Happiness is an amorphous thing, a kind of fog about which it is easier to speak peripherally—the pursuit of happiness, the idea of happiness, the absence of happiness. In Tell the Machine Goodnight, author Katie Williams considers a future in which the ingredients of happiness have not only been identified but also commodified.
Set a couple of decades from now, the novel centers on Pearl, a technician working for Apricity, the hot tech corporation of the day. Apricity designs oracles—machines that, given a sample of the user’s DNA, return a number of recommendations to improve the user’s life, to make them happier. The recommendations can be ambiguous or downright cryptic: “Eat tangerines”; “Wrap yourself in softest fabric”; “Tell someone.” More often than not, the connection between doing these things and experiencing greater happiness is unclear, but Pearl’s clients almost always follow the machine’s instructions. And they almost always report feeling satisfied with the results.
The Apricity construct is clever and flexible enough to support the weight of the narrative. Williams does an admirable job of weaving myriad characters’ stories together, with the Apricity machine as the intersection at which all the tales meet. Some of the characters treat the machine with unwavering reverence, others with outright disdain. Its recommendations are used as clues, divine prophecy and the basis for performance art.
But the novel is at its best when it pushes the technology to the background and turns instead to the emotional mechanics of happiness. Williams is a deft observer of small human details, and in moments when she pinpoints these details, the story shines.
For all its imaginative and speculative power, Tell the Machine Goodnight is not a particularly futuristic book. Its primary concern is something so fundamentally human that it transcends time—our insatiable need to feel better, to decipher whatever happiness means.