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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. Charles 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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • An Arm and a Leg: Charlie first loses one leg at the thigh, then the other. Both losses are treated realistically. The worst of it is when he has to sever his own left arm at the shoulder as a Life-or-Limb Decision.
  • Arm Cannon: Charlie is equipped with one after he's become a Man in the Machine. It's intended to be the first of an entire line of weaponry for Super Soldiers.
  • 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.
  • Badass Transplant: Charlie 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.
  • Better Than New: Charlie does this to himself. After accidentally amputating his leg, he designs a robotic prosthesis that he considers superior in every important regard. Things do not go entirely to plan.
  • 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 Charlie — albeit as a box. Still, the ending is essentially optimistic, and it's strongly implied that Charlie will be able to build himself a new body in time.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: Charlie 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, not because of the Squick but rather because he didn't build the replacements and thus doesn't know how they work.
  • Body Horror: First Charlie loses his right leg in an industrial accident and builds a better prosthetic replacement. When he realizes that he's done a better job than evolution, he returns for a matching set. That is truly only the beginning.
  • Brain Uploading: Charlie eventually ends up like this.
  • Can't Kill You, Still Need You: Cassandra Cautery has this in mind for Charlie. She plans to keep him alive so that Better Future can calibrate its weaponized parts for Super Soldiers.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Lola's Better Heart. Specifically, the EMP bomb in it. Notable for going off not once but twice.
  • Combat Breakdown: The final fight between Man in the Machine Charlie and crazed Cyborg Carl sees them deal a great deal of damage to each other before Charlie blasts Carl to smithereens with his BFG Arm Cannon.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: 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 Charlie's department. Also, after Charlie 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 that his arms started to talk 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.
  • Cyborg: Charlie spends some time as an exceptionally powerful one along with the security guard Carl before eventually just Brain Uploading.
  • 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 this. "Nobody ever thanks the middle-managers."
  • Electronic Speech Impediment: This is an indication that Charlie's humanity is slipping away. Once he becomes a Man in the Machine, he gasps for every syllable of speech. As a Brain in a Jar, he loses punctuation and inflection altogether.
  • Emergency Transformation: Charlie goes to sleep a paraplegic and wakes up a Man in the Machine. While not a personal emergency, Better Future needed someone equipped to defeat the Cyborg Carl, who had run amok.
  • Emotion Suppression: Charlie 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.
  • False Friend: Cassandra is all kinds of this to Charlie. She claims to have his best interests at heart but is clearly only looking out for Better Future.
  • Fetish: Lola Shanks has... a thing for amputees. She sure gets excited when Charlie 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 Charlie's 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 an adult, Lola 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. Then Charlie accidentally steps on a dog. Dr. Angelica (at whose house Charles and Lola are hiding at the time, and who hated Charlie to begin with) snaps and turns him in to Better Future. Ouch.
  • Hospital Hottie: For a man with almost no interest in his fellow human beings, Charlie finds the prosthetist Lola extremely attractive.
  • How Much More Can He Take?: The climax involves a fight between Man in the Machine Charlie vs. ex-security guard-turned-crazed Cyborg Carl. Both take quite a beating (doing no small amount of property damage) with no sign of who's winning before Charlie blasts Carl to smithereens with his BFG Arm Cannon.
  • Kick the Dog: While he's not a villain and the whole thing happened in a moment of panic, Charlie 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.
  • Lack of Empathy: Charlie has virtually no empathy whatsoever at the start. This goes further as he starts replacing his body parts with Better Parts.
  • Life-or-Limb Decision: Charlie is forced to sever his left arm at the shoulder. It had already been mostly torn off, and it was either that or bleed to death.
  • Locked into Strangeness: The Cyborg security guard Carl almost kills Cassandra and everyone else at Better Future. Afterwards, Cassandra's hair is "the color of ash".
  • Man in the Machine: Charlie spends some time in an exceptionally powerful robot body before eventually just Brain Uploading.
  • MegaCorp: 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: Charlie'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: Charlie, in spades. He's completely incapable of small talk. Most of the engineers have shades of this, though.
  • No Transhumanism Allowed: Charlie 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 subverted.
  • 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 Charlie then tears him apart.
  • 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.
  • 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: Charlie doesn't design any artificial limbs he wouldn't try out himself.
  • Sanity Slippage: Charlie suffers from this. While not quite "normal" to begin with, after he's replaced both legs and one hand with Better Parts, he starts talking to them and referring to himself as "we".
  • 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: Charlie 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 when Charlie 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. After being recaptured, Charlie 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.
  • Unwilling Roboticisation: Charlie undergoes this. What's curious is that while the good doctor is perfectly content to replace his legs and right hand, he has no desire to become a Man in the Machine or a Brain in a Jar — both end up happening to him.
  • Vader Breath: After Charlie is reduced to a Man in the Machine, every word he speaks requires another gasp from plastic lungs.
  • We Can Rebuild Him: Charlie does this to himself, going from amputee to double-amputee to Man in the Machine to Brain in a Jar to full-on Brain Uploading.
  • 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."