In Review: The Machine Society

Hauntingly pertinent as society inches closer to this reality.

The Machine Society by Mike Brooks

Published by Cosmic Egg Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing, on October 28, 2016. Paperback of 218 pages at $16.95. Also available as an ebook for $7.99. 

The cover: A geometric pattern of black lines on an pumpkin colored background represents the structure of one’s life in a dystopian future. Emerging from the dizzying eye of line work is a ladder. Whether this ladder is used to go up or down will only be revealed by reading this novel. Author Mike Brooks’s name is in the top left, with the title in larger text below it. There is a subtitle, “Rich or Poor. They Want You To Be A Prisoner”, and it’s included on several websites as part of the title. The image for this cover is credited to Adobe Stock, while the design is by Design Deluxe. It’s an eye catching cover, to be sure, but doesn’t represent the novel as well as a more concrete image might have. Overall grade: B

The premise: From the back cover, “Dean Rogers lives in the Perimeter of New London, holding down a soul-destroying job, surrounded by people who have lost the will to communicate. He is afraid his debts will spiral out of control, resulting in him being cast out of the city, outside of the Security Wall. Meanwhile, in the Better Life Complex, New London’s rich elite live in plastic luxury, unaware of the sinister secrets that underpin their world.” I’m not a fan of dystopian novels, having grown very tired of their overwhelming presence in much of teen literature. Plus, I teach Animal Farm and 1984 to my high school students. However, I was sent a copy of this book to review, so I’ll read it. I’m going into this book as a hostile reader. Overall grade: C

The characters: Dean Rogers is existing. He lost his job as a teacher and his wife almost simultaneously, leaving him living in the Perimeter alone, working in a menial job in the back room of a business. He’s unhappy with his life and is surprised when he’s taken to government official Ferry’s office and told that he will be inserted into the Better Life Complex for a job. What that job comprises is not told to him, only that he’ll be contacted later, and that he should enjoy this second chance at life. Dean tries to fit in to a society whose rules are unclear, from making an income or trying to converse with others. He’s a good everyman, getting lost in confusing situations that have the reader rooting for him to make sense of his surroundings. Halfway through the novel Dean begins to get answers, as does the reader, learning something about the world and himself. Dean’s journey is entertaining and informative. Ferry represents one element of the repressive government, but not in the typical Orwellian mold. He and the other government seemingly start as knockoffs, but they take a more modern turn by the novel’s final act. Two women make an impact on Dean’s life: his ex-wife Jane and Clare, who works the counter at his job. Jane is revealed in flashbacks, showing how the two fell apart, and why their lack of a formal separation weighs heavily upon Dean, while Clare is the much younger ray of hope that he has for the future, and may be the key for a life changing event. Both women are nice foils, providing opportunities for Dean to make decisions. The other major character of the book is Erich Vinty, the author of The Machine Society, an outlawed book of psychology that warned of society’s warping. I felt myself constantly second guessing characters’ motivations, which is what Dean was doing, and as the book closed, wondering if there would be one or more betrayals. This is due to the nature of the genre, but also Brooks’s ability to make the characters interesting and Dean’s journey compelling. Overall grade: A

The settings: This book has three specific settings: the Perimeter, the Better Life Complex, and the mystery on the other side of the Wall. The Perimeter follows in the mold of Airstrip One from 1984 and this is where my initial concern began. It is a dingy, depressing environment where undesirables live. In fact, Dean’s morning routine is similar to Winston Smith’s. However, where the book quickly, and thankfully, differed is that Dean works inside the Better Life Complex. He can see where the fortunate live, but he’s not allowed to interact with them. His visit with Ferry propels him to the Better Life Complex where he is now one of the favored. The technology of this environment dazzles Dean and the reader, but does not overpower either: it’s a setting one can live in, if one is able to understand it. Many of its technological wonders exist today. As the story progresses this locale does become more understandable and more frightening. The Wall is a setting unmentioned until a majority of the book has been read and it tantalizes with its possibilities. All the locations, even those with the seemingly futuristic technology, are very believable. Overall grade: A

The action: There’s no physical conflict until the final quarter of the novel. This action is realistic and shocking, given how none was shone earlier. The majority of the book focuses on Dean’s ability to survive every encounter with others; his conversations could be his undoing — every word and look could lead to safety or death. Because the dialogue is so intriguing, Dean’s interactions with others create much tension. This isn’t a book of physical action, but vocal chess moves. Overall grade: A

The conclusion: I admit to wondering where this was headed, and for that Brooks deserves praise. I teach this genre of fiction, so I wanted — hoped — this would have an original ending, and it did. It was believable and it was satisfying. It went in a direction I’ve not encountered, and I’m grateful. Overall grade: A

The final line: This book won me over. I was worried I was going to be reading a retread of 1984 or something similar to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, but this was not. Mike Brooks has written a novel that shows how society has been overtaken, reduced to an existence of surface level survival. This is hauntingly pertinent as society inches closer to this reality. Nothing is more terrifying than fiction becoming reality. I can only hope this vision doesn’t come true and that Mike Brooks continues to write. Overall grade: A

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Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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