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‘O.K., Google, Make Me Happy’: In This Novel, Technology Is a Panacea

Category: Art & Culture,Books

TELL THE MACHINE GOODNIGHT
By Katie Williams
287 pp. Riverhead Books. $25.

The premise of Katie Williams’s first novel for adults, “Tell the Machine Goodnight,” revolves around a piece of technology, called an Apricity, that instructs its users how to be content. The central characters include Pearl, who works for the company that makes the machines and believes in the guidance of their individualized “contentment plans” to the extent that she steadfastly uses them to balance her own life. The machine tells her to make models of prehistoric trilobites, so she makes them.

The problem for Pearl is that her teenage son, the distant moody Rhett, doesn’t feel the same way. He doesn’t want to take the swab necessary for the machine to give him a reading. He is scarred by his experience of anorexia (which Williams writes about brilliantly) and, particularly, the way he lost control over his own body — not just through the illness, but through the treatment that’s been forced on him. He can’t even bear to be touched by his mother, let alone listen to her advice, and so she decides to take matters into her own hands and “solve” Rhett’s unhappiness — even if it means breaking the law.

This is a story of many perspectives, which might feel a little overloaded for some readers, but I thought they all fit perfectly, and offer a comment as well on the fragmented existences we live online.

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A host of characters orbit around the two figures of mother and son, and we occasionally zoom in on them, getting their perspective — including Elliot, Rhett’s artist dad and Pearl’s ex-husband; and Pearl’s gullible boss, Carter, a self-made man who is portrayed as someone living a kind of duped and diluted life. (“His childhood had been a pastiche of evenings watching popular sitcoms, the couches the actors sat upon in their fake living rooms a nicer version of his family’s own couch.”) There is also Zihao, Rhett’s Chinese college roommate, who wants to be taught “how to be American” and is willing to teach Rhett to “be a human” in return.

The book feels like an extended episode of “Black Mirror,” and certainly has that show’s taste for dark humor and high-concept philosophizing around our tech addiction, though what raises it above another clever-clever slab of science fiction is that its characters are complex and contradictory and real. For better or worse, you care about them. The mirror may be dark in places, but it shines with a more human light. It’s an entertaining read that draws more inventiveness from character development than it does from the fictional technology.

Rhett, in particular, is enthrallingly human. Although he is distant and remote, these qualities make us care about him more, and we share a little of his mother’s investment in his recovery, and feel for the growing bond between them. When a character describes to Rhett the frequency of the phone calls he gets from his mum as being “as much as you can stand, as little as she can” many parents (and their offspring) will surely flinch with painful recognition.

What could have been simply a cutting satire — or thought experiment — about our tech dependence and craving for quick-fix pop psychology becomes something far warmer and funnier.

At the risk of broad generalization, science fiction — even literary science fiction — often sacrifices the science for the emotion, or the emotion for the science, yet Williams weaves the two together, and her novel shows how philosophical and sharply relevant fiction, this kind of fiction, can be in this fast-changing century. As we integrate ourselves ever deeper with technology, it makes sense that these themes will and should emerge in novels, and Williams offers a master class in not losing sight of the human element. The irony for a book that could be seen to mock self-help culture is that it is, in itself, the kind of story that — in the subtlest of ways — can instruct us, and nourish us, and make us want to live and love a little better.


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