I mentioned in a previous post that some people like The Holy Machine a lot, while others don’t take to it.
My guess is that this has a lot to do with the story’s narrator and main protagonist, George Simling. He’s not exactly your stereotypical SF hero. At the beginning of the book, he lives with his mum, has almost no friends, has never kissed a girl, and is so isolated by his paralysing shyness that he tries to persuade himself that advertising signs are speaking personally to him.
What’s more his shyness is not, like many people’s, simply a nervousness about initial contact. It goes deeper than that. He is afraid of being with people. Even when an attractive woman, who he has fancied for some time, shows every sign of interest in him*, he panics and runs off to take comfort with a synthetic woman, rather than deal with the anxiety involved in being with an actual human being with needs and feelings of her own. Yuk. Creepy. Not very appealing at all.
I suspect that whether readers find the the book engaging depends a lot on whether they are able or willing to identify themselves with George, or whether they are inclined to dismiss him, as one reviewer did, as ‘a spineless wimp.’ I guess there are those who quite genuinely don’t get people like him, and others who might get it, but are made uncomfortable by the prospect of having to recognise something of themselves in a man like this, and would prefer to have such people firmly ‘othered’ , by making them into bad guys, serial killers and the like (as not infrequently happens in movies to odd, isolated men who live with their mums).
A spineless wimp is what he is, at least at the beginning of the book. But he’s surely not the only person ever to have found the human world so scary that they find refuges of one kind or another to hide away in**. (George’s mother Ruth is, in a way, even more radically in flight, spending most of her time in a sugary virtual world, and flirting with her own substitute for a real relationship, a construct called Solomon Gladheim.) Whole industries exist to provide such refuges.
I’ve certainly often been guilty of hiding from the world, and retreating into fantasy. (Really retreating, I mean, and not just taking respite.) When I was a child of nine or ten I would spend hours on my own building imaginary worlds inside my head, when other kids were playing together outside. And there have been times in my life when I’ve been almost as isolated as George himself. I’m not proud of that, I’m not saying it’s a good or admirable thing, but it happens to people. And anything that happens to people should be fair game to write a story about.
In fact I’m a bit suspicious of apparently fearless heroes. I know such people really do exist. (Look, to choose just one instance, at the case of Nancy Wake.) And I know some people are largely untroubled by the fears and doubts that beset the rest of us***. But still, most of us experience a lot of fear, and it does us good to face up to and think about that, rather than hide in our rooms and daydream about being the intrepid heroes that we’re not, confidently taking on the world.
* ‘Why on earth?’ you might ask. Well, he’s not bad-looking, and shyness, seen from the outside, can be mistaken for an interesting reserve. Trust me, I know!
** I hardly like to say it, but isn’t this sometimes one of the reasons for SF’s appeal (and one of the reasons why it makes many non-SF readers uncomfortable)? That it can provide just such a refuge?
*** Or perhaps are troubled by different kinds of fears. See for example, John Redlantern.