Machine Man

Machine Man

by Max Barry


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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.

A story for the age of pervasive technology, Machine Man is a gruesomely funny unraveling of one man's quest for ultimate self-improvement.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307476890
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/09/2011
Series: Vintage Contemporaries Original Series
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 467,715
Product dimensions: 4.96(w) x 8.04(h) x 0.86(d)

About the Author

Max Barry began removing parts at an early age. In 1999, he successfully excised a steady job at tech giant HP in order to upgrade to the more compatible alternative of manufacturing fiction. While producing three novels, he developed the online nation simulation game NationStates, as well as contributing to various open source software projects and developing religious views on operating systems. He did not leave the house much. For Machine Man, Max wrote a website to deliver pages of fiction to readers via email and RSS. He lives in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife and two daughters, and is 38 years old. He uses vi.

Read an Excerpt


AS A BOY, I WANTED TO BE A TRAIN. I DIDN’T REALIZE THIS WAS unusual— that other kids played with trains, not as them. They liked to build tracks and have trains not fall off them. Watch them go through tunnels. I didn’t understand that. What I liked was pretending my body was two hundred tons of unstoppable steel. Imagining I was pistons and valves and hydraulic compressors.

“You mean robots,” said my best friend, Jeremy. “You want to play robots.” I had never thought of it like that. Robots had square eyes and jerky limbs and usually wanted to destroy the Earth. Instead of doing one thing right, they did everything badly. They were general purpose. I was not a fan of robots. They were bad machines.


I WOKE AND REACHED FOR MY PHONE AND IT WAS NOT THERE. I GROPED around my bedside table, fingers sneaking between novels I didn’t read anymore because once you start e-reading you can’t go back. But no phone. I sat up and turned on my lamp. I crawled underneath the bed, in case my phone had somehow fallen in the night and bounced oddly. My eyes were blurry from sleep so I swept my arms across the carpet in hopeful arcs. This disturbed dust and I coughed. But I kept sweeping. I thought: Have I been burgled? I felt like I would have woken if someone had tried to swipe my phone. Some part of me would have realized.

I entered the kitchen. Kitchenette. It was not a big apartment. But it was clean, because I didn’t cook. I would have spotted my phone. But I did not. I peered into the living room. Sometimes I sat on the sofa and watched TV while playing with my phone. Possibly the phone had slipped down between cushions. It could be there now, just out of sight. I shivered. I was naked. The living room curtains were open and the window looked onto the street. The street looked into the window. Sometimes there were dogwalkers, and school-going children. I shivered again. I should put on some clothes. My bedroom was six feet away. But my phone could be closer. It could be right there. I cupped my hands over my genitals and ran across the living room and pulled up sofa cushions. I saw black plastic and my heart leaped but it was only a remote. I got down on my hands and knees and felt around beneath the sofa. My ass tingled with the first touch of morning sun. I hoped nobody was outside that window.

The coffee table was bare on top but laden beneath with reference books I hadn’t touched since Google. A phone book, for some reason. A phone book. Three million sheafs of dead tree stacked up as a monument to the inefficiency of paper as an information distribution platform. But no phone. I sat up. A dog barked. For the first time ever I wished I had a land line, so I could call my phone. I peered at the top of the TV and it was empty but maybe I had put my phone down there and it had been dislodged by minor seismic activity. As I crossed the room, my eyes met a jogger’s. Her face contorted. That might have been from exertion. Behind the TV was a cord-based civilization but no phone. It wasn’t on the kitchen bench. It still wasn’t on my bedside table or the carpet or any of the places I had already looked. My teeth chattered. I didn’t know how warm it would be today. It might rain, it might be humid, I had no idea. I had a desktop but it took forever to boot, more than a minute. I would have to choose clothes without information on the environmental conditions. It was insane.

I showered. Sometimes to solve a problem you need to stop trying solutions. You need to step back. I stood under water and mentally retreaded the previous night. I had worked late. I had arrived home around two. I don’t think I ate. I went to bed and fell asleep without even using my phone at all. I realized: It’s in my car. It made perfect sense. I turned off the water. I had not used soap or washed my hair but from water was probably 80 percent clean. That was a pass. I wrapped a towel around my waist, grabbed keys from the kitchen, and padded out of the apartment. The stairwell was ice. I almost lost my towel trying to open the door to the underground garage. My car was in the sixth bay and already I could see the empty dock. I bwipbwipped it open anyway and crawled inside to search between seats. I could not believe I had driven all the way home without docking my phone. Or maybe I could. Sometimes I left it in my pocket and realized only when I stopped the car and reached for it. That had happened. And last night I had been tired. It wasn’t inconceivable. The phone could be anywhere. It could be anywhere.

I stared out the windshield at a concrete wall and became sure my phone was at work. I had taken it out of my pocket because you couldn’t take electromagnetic equipment into Lab 4. It was on my desk. Anyone could pick it up. No. There were cameras. No one would steal my phone. Especially if I arrived early. I groped for my phone, to check the time, and groaned. This was like being blind. I put the keys in the ignition and remembered I was wearing a towel. I hesitated. I took the keys out again but it felt like a tearing. I got out of the car and fixed my towel and took the steps two at a time.

DRIVING IN, I GRIPPED THE WHEEL. THE SUN BEAT THROUGH THE windshield, mocking my sweater. I had overdressed. I reached the point where I had to decide between the avenue or by the park and didn’t know which had less traffic. I hadn’t read a news headline for hours. War could have broken out. There could have been earthquakes. I turned on the radio for the first time in years and it jabbered about discount carpets and what an excellent medium for advertising radio was and would I like to win a thousand dollars, and I stared at it in disbelief and turned it off. I wished I had my phone. I didn’t even want to do something specific. I just wanted the possibility to do things. It could do so many things.

The avenue was choked with traffic, of course. I sat there and exchanged ignorance with time. Finally I turned the car into the science district and sped past research houses and machine fabricators. At the end, on the river, was Better Future: an eight-story complex of a half-dozen connected buildings, a wide lawn out front and razor wire everywhere else. There was more underground but you wouldn’t know. At the boom gate I fumbled my security pass and had to get out to pick it off the concrete. A security guard wandered out of his booth and I tried to wave him away because the last thing I needed now was conversation. But he kept coming. “Morning, sir.”

“I’ve got it.” I swiped the card. The boom rose.

“Everything all right?”

“Yes. Just dropped my card.” A hot wind blew by. I tried to pull off my sweater and my security tag snagged in the sleeve and slipped from my fingers again. By the time I freed myself, the guard was offering it to me.

“Hot one today.”
I looked at him. This sounded like a criticism of my information-impaired clothing choice. But I couldn’t be sure. I opened my mouth to request a clarifying restatement, then realized it didn’t matter and took the card. I got back in the car and drove into the bowels of Better Future.

I SWIPED FOR THE ELEVATOR AND AGAIN FOR ACCESS TO BUILDING A. We were big on swiping. You couldn’t go to a bathroom in Better Future without swiping first. There was once a woman whose card stopped working and she was trapped in a corridor for three hours. It was a busy corridor but nobody was permitted to let her out. Ushering somebody through a security door on your pass was just about the worst thing you could do at Better Future. They would fire you for that. All anyone could do was bring her snacks and fluids until security finished verifying her biometrics.

I passed the atrium, which was already filling with young people in white lab coats and older managers in suits and skirts. At the central elevator bank was a young woman with dark hair. Marketing, or possibly recruitment. The call button was lit but I moved to repress it anyway, then stopped myself because that was completely illogical, then went ahead and did it because, seriously, what was the harm. It wasn’t like I was doing anything else. As I stepped back, I saw the young woman looking at me and glanced away, then realized she was starting to smile and looked back but then she was looking away and it was too late. We stood awhile. I reached into my pocket for my phone. I hissed. She said, “Take forever, don’t they?”

“No, I lost my phone.” She looked confused. “That’s why I was . . .” I trailed off. There was silence.

“They’re all on three,” she said. According to the display, three cars were at Sublevel 3 and the fourth was right behind them. “All these engineers, you’d think we could figure out how to decluster the elevators.” She smiled. “I’m Rebecca.”

“Hmm,” I said. I was familiar with the elevator algorithm. It sent cars in the same direction so long as they had a destination, then allowed them to reverse. It was supposed to be efficient. But there was an alternative that allowed people to enter their destination before getting in, which allowed the scheduler to make more intelligent decisions. The problem was the system could be gamed: people figured they got elevators faster by mashing buttons. I wondered if cars should move away from one another when idle. It might even be worth delaying one car to create a gap. You would slow one journey but benefit everyone who came after. I should run some numbers. I opened my mouth to say this and realized an elevator had arrived and the woman was entering it. I followed. She pulled her satchel close to her body. She seemed tense. I tried to think of something to say but all I could think was, Takes forever, doesn’t it, which was what she had said to me. She got out at Organizational Communications without looking at me.


I AM NOT A PEOPLE PERSON. WHENEVER I’M EVALUATED, I SCORE VERY low on social metrics. My ex-boss said she had never seen anyone score a zero on Interpersonal Empathy before. And she worked with engineers. If anyone is having a party, I am not invited. In meetings, during downtime, the people I’m seated between will both talk to the person on their other side. There’s something about me that is repellent. I don’t mean disgusting. I mean like magnets. The closer people get, the stronger their urge to move away.

I am a smart guy. I recycle. Once I found a lost cat and took it to a shelter. Sometimes I make jokes. If there’s something wrong with your car, I can tell what by listening to it. I like kids, except the ones who are rude to adults and the parents just stand there, smiling. I have a job. I own my apartment. I rarely lie. These are qualities I keep hearing people are looking for. I can only think there must be something else, something no one mentions, because I have no friends, am estranged from my family, and haven’t dated in this decade. There is a guy in Lab Control who killed a woman with his car, and he gets invited to parties. I don’t understand that.

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Machine Man 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 31 reviews.
MacFlash More than 1 year ago
Max Barry nails what is going on inside the head of an engineer and then blows the head to smithereens. This book is the Catch 22 of high tech. As an engineer, I can tell you that the protagonist in this book is a typical engineer but with the traits so over the top you are either laughing you head off or crying because it is the truth, just more so. If you want to get some insight into what goes on inside the heads of those geeks you work with, read this!
CameroMichael More than 1 year ago
I learned about this book from Max Barry's website (NationStates). I watched the trailer, and was intrigued. Two days later, I've finished the book, and it was AMAZING. Very thought-invoking, you get hooked on the main character, Dr. Charles Neumann. Read this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very interesting and well-written story about a man's unending quest to better himself, through science. A light study of the Law of Unintended Consequences. A very quick read.
Temp_ More than 1 year ago
Easily one of my favorites.
easyreader50SV More than 1 year ago
Great geek read. I'm not a geek, but I had fun with this one. Just when you think you know what's going on, something happens to shift gears. The narrator sounded sane, logical, intelligent. What he did wasn't. Keep reading to the end; except there really isn't an end.
suetu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Funny & perverseI have been a fan of Australian humorist Max Barry since his very first novel. For whatever reason, we¿re on the same wave-length. But I have no illusions that this novel will find universal appeal. For one thing, the humor is dark, satirical, and squirm-inducing, and it made me uncomfortable even as I laughed.The novel opens in the midst of a crisis; Charlie Neumann can¿t find his phone. ¿I didn¿t know how warm it would be today. It might rain, it might be humid, I had no idea¿ I would have to choose clothes without information on the environmental conditions. It was insane.¿ This loss has really thrown him off his game. Somehow the research scientist pulls it together and gets himself to the lab at Better Technologies. Unfortunately, spotting the errant phone at exactly the wrong moment spells disaster. The distraction is enough for Charlie to get his leg caught in an industrial clamp. The leg is crushed, and he wakes up an amputee from the thigh down.Even the most traumatic events can have a silver lining, for it is at the hospital that he meets Lola Shanks, prosthetist and future love interest. Lola gets Charlie outfitted with a top-of-the-line prosthetic leg, and helps him learn to walk again. Still, the engineer in Charlie can¿t believe that this is as good as it gets. Once back at the lab, he starts tinkering. He can build a better leg¿and then one better still. Soon, the new leg is so superior in all ways that Charlie realizes that there¿s no reason to keep an inferior ¿meat¿ leg. A second ¿accident¿ occurs. While Charlie is back in the hospital being ordered psyche evaluations, his employer is beginning to realize that Dr. Neumann is on to something, something potentially profitable. From there, the novel moves in a generally predictable direction, though with plenty of surprises along the way. Barry is not going for subtlety in his story-telling. The reengineered scientist is ¿Neumann,¿ the prosthetist is ¿Shanks,¿ and a corporate fixer who plays a prominent role is named ¿Cautery.¿ No, it¿s not about subtlety. Barry takes his satire to extremes, and the novel that I found myself thinking of as I read it¿the only book with a tone that reminded me of this one¿was Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. I don¿t believe that Machine Man is that classic¿s equal, but like the earlier book, there is true perversion in the very premise of the novel. In addition to the humor, one of the reasons I enjoy Max Barry¿s work so much is the exploration of ideas. Lola asks, ¿Where does this end for you, Charlie? New legs. New arms. Just out of curiosity. When do you say, okay, now I¿m happy?¿ And Charlie finds it an odd question because, ¿you didn¿t stop improving things. Reaching a point where everything was as good as good as it could be, that would be terrible. You might as well die.¿Or later, one of Charlie¿s enhanced lab assistants asks, ¿Do you remember when I asked you about ethics? You wanted to suppress your guilt and I said maybe we shouldn¿t and you said there was no such thing as shouldn¿t. Actually, you didn¿t even understand the question. Well, I get that now. I totally get it. Because sometimes you feel a kind of biological revulsion against an idea, but it¿s only because you¿re not used to it, right? It¿s just a matter of baselines¿ I mean, it¿s not like there¿s any fundamental integrity of emotions, am I right? Everything¿s chemicals when you get down to it.¿ Do these questions give you a chill, or is it just me? Because, the reality is that in a delightfully amusing way, Max Barry is posing questions that some scientist out there has asked¿or soon will be.
ccourtland on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Interestingly, this book was born on a blog and grew into a novel. An interactive achievement occurred when fan followers and the ever-accessible author, Max Barry, collaborated. What started as a rouse to get Barry off his butt and writing turned into a philosophical science fiction marvel that is both compelling and thought-provoking. The main character, Charlie, as part of Better Future cannot help but view human biology as flawed and with the aid of a freak accident perpetuated by the misplacement of his cell phone, he's given an opportunity to improve that, which is inadequate. The novel is a technology-heavy, sci-fi experiment with nerdy humor and a side of transformer-like vision. Machine Man asks are we greater than the sum of our parts? But, it doesn't stop there. Barry takes it to another level--transcending the physical body. By thinking outside the box, Charlie might just find himself stuck in one. There is no doubt this story will give a reader a lot to mull over and it won't entertain everyone. Hardcore techie sci-fi fans with a taste for philosophy will likely be pleased with this selection. Comparable style to Perdido Street Station by China Mieville.
Pennydart on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Misfit Charlie Neuman loses his leg in an accident, and decides to build his own replacement. He's so thrilled with the result--and has so a crush on the prothetist he meets--that he decides to chop off more limbs and build more replacements. I started the books twice and failed to finish is twice.
Grabbag on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Less than 300 pages, this book packs more of a punch than most double its size. Action, technology, science, love, hate...this novel made my stomach turn, made me shout "NO!" a dozen times, and made me envious of all the wrong things ("Better Skin", anyone??) I cannot wait to recommend this mind-F of a novel to as many people as I can talk to in a day.
titania86 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Charles Neumann works as a mechanical engineer for Better Future. He has no friends or social skills to speak of, but he loves technology and machines. He feels as if a piece of him is missing when he misplaces his cell phone. In an effort to get his cell phone back while testing a polymer in his industrial lab, he loses his leg. At first, depression clouds his whole life. After meeting his physical therapist and beginning the process of making his own prosthetic legs, he starts to see his situation as one of opportunity. Instead of moping about losing a limb, he works on making a limb that surpasses his frail human ones. Then he takes it a step further and severs his other leg on purpose in order to replace it with the superior mechanical one. Everyone thinks he's trying to kill himself until he explains his reasoning to a Better Future representative. Then, provided with two teams of interns to help, Charles develops medical enhancements for everyday people and works to perfect the rest of his weak human body. Then the teams take his projects further than he thought possible and they spin out of control. Can he stop Better Future and still use his own technological advances to replace the inferior squishy bits of his body?Machine Man is a great novel that satirizes our need and dependence on technology. It's pervasive in our society and we may not even recognize it because we are so entrenched in it. I see it every day in the people that can't ignore their phones through a two hour film or class or even in myself, when I feel weird if I haven't been online in a day. This dependence seems ridiculous when it is separated from us in the novel. Charles was preoccupied all day, thinking about possible places his phone could be. I think a lot of us have been there because it is such an essential part of lives that we don't even recognize as such until it's missing. Then, he even loses a leg because of his mindless need for his phone. In his case, it's so extreme that it even comes before his own safety and wellbeing. After he develops his legs and his team develops mechanic organs and such, he starts to "upgrade" parts of himself as we would get a new and better phone, laptop, or mp3 player, except for the large amount of pain involved. This transforms the medical industry from one of necessity for sick or disabled people to one of trendsetters and technophiles trying to outdo each other.Charles is both a compelling and frustrating character. He's obviously very technically smart and a brilliant scientist, but he can be very dense about other things, like relationships and interacting with people in general. Lacking any understanding of emotions, he regards the people around him as alien. His world is seen through a very clinical eye that only takes into account logic and reason. His development through the course of the book is what kept me reading as he tries to reconcile love and emotion with his world view.Machine Man is a fun satire on our addiction to technology. The characters are all unique and quirky in their own ways, making the plot unpredictable and exciting. I have enjoyed all of Max Barry's books (especially Jennifer Government and Syrup) and I can't wait to read what he writes next.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I can't say I enjoyed this book so much as I'm glad I read it. It doesn't matter how many times e tackle the question of what it means to be human', because there will also be a new take on the answer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I purchased this book the week that it was published. I finally got around to reading it. What's the rush, right? :) Decent read! Really enjoyed the story! Was really decently paces until the last chapter or two.. then it felt really rushed to me for some reason. Still, solid recommend. :)
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Such a twist at the end!!!
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curtismc More than 1 year ago
My feelings range from disturbed to laughing my head off. If we lose a body part, just replace it with an enhanced part? It's an easy read, but parts may be a little disturbing to more sensitive readers. Still, overall, an interesting concept.
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