Although the first draft of The Holy Machine was completed in 1994, its origins actually go back to two short stories, both published in Interzone in 1991. One was ‘La Macchina’, which I included in my collection The Turing Test. The story was about two brothers on a trip to Florence, but it included many of the key elements of the book, including the idea of syntecs (robots covered in living flesh), syntec brothels, robots ‘going rogue’ by becoming sentient, and the Holy Machine itself.
The other was ‘The Long Journey of Frozen Heart’. I lifted this entire story to provide the subplot about Ruth Simling and, for this reason, I didn’t include it in The Turing Test collection, feeling that readers of both books might feel a little cheated when they recognised the same storyline unfolding. But I like the story and I’ve decided to make the full text of it available here. (I’ve tidied it up a bit. I seem to have become a better editor over these 21 years!*)
I was standing in a queue in the now-defunct Magnet furniture store, when I came up with this story. Dreamy, melancholy muzak was maundering away in the background, melancholy yet at the same time loveless and mechanical, and the phrase came into my head: The Long Sad Journey of Frozen Heart. (I later dropped the ‘Sad’: I felt that was over-egging it). Within a very short time, the entire story had written itself in my mind, with very little in the way of conscious direction on my part.
Thinking about it now, I wonder if I was thinking about ‘Frozen Journey’, the title given, when it was first published, to Philip Dick’s short story ‘I Hope We Shall Arrive Soon’, on which I was some time later to write an entire dissertation. This has never actually occurred to me before, but there are certainly thematic similarities between the two stories, since both deal with a protagonist trapped in virtual reality, and both include a disembodied and powerful helper. In the Dick story, the protagonist has to be kept in virtual reality if he is to remain sane, though this results in long-term damage to his ability to believe in the real world. In ‘The Long Journey of Frozen Heart’, the protagonist, Mary Louisa Ann (aka Frozen Heart), chooses to leave virtual reality to reclaim her authentic self, even though this will result in her death.
I wanted the story to have a slightly fairytale-like feeling. In the back of my mind was the Hans Andersen story about the little mermaid who chooses to be given human legs and live on land, even though every step she makes there will be agony. And perhaps there’s something of Andersen’s Snow Queen here also (a story which I found wonderful and terrifying when it was read to me as a small child): Gerda’s heroic journey; Kai, with the mirror splinter in his heart, playing with jigsaw pieces made of ice. (There’s a bit of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ in here too, and just a pinch of the Irish legend, ‘The Voyage of Bran’.)
This story, and ‘La Macchina’, and indeed The Holy Machine, all deal with the way in which human beings escape from reality into imaginary worlds, shutting out things that they find unpleasant or difficult or frightening, something that becomes ever more tempting as technology makes possible ever more convincing simulacra: battle without danger, sex without meeting anyone, empire-building without taking risks and without achieving anything real at all. It is the emptiness of these constructs, which can be built and discarded in a moment, that Frozen Heart chooses to leave behind in order to recover her own real beating heart.
* I’ve also updated it a little. In the 1991 version, the Otherverse was simply ‘the Net’, and it only contained 99 worlds. Which seems a bit retro now.