The Truth Machine, James L. Halperin

Del Rey, 1996, 395 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-41288-5

To readers immersed in pure Science-Fiction, it’s something of a shock to discover that the language and assumptions of SF aren’t universal; for instance, a superbly crafted genre-SF novel might be completely lost on a romance reader, for the reason that the romance reader simply hasn’t got the necessary background to easily deal with hyperspace, nanotechnology and virtual realities. This isn’t as much a comment on intelligence as on inexperience: Similarly, witness reactions to horror movies, from the neophyte “Eeeeew!” to the jaded “Cheezy!”

Similarly, an author approaching the genre without the benefit of a few years’ experience with the genre (say, from reading a few hundred SF books) can illuminate the various eccentricities of (our) SF.

Take for instance James L. Halperin’s The Truth Machine. It began as a self-published novel on the Internet, was published by Ivy Press, and then by Del Rey for paperback release. Del Rey curiously labelled the novel without the “Science” in front of “Fiction”, even though The Truth Machine is all about the consequences of a perfect truth machine. Hard-core SF fans will approve when we point out that the core of SF is the exploration of effects and consequences of change, whether it’s technological, social or otherwise.

(Incidentally, The Truth Machine is still one of the only instances of widely successful self-publishing on the Internet. If you’re curious, go ahead and point your browsers to the obvious )

Then why does The Truth Machine feels so… strange?

Part of the answer lies in the clunky style used by the novel. While it’s not particularly horrendous (and probably far better than anything I could come up with), Halperin commits more than a few mistakes, whether it’s in-text footnotes, references to the fifteen-page appendix, flash-forward pacing or a lot of telling-rather-than-showing.

Of course, it would have been impossible to tell The Truth Machine without most of these devices; the canvas is just too big. This novel takes the reader all the way from 1995 to 2050. It offers nothing less than the portrait of a world radically transformed by -among other things- a foolproof truth machine… if it is really foolproof…

The notion of a perfect truth machine isn’t a new one in SF, but it’s very provocative; award-winning novels have been written with lesser concepts. The Truth Machine rarely shies away from considering the implications of its premise, from truthful business transactions to lies-free personal relationships. The plot of the novel serves as carrier for the ideas. Coincidences, “on-the-nose” prose and puppet-characters abound. Ultimately, we get the idea that Halperin isn’t as much interested in telling the story than in predicting the/a future.

And that is the main difference between The Truth Machine and modern SF: For various reasons, contemporary Science-Fiction writers want to tell stories, not predict the future. The sixties’ New Wave introduced literary qualities into the field, and SF never quite recovered. As it is, The Truth Machine is pure SF… a few decades belated.

Ultimately, though, this is all irrelevant to The Truth Machine, since the bottom line is that it’s an engrossing, fascinating book despite suspicious characterisation and too-convenient plotting. Whether or not the book is a 400-page advertisement for the World Future Society, what’s important is that it will make you think. And hope.

Halperin might have more to learn about SF than vice-versa, but readers of all stripe might do worse than give a look at The Truth Machine. It’s readable in a flash (so it won’t waste too much of your time) and, given a suspension of stylistic judgement, it’s gripping stuff.

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