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Tell the Machine Goodnight

September 26, 2021

Tell the Machine Goodnight, by Katie Williams, is a science fiction novel about a machine designed to tell people what would make them happier, and its effects.

The beginning of the novel sets the scene concisely. The first chapter is entitled “The Happiness Machine,” and there’s an epigraph: “Apricity (archaic): the feeling of sun on one’s skin in the winter.” This is followed by the first lines: “The machine said the man should eat tangerines. It listed two other recommendations as well, so three in total. A modest number, Pearl assured the man as she read out the list that had appeared on the screen before her: 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.” Soon we learn that the man isn’t too taken aback by his third recommendation, saying “I’ve never liked it much. This particular finger. It got slammed in a door when I was little, and ever since….It just feels…like it doesn’t belong.” And we learn that Pearl has “worked as a contentment technician for the Apricity Corporation’s San Francisco office since 2026. Nine years.” We also learn that “the Apricity assessment process itself was noninvasive. The only item that the machine needed to form its recommendations was a swab of skin cells from the inside of the cheek. This was Pearls’ first task on a job, to hand out and collect back a cotton swab, swipe a hint of captured saliva across a computer chip, and then fit the loaded chip into a slot in the machine. The Apricity 480 took it from there, spelling out a personalized contentment plan in mere minutes.”

After the first chapter, in which we meet Pearl, the chapters present us with the points of view of others in her world, starting with her teenaged son, Rhett, who is recovering from anorexia and helping a friend investigate who posted a video that led to her online humiliation. Other points of view include one of Pearl’s colleagues, Carter, Pearl’s ex-husband and Rhett’s father, Elliot, Elliot’s wife Val, and an actress and Apricity customer, Calla.

Rhett is unhappy, and his unhappiness introduces us to the limitations of the machine. Although Rhett doesn’t want any recommendations, Pearl surreptitiously swabs his cheek and is alarmed when his recommendations come out blank because that’s what happens when they’re illegal or harmful to others. She experiments with ways to make him happier and finally succeeds by bringing home a pet lizard for Rhett to feed live mice to. It worries her that an outlet for cruelty is what seems to make her son feel better, but she’s willing to accommodate the need as long as it works.

Carter tests a new model of Apricity machine, one he is told is better. His usual four recommendations are to “stand up straight. Don’t worry about standing up straight. Adopt a dog. Smile at your wife.” The new one from the improved machine is “remove all chairs from your office except your own.” Carter is told that it’s not a plan for contentment or happiness, but for how to be powerful. He follows the plan as instructed, but it turns out that the power he hoped for goes to the designers of the new machine.

Elliott breaks out of what Val calls “a creative fallow period” by performing art based on peoples’ Apricity recommendations, eating so much honey he vomits and wrapping himself up completely in soft fabric, like a mummy. We find out that Val blames herself for her psychotic mother’s suicide, so much that as a child she allowed herself to be convicted of murdering her and now gets a weekly, court-ordered Apricity swab, although she doesn’t allow her parole officer to tell her the results because she thinks “I do not deserve happiness. I don’t want to know where to seek it.” She tries to tell Elliot what happened, but can’t find a way to do it, so she leaves him before he can leave her.

Pearl administers daily contentment reports for Calla, the actress, at the request of her people who are concerned, it later turns out, because they’re recording her in situations that frighten her and are concerned about the effects. Calla explains to Pearl that “they capture the feeling, the way I experience the feeling. And then they can, like, project it into other people. They can make people feel it.”

In the wider context of this world, Rhett’s unhappiness is less surprising. The end of the novel is about the support Rhett is finally able to accept from a few other people, most notably his college roommate, Zi, who is from China. Zi talks Rhett into finding new goals, distracting him from “making rules again. Only vegetables. Twenty chews before I could swallow. A sip of water between each bite….I knew that this was how it had started before, little rules that led to bigger ones. No food before dinner. Five hundred calories a day. Five hundred calories every other day. But then Zi talked me into climbing the mountain.”

After a year of living with Zi, Rhett observes that Zi “likes to say that if I teach him how to be American, he’ll teach me how to be human.” He is able to forgive Pearl and Elliot for splitting up, and becomes friends with Val, although she has left Elliot for good.

Pearl is left talking to her Apricity machine, even though “she knew it had all been pretend, the machine’s responses only Pearl talking with herself. Still, she listened for its reply.” And when Pearl’s machine is stolen from the bar where she’s taken it, readers are left hearing that such machines are going to be part of a new “wave of bio-embed tech.” Pearl finally decides that she has to make her own plans and quit being content with machine plans and even other peoples’ plans.

One of her last actions is to imitate the machine, coming up with a contentment plan on the spur of the moment: “Learn the clarinet….write in cursive….and take a long trip. Alone.” It’s a simple idea, that we don’t need machines to tell us what will make us happy, and yet it’s as hard to figure it out for ourselves as it is to recover from an eating disorder or a failed marriage or any other system we pinned our hopes to.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. September 26, 2021 1:40 am

    This sounds more like a short story than a novel!

    • September 26, 2021 7:58 am

      Different characters’ points of view have a cumulative effect, though. It is almost like one of those novels in which each chapter is a story from a different character’s point of view.

  2. September 26, 2021 11:33 am

    How did it make you feel?

    • September 26, 2021 11:57 am

      Empowered. The machine is only as good at predicting what will make humans happy as the humans who program it. And as someone who struggles with an eating disorder, I liked the nuance that gave the issue (others will like the part about being a neglected child, from Val’s sections, or the parts about being a public figure, like Calla).

      • September 26, 2021 12:49 pm

        My eating disorder is long gone; now I eat to keep my system from craving or crashing – and wish I could lose a few pounds, but won’t risk it right now. Stability lets me write.

        It is good to have it in the past – I remember the struggles.

  3. September 27, 2021 6:57 am

    This sounds fascinating — and creepy, kind of? I read a book one time where the haunted house was trying to make its inhabitants happy, and it’s one of the most unsettling books I’ve ever read. It sounds like this book really leans into the imperfections of induced happiness.

    • September 30, 2021 12:58 pm

      It does really lean into the imperfections of thinking someone else can predict (much less induce) your own happiness. I didn’t find it creepy, though, as the journey is towards volition.

  4. September 28, 2021 11:02 am

    I am intrigued by the sound of this one. I agree with Jenny, though, it does sound kind of creepy. But also very culturally relevant since these days our computers are always making recommendations about one thing or another. Happiness recommendations seems only a small step.

    • September 30, 2021 1:00 pm

      The phrase “happiness recommendations” makes me think of fortune cookies, and a youtube video I saw once years ago where a guy was in the basement underneath a Chinese restaurant listening to conversations and typing up a fortune that he thought would make each individual person happy, to be delivered with their checks.

  5. October 3, 2021 8:34 pm

    I am intrigued by this! It really IS hard to figure out what will make you happy, or even what happiness IS in the first place. Age and experience definitely help, I think.

    • October 4, 2021 12:22 pm

      Yes. Part of what we see in the novel is Pearl getting older and more experienced.

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