher this philoso-babble at least partially), I don’t think they are important for engineers; the ones who actually put the concepts into realization usually operate with much more useful, much more immediate questions like “would it work if…” or “could this be improved” or “what happens when…”. Especially eschatology is just a way to kill a lot of time and achieve nothing. Mountaineers climb mountains because they are there, without asking why should they. Technicians do the same with existing problems (like said bugginess of human bodies). Philosophers make problems that don’t exist if you don’t believe in them.

        (Is any eschatology-related belief scientific anyway? And how would you define “creepy”?)

        What lesson did you mean, please? I did not see any, could you elaborate at least a little?

        Just on the side, “biomedical engineering” query on ThePirateBay gives quite a lot of relevant reading materials.

        Also, the future is already partially here, in the form of various forms of performance-enhancing surgeries; ligament tightening (IIRC) for baseball players, LASIK fine-tuned to give better-than-normal vision for professional golfers, etc, etc, etc. Then there is plastic surgery, enhancing appearance – which is nothing but a niche form of enhancing performance. Therefore a question if it will be done is already answered.

  6. So this guy creates something that’s better than an actual human limb?

    Let me guess, it doesn’t look human enough! Oh no, he’s a monster!

    What dya think it’s gonna happen in future? Off course all failings of our frail bodies will be replaced with something better. And guess what, we won’t look like 50s Sci-Fi B-movie robots.

    The only issue here is a short sighted writers who cant write sci fi about future or technology without creating demons. If you gonna write futuristic sci-fi there gotta be problems!

    This only brings fear of progress to people who aren’t that technologically knowledgeable and it’s unoriginal and boring.

  7. I’d be interested to hear how this compares to Joe Haldeman’s story “More Than the Sum of His Parts” (which he originally wanted to title “Tom Swift and His Electric Penis”).  It’s collected in _Dealing In Futures_, the same book that gave us “A !Tangled Web”.

  8. I have read two of Barrys’s books (Jennifer Government and Company) and they were noth very funny and absurdist. I specially loved Jennifer Government’s world. I think it’s a book more people should check out.

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