In my youth, I was baffled by the persistence and popularity of horoscopes. They seemed leftover charlantism in a world that appeared to have moved on. But the older I got, the more I understood that the world, or more precisely people, had not evolved. The name on the door may be different (science, Christianity, corporate ladder, etc.), but for the majority of people some higher power is needed to offer faith, to provide structure or purpose in life. Katie William’s subtle but affecting Tell the Machine Goodnight (2018) takes a look at our society just a couple years down the road where a small DNA-driven device takes on the role of mother horoscope for many people.
While it’s easy to make a case that certain characters are prominent and others not, it’s impossible to say Tell the Machine Goodnight has a protagonist. A family in the spotlight, the novel shifts comfortably in and out of the lives of the unnamed group, telling the influence Apricity has on them. Apricity a small device into which a person enters a swab of cells from inside the mouth, it spits out a piece of paper that describes, sometimes in certain and sometimes in vague terms, what will make them happy. The divorcees Pearl and Elliot, their teenage son Rhett, Val (Elliot’s new wife), and others in their lives all react to the device’s cryptic scriving in different ways.
Though uncertain how to apply the Apricity’s obscure recommendations, Pearl nevertheless has strong belief the underlying technology knows something people do not, and trusts it implicitly. Rhett has a strong, standoff-ish take on Apricity, preferring instead to watch its effect in the lives of his highschool classmates. Elliot, still close to Pearl and Rhett, uses the machine’s advice in anti-form, creating living art by taking its recommendations to the extreme. And Val is just plain confused. While believing it has some general value for her life, she is unsure how or when or where, and as a result semi-randomly makes decisions based on its output.
A personal, character-focused novel that rewards the reader looking for layers within relationships and the psyche, Tell the Machine Goodnight is the soft, human side of science fiction, i.e. the area that that doesn’t get near enough attention. Technique-wise, the book is neither well nor poorly written; Williams has a workaday style describing characters in basic but effective form that, before the reader knows it, has created a warm rapport. Despite their faults (or more likely precisely for that), a subtle empathy for the characters slowly develops that one recognizes as three-dimensionally human—human in a way a lot of science fiction would like but so often fails at.
The overall mode of Tell the Machine Goodnight is somewhere between novel and collection. Apricity, family, thoughts, and work relationships the glue holding the character threads together, the book gently shifts perspectives, introducing a new character here, returning to the life of another there. These slow, swirling eddies of character/story steadily concatenate to create the novel’s larger vision, namely the trust or lack thereof we place in science, how it drives our actions and decisions, and also how it connects and disconnects us individually and socially. That is a broad swathe, but by approaching the subject matter through well-developed characters, Williams stays focused.
Overall, Tell the Machine Goodnight is an interesting novel that exists at the juncture of science-driven horoscopes and the personal. Flying under the radar for a lot of readers (I guess what book doesn’t these days…), it takes its time building momentum, allowing its array and movement to gently arrive at a larger vision than the realistically rendered individuals which populate it. A slow burn, it’s certainly also a book that rewards patience, understanding, and empathy for the degrees of normalcy we see in our family, friends, and colleagues. Or, from another perspective, subtly a very good book.