Book Review: The Prophecy Machine by Neal Barrett Jr.
I’ve been trying to cull my bookshelves as of late.
This is something of a double-edged sword, however. Because invariably, I take a big pile of old books to the used bookstore, at which I trade them in for store credit … which I then use to acquire new books. This is why my to-read pile is frankly somewhat intimidating.
But, here’s the thing. Used bookstores can be somewhat selective in what they take. It’s understandable, as they don’t want piles and piles of stuff that won’t sell. On the other hand, I’m not quite sure just what their criteria for trades are. I mean, these places will take a book like Cathouse without batting an eye, but for whatever reason, several bookstores had no interest whatsoever in anything by Neal Barrett Jr.
This is why Neal Barret Jr’s The Prophecy Machine has been banging around in the back of my car for … quite awhile now. And when I found myself on my lunch break without anything else to read, well … might as well go for the re-read, right? The funny thing is, while I vaguely remember reading the book a long long time ago, it didn’t leave much of an impression then.
The Prophecy Machine is a weird book. Maybe even a New Weird book, if you wanna nitpick your sub genres. The Prophecy Machine is about the misadventures of a man named Finn, his wife Letitia, and their sarcastic friend Julia Jessica Slagg. Which sounds fairly normal until you note that Finn is a “master lizard maker”– basically an inventor of clockwork lizards that do stuff. Letitia is a “newlie,” which is to say she’s a vaguely anthropomorphic animal (a mouse, to be precise), and Julia Jessica Slagg is Finn’s greatest creation– a mechanical reptile that can think and speak and do lots of other stuff.
While attempting to go on vacation, the three of them wind up marooned in a strange town full of murderous religious zealots who believe that hospitality is a sin. Kinda reminds me of that one Dick Blade book I read awhile back. Silly hijinks ensue, at which Finn and co. wind up in one of those big dilapidated manor houses you see in every Tim Burton movie. And, of course, there’s a mad inventor living in said house, working on the titular prophecy machine– a machine that has a tendency to warp time and space around it. So, y’know, standard stuff.
To be honest, I’m making the book sound a lot more straightforward than it really is. The best way I can describe its tone is as “Aggressively Whimsical.” There’s an adventure story there, sure … but for the most part, especially with the odd customs of the land, it’s all pretty silly. The thing is, Neal Barret Jr. isn’t nearly as witty and clever as, say, Terry Pratchett (but then again, who is?). Sometimes the jokes land (a recurring gag about a town militia of ‘lancers’ not allowed to carried lances is pretty fun), and sometimes … they don’t. In particular, the abusiveness and general unpleasantness of Finn’s ‘hosts’ is meant to come off as comical, but I really kept asking myself just how the hell such a weird place would actually function for real people. Which is beside the point, but still.
Another thing that struck me was the “newlies” themselves. They’re basically magically uplifted animals, with races like “Mycers” or “Foxers” and so on– you can pretty much figure it out from there. Newlies are pretty much an underclass, and so Barrett kiiiiiind of uses them as a way to juggle ideas about racism? Maybe? Only the thing is, Letitia is the only newlie who gets much in the way of characterization over the course of the novel. And even then, Letitia plays the role of “spunky damsel” more often than not. Plus, the whole fantasy racism thing just gets a little weirder considering several of the novel’s antagonists spend a great deal of time lechering at the poor girl. Thankfully, it’s nothing as explicit as that one Lieber novel, but it still kind of makes things … odd.
Applying gender and racial criticism to The Prophecy Machine may be a little unfair. There are snags, yes, but nothing that makes it problematic. At least, not problematic to my normally oblivious self. Between the book’s absurd, light tone, along with some snappy dialogue, I get the feeling that Neal Barrett Jr. wrote The Prophecy Machine more for fun than anything. It’s not a great novel, but it’s still kind of entertaining, as far as fluffy bits of entertainment go. And it must have made at least some impression on me a couple years back, as I’ve got the sequel The Treachery of Kings laying around somewhere, too.
The used bookstores didn’t want that one either.