Book Review

Tell the Machine Goodnight by Katie Williams

tell the machine goodnight

If a machine could offer a prescription for happiness but you might not like the results would you take the test?

Eat more tangerines. Divorce your wife. Cut off your right index finger. The Apricity machine’s recommendations are often surprising, but they’re 99.97% guaranteed to make you happier. Pearl works for Apricity – meaning happiness is her job – but her teenage son Rhett seems more content to be unhappy, and refuses to submit to the test. Is Pearl failing as a mother and in her job – and does she even believe in happiness anymore?

Warm, witty and utterly charming, Tell the Machine Goodnight is where A Visit from the Goon Squad meets Where’d You Go Bernadette.

I love the idea behind the novel, that a simple swab of DNA from the inside of the cheek, swiped on to a microchip and loaded into a machine can tell you how to be happy.  The suggestions may range from simple ideas such as taking up a new hobby, to the slightly more bizarre, as the reader discovers in the first chapter where Pearl is sharing the results of the test with her client:

One, he should eat tangerines on a regular basis; two, he should work at a desk that received morning light; three, he should amputate the uppermost section of his right index finger.

As you can see, the results may contain odd suggestions, although Apricity never suggests anything that would result in criminal or problematic behaviour, with any such negative suggestions starred out so that neither the client nor Pearl and her fellow consultants can see those results.

Tell the Machine Goodnight explores the use of this technology, and how it might alter our lives.  They say that a change is as good as a rest, and so it proves to be the case here, as even small changes made by those making use of Apricity seem to result in them feeling happier for it.

the Apricity machine uses a sophisticated metric, taking into account factors of which we’re not consciously aware.  The proof is borne out in the numbers.  The Apricity system boasts a nearly 100% approval rating.  Ninety-nine-point nine seven percent.

I found this novel and the idea behind it to be extremely thought-provoking.  It’s true that simple changes can often have a positive impact on our physical and mental wellbeing, but I also found myself wondering whether it’s self-fulfilling, in that we’re told that a certain change will make us happier, and so we convince ourselves (subconsciously) that it’s true.  I found myself thinking all sorts of things about how such a technology could be utilised – for good and ill – whilst reading this novel, and I love it when a book sparks such ideas, many of which stay with me long after reading.

The above blurb, borrowed from Amazon, suggests that the novel is warm and witty.  And it is witty, and there are moments of warmth to it, particularly later in the novel, but my overwhelming feeling from reading this novel was that it could easily have been an episode of Black Mirror, and that’s not a comparison I make lightly.  Everything about it was just a little bit odd – the characters, the idea that a small machine – the size of a deck of cards – can tell a person how to be happy.  And, as always, such technology can be misused if it falls into the wrong hands…

Tell the Machine Goodnight is told in a series of chapters focussing on different characters, all of them connected to Pearl in some way – her son, her ex-husband, her ex-husband’s wife etc. all get to take centre stage at some point.  Whilst multiple perspectives don’t always work, I thought that it was a brilliant way of telling this story, and I loved the additional insight gained from seeing events from another point of view as well as the different opinions of Apricity and the concept of happiness.  There are a few standout characters, but I was particularly taken with Pearl and her son, Rhett.

Tell the Machine Goodnight was a fascinating and thought-provoking read.  I found it to be unpredictable, in the best possible way, and recommend it to those looking for a science fiction novel that focuses on the human impact of technological change and advancement.

Tell the Machine Goodnight was published in 2018 by The Borough Press.


PS. If you’re wondering about the word “Apricity”, it is helpfully defined at the start of the novel:

Apricity (archaic): the feeling of sun on one’s skin in the winter

Isn’t that lovely?

14 comments

    1. Thank you, Nicki! It’s so good, but definitely a little creepy! A couple of chapters in particular…

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