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Literature / Machine Man

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Scientist Charles Neumann loses a leg in an industrial accident. It’s not a tragedy. It’s an opportunity. Charlie always thought his body could be better. He begins to explore a few ideas. To build parts. Better parts.

Prosthetist Lola Shanks loves a good artificial limb. In Charlie, she sees a man on his way to becoming artificial everything. But others see a madman. Or a product. Or a weapon.

Machine Man (Not to be confused with the Marvel Comics character or the Japanese TV Superhero of the same name) got its start in 2009 as a serial. From March to December, the author (Max Barry, of Jennifer Government fame) released one page a day, freely accessible; the material was later adapted into a full-length novel, which was released in 2011. The serial can still be read for free at the author's website, user comments and all. This article is about the novel, which differs from the serial in a few ways. They both have the same basic story, though.


The blurb above describes the story quite well. Dr. Neumann is an engineer working at a cutting-edge company called Better Future. One day, he steps into a piece of machinery called the Clamp and loses his leg. Better Future provides excellent insurance, though, so he gets a top-of-the-line prosthesis! In the process, Charlie also gets to meet Lola Shanks, prostethist, and immediately develops a crush on her. It's just a normal psychological reaction in a high-stress situation, but he doesn't mind. Unfortunately, as it turns out, the artificial legs currently on the market are all awful. So he builds a better one. That works out well, but he's still frustrated — sure, he has a great leg now, with pathfinding and all, but what good is that while his remaining meat-leg still limits him? He does the only logical thing in his situation and puts his other leg into the Clamp as well.


The hospital is less-than-understanding, of course. They put him on suicide watch. What's worse, they won't let him talk to Lola again. The Better Future shareholders think he's on to something, though. He gets his own department and essentially unlimited resources to develop a new product line of Better Parts - for the general market, of course, but also for himself. Charlie is happier than he has ever been, and looks forward to being able to continue upgrading himself at his own leisure.

And then everything goes to shit.


The book contains examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: In the words of the author:
    [The] novel is much longer than the serial and departs from it in several ways. That's partly because the serial was a first draft, and therefore terrible, but also because the formats are so different. The serial was a collection of cliffhangers; the novel I hope is deeper and less tricksy.
  • Artificial Limbs: These play a quite central role, for obvious reasons. Specific examples include the bucket-on-sticks public option ("for war veterans abandoned by their own government"), the state-of-the-art Exegesis leg prothesis, the augmentations Charles and his team build (especially the Countours, which he wears for most of the book) and the Z-Specs/Better Eyes.
  • Asshole Victim: The Manager. See below.
  • Awesome Mc Coolname: Charles Neumann. Recalls both Charles Atlas and John von Neumann (one of the greatest mathematicians in modern history). Doubles as Bilingual Bonus. Neumann is German and literally means "new man". Plus, it just sounds cool.
  • Badass Transplant: Dr. Neumann begins with one, then a pair of powerful prosthetic legs that can not only leap tall buildings In a Single Bound but also kick down reinforced steel doors. His team also designs powerful arms that end up attached to the security guard Carl.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Better Future is dismantled. The artificially enhanced employees are forcefully brought back to 'normal', but it's stated that people are more enlightened nowadays (which is 6 years later). Lola survives, though, as does Charles Neumann — albeit as a box. Still, the ending is essentially optimistic, and it's strongly implied that Charles will be able to build himself a new body in time.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: Charles repeatedly tries to explain that no, he doesn't enjoy chopping parts off people, it's just a necessary step in the process of improving someone. Also, he refuses to replace his eyes, but not because of the Squick but because he didn't build the replacements and thus doesn't know how they work.
  • Body Horror: First Neumann loses his right leg in an industrial accident, and builds a better prosthetic replacement. When he realizes he's done a better job than evolution, he returns for a matching set. That is truly only the beginning.
  • Brain Uploading: Neumann eventually ends up like this.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Lola's Better Heart. Specifically, the EMP bomb in it. Notable for going off not once but twice.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Played with, a little. The only managers with any plot relevance are Cassandra Cautery (middle management) and the Manager (CEO, No Name Given). Cassandra has a wicked case of augmentation envy and, later in the book, doesn't even bother hiding her contempt for Charles' department. Also, after Charles Neumann kills the initial Manager, he's apparently replaced with an almost identical executive. Really, the new Manager even looks similar.
  • Crazy Cat Lady: Dr. Angelica, it turns out, is a Crazy Dog Lady.
  • Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: Really, what did you expect? Of course this shows up, although the book is at least honest enough to extend it to regular prosthetics and there's a Hand Wave involving neurons adapting to new functions. Carl says his arms started talking to him. Charlie, in the end, starts referring to himself as "we", but that's after a copious amount of near-death experiences, brain damage and after essentially being reduced to, well, a head. Note that this is ultimately subverted, apparently, as society's attitude towards artificial parts is stated to be changing.
  • Destination Defenestration: This is what happens to the Manager when he jokes about Lola's EMP Heart Trauma.
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: Cassandra Cautery has a problem with that. "Nobody ever thanks the middle-managers."
  • Emotion Suppression: Dr. Neumann is not very emotional to begin with. However, after mapping his emotional responses with an MRI, he chemically suppresses any traces of guilt or regret.
  • EMP: Lola's Heart Trauma is mended with a model that discharges an EMP when she gets excited. It does considerable damage and ends up as a Chekhov's Gun.
  • Fetish: Lola Shanks has... a thing for amputees. And she sure gets excited when Charles says that he doesn't care about a natural look, and picks the robotic-looking Exegesis Archion. Later on, she spends a lot of time feeling over Charles' Artificial Limbs, too. And over Carl's arms, for that matter.
  • Freudian Excuse: Lola's father deliberately self-maimed himself in a series of industrial accidents to collect insurance and pay for Lola's Heart Trauma replacement. As a result, Lola as an adult finds men who've lost body parts irresistible and works in prosthetics.
  • From Bad to Worse: After Charlie kills the Manager in what isn't quite an accident, it's all downhill.
  • Hope Spot: Perhaps Lola and I could build anonymous lives in some tiny Canadian snow town. Lola could bake pies. I could grow vegetables. I would be the man with no legs and the half-hand who was a scientist once. The townspeople would find me aloof but grow to respect me. They would call me Doc. And then Charles accidentally steps on a dog. Dr. Angelica (at whose house Charles and Lola are hiding at the time, and who hated Charles to begin with) snaps and turns him in to Better Future. Ouch.
  • Kick the Dog: While he's not a villain and the whole thing happened in a moment of panic, Charles asking Cassandra to "get rid of Carl" because those artificial limbs are for nobody but himself, after Carl's arms have already been amputated, is just cold.
  • Kick the Son of a Bitch: Quite literally. The Manager dies when Charlie kicks him through the window.
  • Lack of Empathy: Dr. Charles Neumann has virtually no empathy whatsoever at the start. This goes further as he starts replacing his body parts with Better Parts.
  • Mega-Corp: Better Future, of course. They seem to be active in, well, just about every market, whether that market is consumer, industrial, scientific or military. They get a lot of contracts from the Department of Defense. And the police. Dr. Neumann's role changes from building industrial testing equipment to leading a department focusing on human augmentation (both cybernetic and biotech).
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Dr. Neumann's department is divided into four competing groups: Alpha, Beta, Gamma... and Omega. They never show up again.
  • N.G.O. Superpower: Better Future is well on its way to becoming one. At least, that's what the Manager seems to be going for.
  • No Control Group: Better Future has a laboratory's worth of scientists testing out an entire line of Better Parts on themselves. Better Spleens, Better Eyes, Better Muscles...
  • No Name Given: The Manager. He's always referred to like that, capital M and all. The same goes for his successor.
  • No Social Skills: Charles. In spades. He's completely incapable of small talk. Most of the engineers have shades of this, though.
  • No Transhumanism Allowed: Dr. Neumann gets in an industrial accident and loses a limb. He designs his own prosthetic, which he deems to be better than the organic limb, and decides to start replacing all of his limbs, one by one. Naturally, society as a whole can't handle this, and the central conflict of the book is between his desire to slowly replace himself with better parts and societal attempts to stop what is viewed as a Self-Harm behavior. In the epilogue, it's stated that the augmented employees were "brought back down to normal". Apparently, this is considered shameful now, so perhaps the trope was ultimately averted.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat/Pointy-Haired Boss: Discussed and, ultimately, subverted. Cassandra Cautery is a middle-manager with a generic job title and no function Charlie can identify, but she gets things done.
  • Phlebotinum Rebel: Carl the guard becomes one. Bet you were expecting that first spoiler tag to say "Dr. Neumann", huh? Yeah, that's not what happens. Carl is set up to be something of a Hero Antagonist, except Dr. Neumann then tears him apart.
  • Post-Cyberpunk: Human augmentation, check. Ominous megacorporation, check. Super soldiers and private mercenaries, check. Said megacorporation collapsing, the Corrupt Corporate Executive being brought to justice and the augmentations being eventually accepted by general society — check.
  • Powered Armor: Carl the security guard needs an exo-suit to hold up his titanium sledgehammer arms.
  • Professor Guinea Pig: Neumann doesn't design any artificial limbs he wouldn't try out himself.
  • Scary Shiny Glasses: The Z-Specs and, later, the Better Eyes. The latter actually look quite stylish, although Charlie can't help but think of those who wear them as "cats".
  • Self-Harm: Dr. Neumann is not exhibiting self-harming behavior, he's just trying to get rid of a few performance bottlenecks, sheesh.
  • Start of Darkness: The whole first half could be read as one, right up to the point where the person in question kills someone and escapes with military-grade hardware. Except that's not what happens. Still, if you left off at the point where Dr. Neumann and Lola Shanks escape from Better Future, you'd have a wicked backstory for a comic-book Anti-Villain.
  • Super Soldier: This is mentioned now and then, as a possibility. Better Future eventually starts building them. Carl is given prototype arms. Charles Neumann, after being recaptured, is crammed chock full of military prototype hardware.
  • There Are No Therapists: Discussed.
    "Well, we needed psychologists. But we didn't get any because we're full of engineers, and engineers think psychologists are witch doctors." I didn't say anything. Psychologists are witch doctors.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The year is never given, but the protagonist uses what seems to be a 2012-style smartphone. He's not all that old, too, and he is stated to own a few reference books he "hasn't touched since Google", so the book can't be taking place all that far beyond the 2010s.
  • Wham Line: [The Manager] was fantastic. He was just like me. "I could not be prouder to count myself as one of your supporters." He smiled. I smiled back. "Now. Let's talk super soldiers."