Tell The Machine Goodnight by Katie Williams

The Blurb On The Back:

Follow these steps for guaranteed happiness.

That’s what the machine said.

But how far would you go to be happy?

Happiness is Pearl’s job.  As a technician working with the revolutionary Apricity device, she runs tests to determine what will improve people’s mood.  But her teenage son, Rhett, is a sensitive boy who has forged an unconventional path through adolescence.  If only Pearl could persuade him to run an Apricity assessment … but what if she doesn’t like what she finds?

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s the year 2035.  Pearl lives in San Francisco with her 18-year-old son, Rhett and for the last 9 years has worked as a technician for Apricity Corporation, which means she tests people’s saliva on the Apricity machine, which then offers up suggestions for how that person can be happier (e.g. by eating more tangerines, divorcing their spouse or even removing the tip from one of their fingers). But while Pearl diligently complies with the results of her own Apricity report, she worries about her son Rhett, who has recently returned from treatment for bulimia and with whom she has a tense relationship.  Pearl is certain that if Rhett just agreed to get an Apricity test, she could make him happy but Rhett constantly refuses to do so until one day, Pearl decides to take matters into her own hands …

Katie Williams’s literary SF novel is a thought-provoking look at technology, the search for happiness and people’s desire to be told what to do and whose plot revolves around the relationships between its characters.  However, some storylines are left unresolved while others have only a weak resolution and the Apricity technology is largely unexplored as a concept such that the book isn’t as satisfying as it could have been.

There’s a lot of potential in the Apricity technology that forms the central hook in this book.  I was fascinated by the idea of a machine that can give a person steps to take to improve their happiness just from a cheek swab and half-read the book expecting to discover that this was all actually baloney and something else was going on.  Williams gives tantalizing glimpses of the effect the machine has had on society – indicating that it’s largely a service open to the haves rather than the have-nots, with corporations getting their employees tested in order to improve performance and some people (including Rhett) refusing point blank to be tested as a point of principle.  I enjoyed the references Williams makes to the machine not being regarded as infallible, potentially being open to abuse (with a plot line exploring just this problem) and not having any evidentiary weight, and also interesting is the fact that the machine will not give out suggestions that are detrimental (something that figures largely in the Pearl/Rhett storyline).  I also enjoyed the way that people who get read don’t tend to question the suggestions made to them other than how they can comply with them, although I’m not sure how true that would be in practice.

However the machine itself is very much a McGuffin that exists to pull different characters into each other’s orbit or impact upon their relationship (most notably in the second half of the book where Pearl is brought in to test young entertainment star and scream queen Calla Pax) and for me the role of the machine’s part on those relationships is never really explored.  For example, Pearl’s action in using the machine on her son, although raising interesting questions as to how she interprets the hidden results, doesn’t really lead to a resolution between the pair – not least because Rhett never finds out about it and the moral problem of Pearl having done it behind his back, doesn’t really get explored, which is frustrating given that their relationship has clearly been damaged already by what he regards as her betrayal of his trust. Nor is it explored whether the machine actually makes people happy or merely produces a kind of benign contentment, e.g. Pearl’s instruction to make models gives her something to do in her spare time but clearly doesn’t make up for the loneliness and abandonment issues that she has following her divorce from Elliot. I did wonder if the whole ‘secret’ to the machine was that deep down people simply want to be given simple instructions and that if they’re told those instructions will make them happy then they’re reluctant to question it, but there’s no exploration of this as an idea at all.

Williams switches point of view each chapter, with some told by Pearl, Rhett, Elliot, Elliot’s new wife Val, Calla and Pearl’s boss Carter.  The relationship between Pearl and Rhett is central to the book, but I enjoyed the chapters that focused on the incredibly selfish Elliot and Val (whose secret I really wanted to learn more of – especially given the abrupt decision she takes at the end of her plotline) and those between Rhett and his former schoolmate Saff.  Rhett is probably the strongest character in the book as Williams depicts his bulimia sensitively and how it has impacted on his relationship with his mother and his former friends.  I found Pearl more frustrating, mainly because she’s so unwilling to confront anything and I felt that some of her storylines, especially that where she discovers what is happening to Calla and her failure to tell Elliot where to get off, to be really frustrating as she comes across as a bit of an empty vessel and I needed her to have more oomph.

Some of the storylines lack a definite resolution – notably Carter whose discovery that he has been badly played by a new VP at Apercity doesn’t really go anywhere – and the final resolution between Pearl and Rhett did not seem to be to earned, not least because there’s enough trouble stored up in the preceding pages between them for there to be bigger problems down the road.

Ultimately, there was enough in this book to hold my attention and keep turning the pages and I would definitely check out Williams’s other work, but when I finished it I was left with more questions than answers and on some level, I found it a bit of a frustrating, wishy-washy read.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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