Technology Assists in the Pursuit of Happiness in 'Tell the Machine Goodnight'

While technology is central to the narrative, it doesn't function as a warning about the future of technology, nor does it laud its utility.

Tell the Machine Goodnight
Katie Williams


Jun 2018


A relentless search for happiness is at the core of Katie William's novel, Tell the Machine Goodnight. Pearl is a technician for the Apricity Corporation, which specializes in a technology that analyzes a mouth swab specimen and provides personalized recommendations for greater contentment. Pearl is divorced from Elliot and living with her teenage son, Rhett. Pearl is fixated on Rhett's happiness, which in turn causes anxiety and discontentment in Pearl's own life. Each chapter focuses on a different individual from Pearl and Rhett's world.

Relationships are certainly at the core of this story, as the happiness of each individual in this cast of characters is linked to one another. Rhett's unhappiness is perceived by those around him. Rhett struggles with anorexia, which his parents and friends think is related to a trauma or a deep-rooted issue they must resolve. Pearl tests Rhett using the Apricity machine without his knowledge and gets a blank result. Convinced that she can guess Rhett's needs through trial and error, Pearl encourages her son to engage in behaviors that are harmless but have aggressive undertones. Once Pearl perceives her son to be happier, or at least content, Pearl is able to shift her attention to her own happiness as well as that of others.

From Rhett's perspective, we learn that his relationship with his father, Elliott, is improving and deepening. His father has remarried Val, the women Elliot cheated on Pearl with during their marriage. We also see how Val's childhood continues to haunt her to this day and how her discontentment causes angst with Elliott as she decides she cannot be with him if she is unable to be happy with herself.

As Rhett goes off to college, Pearl's attention further shifts away from her son. She finds a surrogate in a young actress named Calla. The actress has studio and management handlers controlling most aspects of her life. Pearl becomes a confidant to Calla and they form a deep friendship. Pearl also finds herself revisiting her relationship with Elliott, but both Elliott and Pearl recognize that neither is making the other happy.

In Tell the Machine Goodnight, technology plays an expected but not prominent role. While much of the action is focused around the Apricity machine, technology often takes a backseat, popping back in at random intervals to remind the reader that we are set in another time, arguably in the not so distant future. Aside from the Apricity Machine, we are told that homes have a "Home Management System" or HMS for short, which tracks movement in the house. We also know that people have tablets, not cell phones, but what that means exactly is not made clear. Late in the book, Calla and Pearl go into a privacy kiosk on the street. The walls of the kiosk form a scene below, above and around the person based on their preferences.

If there's any criticism of this novel, it's that the moments of technological world-building are so fleeting as to almost shock the reader when they appear in the text. Even with the Apricity machine at the core of the story, it's easy to forget the parameters that make this fictional world so special. Nevertheless, the brief glimpses of fictional technological advances are some of the most fascinating moments in the book.

While technology is central to the narrative, it's also important to note that this story does not primarily function as a warning about the future of technology, nor does it laud its utility. The technology in Williams' work is not the sole driver in the pursuit of happiness, nor does it function as an impediment. Technology is a tool, like anything else, and comes with its own set of limitations. With its large heart, compelling cast of characters and frighteningly-not-far-from-reality technology, Tell the Machine Goodnight is a story that will compel you to keep reading, while also allowing you the space to meditate on the understanding that happiness looks different for everyone.





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.