The Prophecy Machine

Posted by : atcampbell | On : June 5, 2001

The Prophecy Machine by Neal Barrett, Jr.

Twelve people attended the discussion of The Prophecy Machine, a recent novel by Austin writer Neal Barrett Jr. This fantasy novel is set in a world where many of the world’s animal races have been magically evolved into “Newlies”, creatures with human levels of intelligence and a more-or-less human appearance. The book follows a human inventor named Finn and his Newlie lady love Letitia on a vacation that goes horribly wrong. They get stranded on a strange island, which leads them to get involved with a clan of strange men who have a bizarre invention.

We found this book easy to read. All eleven of us who’d started the novel finished it. Barrett’s playful use of language was fun, and we all had favorite sentences and phrases that we repeated. We enjoyed the interplay between Finn and his pet, an ornery robot lizard named Julia. The island society with its two dominant factions (the Hooters and the Hatters) was a clever invention, and we liked the way this concept was worked so strongly into the book. For example, a business named “Bar” accepted only customers from one group, while the other townspeople were cheerfully accepted at a place named “Tavern”. Visitors were not welcome anywhere, and the concept of hospitality was unknown.

There were some problems with this book. The amount of action seemed insufficient for the book’s page count, and many of us felt like it read like a padded novella. Also, the story and characters just didn’t have the exuberance and energy level we’d come to associate with Barrett’s earlier books like The Hereafter Gang and Dead Dog Blues. Many of us who’d read and enjoyed the bawdy action in those prior books were surprised to find that The Prophecy Machine is practically wholesome. We wondered if Barrett was consciously trying to restrain himself to produce a book suitable for a younger audience.

Overall we found The Prophecy Machine to be a light, highly readable book with several interesting ideas. It lacks the depth of Barrett’s best work, but it’s certainly worth reading. After the meeting several of us had dinner at Vinny’s.

–A. T. Campbell, III