The Short Version: An undercover Fleet operative named Von Kodiak is pulled (rather unceremoniously) out of deep cover after the Fleet Admiral is assassinated in the wake of his failed subspace experiment. Tasked with finding the killer, he comes across tensions within the Fleet, a religious cult, and people who ought to be dead but aren’t. Meanwhile, an unprecedented storm is kicking up on Jupiter and down in the storm clouds, something unholy is coming together…
The Review: So, for me, The Machine Awakes is a testament to giving authors multiple chances. The first time I read a novel by Mr. Christopher, I was decidedly not into it. But The Burning Dark, his sci-fi horror novel sounded intriguing to me – and it was (although it was not without its flaws). I could’ve just left it there but something had stuck in my mind: his vision of an alien menace that is a hive mind like the Borg but more unthinking, more mechanical… and they look like Spiders. I wanted to know more; I wanted to see how (or if) humanity could escape such a foe.
And I’m glad I followed through, because The Machine Awakes is one of the most delightful space-thrillers I’ve read in a while. It follows in the vein of the great political thrillers of the 70s (or even more recently, like The Winter Soldier) and the great old-school sci-fi adventures, never letting up the pace and never getting too concerned with plausibility but instead just aiming to make sure the reader has fun.
We’ve got two plots here: one following a young woman, homeless and perhaps a little disturbed, who used to be in the Fleet and the aforementioned Mr. Kodiak, one of the Fleet’s best who had been undercover and pulled out in the wake of chaos. Christopher switches between them fluidly, although I enjoyed Von’s plot more than Caitlin’s – it had a little more of the roguish adventure that appears to be Mr. Christopher’s forte. Neither of them feel inhuman or created, although both operate in a slightly heightened sort of characterization: they are characters in a crazy story and you always vaguely know/understand that, as the reader.
But the story… it zips along so fast that you don’t really have too much time to care that they aren’t the most human of protagonists because you’re too busy wondering what the hell comes next. Neither story starts slow: Von is nearly done with his loooong-con undercover op and the annoyance of getting screwed out of finishing it is palpable. Similarly, Caitlin is brooding and a little crazy and suddenly she’s pointing a gun at the Fleet Admiral… and someone else kills him. This is, predictably, the sort of thing that would cause mass panic and it does – and when SPOILERS (although it happens early enough)
his successor also ends up dead, you’ve either bought in or not. If you haven’t, the book’s ensuing ridiculousness might turn you off – but if you have, you know to just strap in and say “alright, go for it.” The plot bounces around on Earth for a while before pinballing up to Jupiter, to a mining platform in the clouds of Jupiter – and the imagination at work here is delightful. The idea of mining the storms of Jupiter is an amazing one but the actual production of it here makes you feel like you’re holding your breath just a little bit the whole time. Especially as the villain appears and makes his plot known – you’re in a stranglehold of tension.
This, even though the plot is patently ridiculous. And I’ve seen several reviews that have brought this up as though it’s a bad thing – but what, exactly, did you expect? Christopher is working in a classic vein here and one of the greatest tropes of classic adventure stories is the ridiculous villain with his ridiculous plan. We’ve decided, of late, that we want to laugh at these stories instead of with them, which (to my eye) shows a distinct lack of generosity in modern audiences (both literary and cinematic). The reader knows, just as Von does, that the plan is ridiculous and that it won’t create when the villain think it will create but will, instead, just cause death and destruction and panic for everyone including said villain… but said villain doesn’t see that. And he’s allowed to be crazy like that. It might not be “plausible” but, also, you’re reading a novel whose second half is set on a floating gas mine on Jupiter. Pick your battles, you know?
Rating: 4 out of 5. I really had fun with this and am glad I stuck around with this trilogy. It would seem that Mr. Christopher’s natural state is deftly plotted adventure where he can really just lean into classic inspirations. There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, it should be considered laudable. We need a little more fun, frothy adventure these days and our literature should be shouldering its share of the burden. If you like sci-fi and you like adventure and you want to just have a fun, if not too serious, time… The Spider Wars are a good place to look.