Category Archives: Barry, Max

Providence: Max Barry

“You don’t want a world of absent gods. You want meaning and purpose.”

It’s rare for me to follow an author’s career, but I make an exception with Max Barry. There are two reasons for this:

  • his books are excellent
  • he’s evolved as a writer (more of that later)

Barry’s first novel was Syrup (1999), the tale of a young man who dreams up a new soft drink–only to find that his friend, Sneaky Pete, has trademarked the formula.

Then came the brilliantly imaginative Jennifer Government (2003)–sci-fi territory here. The novel is set in a dystopian future with the world ruled by corporations.

Company (2006) followed next. In some ways, this was a return of Syrup–lots of humour and lots more corporate malfeasance–and one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.

Machine Man (2011)–again a trip into the misty, harsh future. This is the story of a mechanical engineer who loses a leg in a work-related accident. One thing leads to another, and soon the engineer replaces all of this body parts with more efficient prostheses.

Lexicon (2013) delves into data collection and the annihilation of privacy with trained ‘persuaders’ who can ‘unlock’ the brain of any identified personality type.

And now Providence. I had this feeling that Barry was moving towards full-blown science fiction novel, and this is it. Makes my Best-of-Year list.

Providence

I’m going to say: think Alien on steroids. The novel begins with a team of four people preparing to head out into space in a three-mile long Providence battleship: their  four-year long mission is to encounter and destroy an alien race called Salamanders. As the newly formed crew prep for the mission–which is a huge social media event–the team members watch footage of the hair raising encounter between humans and aliens that started the war. …

You knew what you’d be watching today but you weren’t prepared for it to feel like this, like it’s wrong to be here. And wrong not only because you know what’s going to happen, and not even because there are four people who need your help and you can’t give it, but wrong like you’re intruding. They’re about the experience the worst moment of their lives, and you’ve come to watch it.

It’s an incredible beginning to an incredible book. The plot concerns the journey into space of the battleship and its hunt for Salamanders, and while there’s a lot of down time between alien encounters, the heart-pounding, nail-biting tension never lets up. We know that this ship is headed into something big and gradually it becomes apparent that not all the crew members are privy to certain information.

In some ways the crew members may appear to be cliches, but it all makes sense as the plot continues. Captain Jackson survived a notorious Salamander attack and was broken by the experience. Unable to adjust to civilian life, she’s hostile to AI and much more willing to put her faith in decisions made by humans. Then there’s Life Officer, Talia Beanfield, the most popular member of the crew with 311 million people “following the clips, and quips of Life Officer Talia Beanfield as transmitted from her Providence-class battleship in an undisclosed but, trust me, incredibly dangerous part of space.”

Anders, the Weapons Officer who appears to be a brainless jock, is a man whose transgressive behavior would seem to have negated his position on the crew, and this raises the question as to why AI selected him for the mission. Finally there’s the Intel specialist, civilian, Gilly who is perfectly comfortable with AI, and yet he’s still ambushed by the ship’s abilities. When it comes to destinations and encounters, the ship makes the decisions, and after one hard skip, they are in the fighting zone. Two years into the mission, with kills mounting, the ship takes another hard skip into the Violet Zone “an area devoid of beacons and relays.” There will be no contact with earth. It’s a “long time to go dark.

The realities and stresses of living on a space ship become evident over time. Life Officer Beanfield, who is privy to intelligence withheld from Gilly and Anders, is perhaps the best equipped emotionally to deal with the various emergencies and disasters that arise. Her intense training at Camp Zero, designed to motivate and manipulate the other crew members, involved playing various scenarios and role playing situations 

They’d told her back at Camp Zero: You will be the most important person on the ship and no one will know it. It was true. It was so true. 

Anders, the most volatile and unpredictable crew member, “couldn’t be left to his own devices. All his devices had built-in self-destructs.” Bored and frustrated by confinement and lack of relevance, seeking revenge for his brothers killed in the war, Anders goes into complete meltdown, wants to grab the guns and revert to destruction the only way he knows how. His actions have devastating consequences for the mission.

Gilly spends hours working on his theory that the aliens are learning from each encounter with the humans, only to realize that the ship’s AI system is way ahead of him. Gilly, who continues to hold firm to the idea that AI is superior to human intelligence, realizes that the ship will defend itself in unimagined ways. At one point in the novel, Beanfield and Gilly debate about the ship as an alternate life form. The Ship said “hello” when the crew boarded, and Gilly insists it’s a pre-programmed message, but as the mission continues, it becomes clear that the ship’s abilities are beyond human comprehension and therefore unpredictable.

Providence on one level is a story of man vs alien, but there’s a lot more at play here. The book examines the reliability and fallacies of both AI and human intelligence, while showing a war in which social media grants the crew members celebrity status which is pumped by edited transmissions back to home. It’s part reality TV for those at home and almost like a video game for those who think they operate the ship. Providence illustrates the place of human ingenuity in the world of AI; humans and AI share a fragile partnership.

One of the most marvelous things about this book is the way the crew members–all damaged in various ways–somehow manage to find what they are looking for, a sort of redemption. But as the old saying goes: be careful what you wish for. This is both a gripping and a haunting read.

Absolutely brilliant. Providence is a spectacular, absorbing, relevant achievement.

Providence makes my Best-of-Year List

Review copy

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Lexicon by Max Barry

Everyone’s making pages for themselves. Imagine a hundred million people clicking polls and typing in their favorite TV shows and products and political leanings, day after day. It’s the biggest data profile ever. And it’s voluntary. That’s the funny part. People resist a census, but give them a profile page and they’ll spend all day telling you who they are.

Back in 2002, I stumbled across the Australian author, Max Barry’s book Syrup. It was out of print at the time, but I snatched up several used copies and sent them to people who needed a good laugh. The feedback was unanimous, and Max made a few more fans. In 2003, he published Jennifer Government, a dystopian novel in which the planet has corporatized rather than globalized. Then came Company in 2006–a novel that returned to the humour to be found in skewering corporate culture. Machine Man in 2011 took us into science-fiction territory with a scientist who begins replacing his body parts with better, factory-made replacements. Max Barry’s novels mine society’s paranoias and the issue of individualism within a society/corporate structure that endorses, encourages and rewards conformity. And this brings me to 2103’s Lexicon, Max Barry’s fifth novel.

LexiconYou’d have to be deliberately avoiding the news not to hear/read recent stories about privacy. The battle for ‘Privacy’ is over, so we can shed a tear and feel a bit nostalgic. Privacy is a nebulous term, and anyone suspected of a crime loses that thin veil that kept their private life out of the public eye. Ok, so you’re not a criminal; these days with terrorism as the argument, we are all suspects. I’m thinking here about data mining and data collection: our phone conversations, our e-mails, anti-war protests, even our routines and habits:  Carnivore, Prism, NasrusInsightMagic Lantern, the MQ-9Reaper (great name btw). We live in fantastic times; it’s the sort of world imagined by Philip Dick.   Trust Max Barry to mine this rich field and produce a prescient, brilliant, intelligent, dystopian novel:  Lexicon: a nightmarish look at the ultimate privacy invasion–a book that pushes the boundaries of reality, and yet is so close, too close to an uncomfortable truth that the last frontier of privacy, the brain, is under assault. But we still have free will, don’t we?

The fact was, if you paid attention, people tried to persuade each other all the time. It was all they did.

And what if those persuaders had an unfair advantage, an incredible ability into the insights of your personality and decision making. What would happen if you could be persuaded to do anything?

Emily is a homeless 16 year old, hustling with cards on the street of San Francisco when she’s approached by a stranger who poses as a market researcher who claims he’s looking for “people who are persuasive and intransigent.” Emily accepts an offer to do “a round of tests,” and if she passes, she’ll attend a private school that teaches “persuasion.” The school, run by a shadowy organization, is a vetting ground for those with an exceptional talent for persuading others, and Emily is told this isn’t a regular school, the usual “government-run child farms” with a predictable curriculum. But neither is this school for salespeople; it’s something much more sinister:

She learned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which was the order in which people optimally satisfied different types of desires (food-safety-love-status-enlightenment). She learned that leverage over people’s desire for knowledge was called informational social influence, while leverage over people’s desire to be liked was normative social influence. She learned that you could classify a person’s personality into one of 228 psychographic categories with a small number of well-directed questions plus observation, and this was called segmentation.

During Emily’s second year, she learns how to categorize people into types and identify which “persuasion techniques are more likely to work” on the various personalities. While learning how to identify types and manipulate other people, Emily is taught not to reveal anything about herself to others as personal information can open you to ‘persuasion.’ Graduates of the school are renamed and become “poets,” the most talented, gifted persuaders with an incredible ability to identity people by segmentation, and they are given a set of words that can ‘unlock’ the brain of any identified personality type. Naturally, for poets, desire is seen as a weakness and relationships are forbidden, and this is where Emily makes a mistake….

Alternating with Emily’s story is the story of Wil, an Australian who enters a bathroom and is sucked up in a battle for power between rival poet factions. Kidnapped by a poet named Eliot, Will is told that “eighteen months ago you survived something you shouldn’t have,” and that because he survived the incident at Broken Hill, a town declared a toxic disaster zone, he is an “outlier“–someone who is “immune” to segmentation and persuasion. Eliot believes that Wil, who has no memory of Broken Hill, holds essential, key information that will stop the power-grab of the much-feared rogue poet, Virginia Woolf.

Throughout the novel, Barry introduces conspiracy theories and various paranoias to fuel the tale, and the narrative is interspersed with forum comments, news articles, and various incidents that make the headlines

I’m not saying that there’s something here with this specific incident, but I see this ALL THE TIME. If you watch TV news, every story is like this: ‘There was a fire and the owner was in financial trouble.’ They’re not saying he burned down his own place. But that’s what they’re trying to tell you.

That bothers me because we think we’re being clever, putting the pieces together, but it’s a set-up. We’ve only been given pieces that fit together one way…..”

While I miss the humour of Company and Syrup, Lexicon is the most original book I’ve read this year. The novel is a brilliantly conceived novel of ideas that are fresh, bold and just imaginative enough to feed our concerns regarding the invasion of privacy. Towards the end, when the novel became pure chase & kill thriller, the plot seemed to lose control, but this may be an issue with my kindle version more than anything else as I was unsure of the timelines for some of the chapters.

It’s been interesting to watch Max Barry’s career over the years, and Lexicon is a fascinating entry in this unique writer’s oeuvre. Max Barry always surprises and he always delivers. Well done, Max. 

Review copy

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Moonlighting and Raving on Gummie’s blog

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a fan or Australian author, Max Barry. Gummie from Whispering Gums asked me to write a guest post about Max, so go here to read the article which includes links to reviews.

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Machine Man by Max Barry

As a long-term fan of Max Barry, I’m pimping his new book Machine Man. It’s the story of a lonely scientist, Charles Neumann who loses a leg in an accident. Unhappy with the clumsy, rudimentary capabilities of the prosthetic device, he embarks on a quest for improvement. If you are at all familiar with Max Barry’s novels, then you know to expect dark humour.

Anyway, the full review is here at Mostly Fiction

and SCORE!! for the interview go here

But here’s a quote from the book, one of my favourites that should have you either dashing to your local bookshop or putting the book in your virtual shopping cart.

This is Cassandra Cautery, from the company Better Future talking to Charles Neumann:

“I’m a middle manager,” she said. “Some people think that’s a pejorative, but I don’t. There are people above me who make business decisions and people below me who execute them and those people live in different realities. Very different. And my job is to bring them together. Mesh their realities. Sometimes they’re not completely compatible, and sometimes I don’t even understand how someone can live in the reality they do, but the point is I mesh them. I’m like a translator. Only more hands-on. And that’s what makes the company work. Middle managers, like me, meshing. So let me take a stab at your reality, Charlie. Do you know how much money there is in medical? A lot. And more every year, because you invent a better heart and it doesn’t matter how much it costs, people want it. because you’re selling them life.” She blinked.  “You’re selling them life.” She patted her jacket pockets. “I need a pen. But what’s the problem with medical? The market is limited to sick people. Imagine: you sink thirty million into developing the world’s greatest artery valve and someone goes and cures heart disease. It would be a disaster. not for the … not for the people obviously. I mean for the company. Financially. I mean this is the kind of business risk that makes people upstairs nervous about signing off on major capital investment.”

And here’s Charles meeting physical therapist, Dave:

Then came the physical therapist. The second he bounced in I realized I was back in gym class. He was fit and tan and wore a hospital polo shirt small enough that his biceps strained the seams. Tucked beneath one was a clipboard. The only thing missing was a whistle.

And finally here’s Max on Youtube with a preview of Machine Man:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEN10axDJtA

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Max Barry–one of my favourite Australians

When I checked my e-mail this morning, there was a very funny note from Australian author, Max Barry sitting in my inbox. No, I don’t know him personally, but a few years ago, I did sign up via his website to get Max by e-mail. I’ve read all of Max’s novels–not that there have been that many. In fact there haven’t been enough. To date: Syrup, Company, and Jennifer Government. There’s also Machine Man–a serial written by Max which appeared a page a day on his website. Well to be honest five pages a week as to quote Max: “because I need a break, man.” To give you the details, up to page 43 is free and then after that to continue the subscription costs $6.95.

Anyway, this is just one of the reasons that I like Max Barry because he thinks outside of the friggin box.

Another reason I like Max is his sense of humour, of course, and his latest e-mail did cheer me up this morning. It’s a wonderful idea for authors to have their own blogs, and Max Barry is a perfect example of how much one author can do with a simple website. He’s built quite a fan base, he connects directly with his readers, and he’s one of the plebs. There is no snobbery and no patronising here. Just Max going through life pretty much the same way we do. 

Max’s latest e-mail, complete with his trademark unassuming humour, announced another baby on the way. Congrats Max. Keep those e-mails coming.

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Jennifer Government by Max Barry

“We’re all cogs in the wealth-making machine.”

In a world set in the not-too-distant and quite believable future, government takes a back seat to business. Big business controls the world, and entire continents are subsumed to business alliances–US Alliance and TA (Team Advantage). With almost tribe-like allegiances, employees take the name of their employer as a surname–therefore, with this definition, Jennifer Government works for the government, and the unemployed?…Well , they’re Unmentionables as far as consumer spending is concerned.

One day, at the water cooler, Hack Nike meets John Nike, Guerrilla Marketing Operative, New Sales, and John Nike, Guerrilla Marketing Vice-President. Hack is offered a job promoting a new brand of tennis shoes, and when pressured, he quickly signs a contract detailing the job. Too late, Hack Nike learns why it’s a good thing to always read contracts before signing them….

To Hack’s horror, he is told that he has just signed an agreement to assassinate 10 people who buy the new shoes. The 2 John Nikes from Guerrilla Marketing plan to use the killings as a part of a media blitz that will ultimately promote the new brand. Unable to contemplate killing anyone, Hack, does what any good citizen would do under the circumstances–he goes to the police. But the police are only interested in subcontracting the deal to the NRA.

In a world where business corporations thwart, ignore, and subvert already weakened government controls, the interests of business and government are diametrically opposed. Thanks to Hack’s contract, government and business interests are set on a collision course where only one element can emerge and rule. Jennifer Government is the tattooed agent with a personal interest in stopping Nike’s Guerrilla Marketing.

Rapidly paced, well-constructed, and written with panache, this futuristic novel is a change of pace for Australian author, Max Barry. Barry’s first novel, Syrup, lampooned the world of marketing with strong wit. Jennifer Government is a much more serious novel–an indictment of the world as it may well become–a world in which it is in the best interests of business who now flagrantly “put a price tag on human life” to unleash anarchy and create the ultimate free-market.

If you haven’t tried Max Barry yet, I urge you to do so. He’s refreshing and very, very funny. Take a look at his blog, or better yet, take a look and then sign up for his e-mail list.

www.maxbarry.com

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