Nietzsche was right: God is dead—or anyway, dying. In a riff on Arthur C. Clarke’s famous short story “The Nine Billion Names of God,” scientists in Jonathan Lyons’ second novel, Machina, notice stars winking out at the periphery of the observable universe. This happens, apparently, because God is no longer able to hold everything in mind: the omniscient narrator of the universe is becoming more and more limited. So Machina is a novel about theological Alzheimer’s syndrome.
This, of course, is very bad news for humans—especially the power-mongers who want to keep the status quo. The only thing to do is to build a machine to step into the ol’ omniscient one’s shoes. Literally a deus ex machine, a machine of god, this is a fascinating premise for a novel. It’s a conspiracy, of course, and Machina plays on Hillary Clinton’s fear (“a vast right-wing conspiracy”), The X-Files, men in black (though Lyons runs more towards the noir than the comic Will Smith variety), as well as large dollops of a variety of philosophies, East and West. Machina is a postmodern Tao of Physics, and it suffers from a lack of focus: sometimes the kitchen sink just doesn’t fit within the pages of an otherwise highly imaginative novel.
The Oversight Project which develops Machina runs into problems, and these problems provide the conflict that drives the loose plot of the novel forward. Although the cast of the novel is small (mostly telepathic spies and acid-dropping college dropouts), the characters seem to serve the philosophical maunderings of the author rather than the psychological possibilities of the story. There are Derridean “erasures” and other po-mo tricks that turn what really should have been a thriller into a cartoon caricature of itself. The novel wants to be a page-turner but is dropped dead in its tracks by wooden dialogue and molasses pacing.
Lyons clearly takes his science fiction seriously—a little too seriously. Art is rarely made by those who consciously set out to make it. Much better is to back off a bit and let the thrill of the story, rather than ponderous semi-academic concerns, drive the writing. There’s no denying that Lyons has a head on his shoulders and a powerfully interconnective imagination. Here’s hoping he develops the companion skills of a good novelist: an ear for dialogue and a sense of psychological motivation that turns cartoons into characters.