Tell the Machine Goodnight

Tell the Machine Goodnight

by Katie Williams

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"Sci-fi in its most perfect expression…Reading it is like having a lucid dream of six years from next week, filled with people you don't know, but will." —NPR

"[Williams’s] wit is sharp, but her touch is light, and her novel is a winner." – San Francisco Chronicle

"Between seasons of Black Mirror, look to Katie Williams' debut novel." Refinery29 

Smart and inventive, a page-turner that considers the elusive definition of happiness.

Pearl's job is to make people happy. As a technician for the Apricity Corporation, with its patented happiness machine, she provides customers with personalized recommendations for greater contentment. She's good at her job, her office manager tells her, successful. But how does one measure an emotion?

Meanwhile, there's Pearl's teenage son, Rhett. A sensitive kid who has forged an unconventional path through adolescence, Rhett seems to find greater satisfaction in being unhappy. The very rejection of joy is his own kind of "pursuit of happiness." As his mother, Pearl wants nothing more than to help Rhett--but is it for his sake or for hers? Certainly it would make Pearl happier. Regardless, her son is one person whose emotional life does not fall under the parameters of her job--not as happiness technician, and not as mother, either.

Told from an alternating cast of endearing characters from within Pearl and Rhett's world, Tell the Machine Goodnight delivers a smartly moving and entertaining story about the advance of technology and the ways that it can most surprise and define us. Along the way, Katie Williams playfully illuminates our national obsession with positive psychology, our reliance on quick fixes. What happens when these obsessions begin to overlap? With warmth, humor, and a clever touch, Williams taps into our collective unease about the modern world and allows us see it a little more clearly.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525533146
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/19/2018
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 200,174
File size: 902 KB

About the Author

Katie Williams's short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, American Short Fiction, Prairie Schooner, Subtropics, and elsewhere. Williams earned her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. She teaches writing and literature at Academy of Art University in San Francisco. She is the author of two young adult novels, The Space Between Trees and Absent. This is her first novel for adults.

Read an Excerpt


The Happiness Machine

Apricity (archaic): the feeling of sun on one's skin in the winter

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.

The man-in his early thirties, by Pearl's guess, and pinkish around the eyes and nose in the way of white rabbits or rats-lifted his right hand before his face with wonder. Up came his left, too, and he used its palm to press experimentally on the top of his right index finger, the finger in question. Is he going to cry? Pearl wondered. Sometimes people cried when they heard their recommendations. The conference room they'd put her in had glass walls, open to the workpods on the other side. There was a switch on the wall to fog the glass, though; Pearl could flick it if the man started to cry.

"I know that last one seems a bit out of left field," she said.

"Right field, you mean," the man-Pearl glanced at her list for his name, one Melvin Waxler-joked, his lips drawing up to reveal overlong front teeth. Rabbitier still. "Get it?" He waved his hand. "Right hand. Right field."

Pearl smiled obligingly, but Mr. Waxler had eyes only for his finger. He pressed its tip once more.

"A modest recommendation," Pearl said, "compared to some others I've seen."

"Oh sure, I know that," Waxler said. "My downstairs neighbor sat for your machine once. It told him to cease all contact with his brother." He pressed on the finger again. "He and his brother didn't argue or anything. Had a good relationship actually, or so my neighbor said. Supportive. Brotherly." Pressed it. "But he did it. Cut the guy off. Stopped talking to him, full stop." Pressed it. "And it worked. He says he's happier now. Says he didn't have a clue his brother was making him unhappy. His twin brother. Identical even. If I'm remembering." Clenched the hand into a fist. "But it turned out he was. Unhappy, that is. And the machine knew it, too."

"The recommendations can seem strange at first," Pearl began her spiel, memorized from the manual, "but we must keep in mind the Apricity machine uses a sophisticated metric, taking into account factors of which we're not consciously aware. The proof is borne out in the numbers. The Apricity system boasts a nearly one hundred percent approval rating. Ninety-nine point nine seven percent."

"And the point three percent?" The index finger popped up from Waxler's fist. It just wouldn't stay down.


Pearl allowed herself a glance at Mr. Waxler's fingertip, which appeared no different from the others on his hand but was its own aberration, according to Apricity. She imagined the fingertip popping off his hand like a cork from a bottle. When Pearl looked up again, she found that Waxler's gaze had shifted from his finger to her face. The two of them shared the small smile of strangers.

"You know what?" Waxler bent and straightened his finger. "I've never liked it much. This particular finger. It got slammed in a door when I was little, and ever since . . ." His lip drew up, revealing his teeth again, almost a wince.

"It pains you?"

"It doesn't hurt. It just feels . . . like it doesn't belong."

Pearl tapped a few commands into her screen and read what came back. "The surgical procedure carries minimal risk of infection and zero risk of mortality. Recovery time is negligible, a week, no more. And with a copy of your Apricity report-there, I've just sent that to you, HR, and your listed physician-your employer has agreed to cover all relevant costs."

Waxler's lip slid back down. "Hm. No reason not to then."

"No. No reason."

He thought a moment more. Pearl waited, careful to keep her expression neutral until he nodded the go-ahead. When he did, she tapped in the last command and, with a small burst of satisfaction, crossed his name off her list. Melvin Waxler. Done.

"I've also recommended that your workpod be reassigned to the eastern side of the building," she said, "near a window."

"Thank you. That'll be nice."

Pearl finished with the last prompt question, the one that would close the session and inch her closer to her quarterly bonus. "Mr. Waxler, would you say that you anticipate Apricity's recommendations will improve your overall life satisfaction?" This phrasing was from the updated training manual. The question used to be Will Apricity make you happier? but Legal had decided that the word happier was problematic.

"Seems like it could," Waxler said. "The finger thing might lower my typing speed." He shrugged. "But then there's more to life than typing speed."

"So . . . yes?"

"Sure. I mean, yes."

"Wonderful. Thank you for your time today."

Mr. Waxler rose to go, but then, as if struck by an impulse, he stopped and reached out for the Apricity 480, which sat on the table between them. Pearl had just last week been outfitted with the new model; sleeker than the Apricity 470 and smaller, too, the size of a deck of cards, the machine had fluted edges and a light gray casing that reflected a subtle sheen, like the smoke inside a fortune-teller's ball. Waxler's hand hovered over it.

"May I?" he said.

At Pearl's nod, he tapped the edge of the Apricity with the tip of the finger now scheduled to be amputated in-confirmations from both HR and the doctor's office had already arrived on Pearl's screen-a little over two weeks. Was it Pearl's imagination or did Mr. Waxler already stand a bit taller, as if an invisible yoke had been lifted from his shoulders? Was the pink around his eyes and nose now matched by a healthy flush to the cheek?

Waxler paused in the doorway. "Can I ask one more thing?"


"Does it have to be tangerines, or will any citrus do?"

pearl had worked as a contentment technician for the Apricity CorporationÕs San Francisco office since 2026. Nine years. While her colleagues hopped to new job titles or start-ups, Pearl stayed on. Pearl liked staying on. This was how sheÕd lived her life. After graduating college, Pearl had stayed on at the first place that had hired her, working as a nocturnal executive assistant for brokers trading in the Asian markets. After having her son, sheÕd stayed on at home until heÕd started school. After getting married to her college boyfriend, sheÕd stayed on as his wife, until Elliot had an affair and left her. Pearl was fine where she was, thatÕs all. She liked her work, sitting with customers who had purchased one of ApricityÕs three-tiered Contentment Assessment Packages, collecting their samples, and talking them through the results.

Her current assignment was a typical one. The customer, the up-and-coming San Francisco marketing firm !Huzzah!, had purchased Apricity's Platinum Package in the wake of an employee death, or, as Pearl's boss had put it, "A very un-merry Christmas and to one a goodnight!" Hours after the holiday party, a !Huzzah! copywriter had committed suicide in the office lounge. The night cleaning service had found the poor woman, but hours too late. Word of the death had made the rounds, of course, both its cause and its location. !Huzzah!'s January reports noted a decrease in worker productivity, an accompanying increase in complaints to HR. February's reports were grimmer still, the first weeks of March abysmal.

So !Huzzah! turned to the Apricity Corporation and, through them, Pearl, who'd been brought into !Huzzah!'s office in SoMa to create a contentment plan for each of the firm's fifty-four employees. Happiness is Apricity. That was the slogan. Pearl wondered what the dead copywriter would think of it.

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 Pearl's 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. Pearl had always marveled at this: to think that the solution to one's happiness lay next to the residue of the bagel one had eaten for breakfast!

But it was true. Pearl had sat for Apricity herself and felt its effects. Though for most of Pearl's life unhappiness had only ever been a mild emotion, not a cloud overhead, as she'd heard others describe it, surely nothing like the fog of a depressive, none of this bad weather. Pearl's unhappiness was more like the wisp of smoke from a snuffed candle. A birthday candle at that. Steady, stalwart, even-keeled: these were the words that had been applied to her since childhood. And she supposed she looked the part: dark hair cropped around her ears and neck in a tidy swimmer's cap; features pleasing but not too pretty; figure trim up top and round in the thighs and bottom, like one of those inflatable dolls that will rock back up after you punch it down. In fact, Pearl had been selected for her job as an Apricity technician because she possessed, as her boss had put it, "an aura of wooly contentment, like you have a blanket draped over your head."

"You rarely worry. You never despair," he'd gone on, while Pearl sat before him and tugged at the cuffs of the suit jacket she'd bought for the interview. "Your tears are drawn from the puddle, not the ocean. Are you happy right now? You are, aren't you?"

"I'm fine."

"You're fine! Yes!" he shouted at this revelation. "You store your happiness in a warehouse, not a coin pouch. It can be bought cheap!"

"Thank you?"

"You're very welcome. Look. This little guy likes you"-he'd indicated the Apricity 320 in prime position on his desk-"and that means I like you, too."

That interview had been nine years and sixteen Apricity models ago. Since then Pearl had suffered dozens more of her boss's vaguely insulting metaphors and had, more importantly, seen the Apricity system prove itself hundreds-no, thousands of times. While other tech companies shriveled into obsolescence or swelled into capitalistic behemoths, the Apricity Corporation, guided by its CEO and founder, Bradley Skrull, had stayed true to its mission. Happiness is Apricity. Yes, Pearl was a believer.

However, she was not so na•ve as to expect that everyone else must share her belief. While Pearl's next appointment of the day went nearly as smoothly as Mr. Waxler's-the man barely blinked at the recommendation that he divorce his wife and hire a series of reputable sex workers to fulfill his carnal needs-the appointment after that went unexpectedly poorly. The subject was a middle-aged web designer, and though Apricity's recommendation seemed a minor one, to adopt a religious practice, and though Pearl pointed out that this could be interpreted as anything from Catholicism to Wicca, the woman stormed out of the room, shouting that Pearl wanted her to become weak minded, and that this would suit her employer's purposes quite well, wouldn't it, now? Pearl sent a request to HR to schedule a follow-up appointment for the next day. Usually these situations righted themselves after the subject had had time to contemplate. Sometimes Apricity confronted people with their secret selves, and, as Pearl had tried to explain to the shouting woman, such a passionate reaction, even if negative, was surely a sign of just this.

Still, Pearl arrived home deflated-the metaphorical blanket over her head feeling a bit threadbare-to find her apartment empty. Surprisingly, stunningly empty. She made a circuit of the rooms twice before acknowledging that Rhett had, for the first time since he'd come back from the clinic, left the house of his own volition. A shiver ran through her and gathered, buzzing, beneath each of her fingernails. She fumbled with her screen, pulling it from the depths of her pocket and unfolding it.

"Just got home," she spoke into it.

k, came the eventual reply.

"You're not here," she said. What she wanted to say: Where the hell are you?

fnshd hw wnt out came back.

"Be home in time for dinner."

The alert that her message had been sent and received sounded like her screen had heaved a deep mechanical sigh.

Her apartment was in the outer avenues of the city's Richmond District. You could walk to the ocean, could see a corner of it even, gray and tumbling, if you pressed your cheek against the bathroom window and peered left. Pearl pictured Rhett alone on the beach, walking into the surf. But no, she shouldn't think that way. Rhett's absence from the apartment was a good thing. It was possible-wasn't it?-that he'd gone out with friends from his old school. Maybe one of them had thought of him and decided to call him up. Maybe Josiah, who'd seemed the best of the bunch. He'd been the last of them to stop visiting, had written Rhett at the clinic, had once pointed to one of the dark bruises that had patterned Rhett's limbs and said, Ouch, so sadly and sweetly it was as if the bruise were on his own arm, the blood pooling under the surface of his own unmarked skin.

Pearl said it now, out loud, in her empty apartment.


Speaking the word brought no pain.

To pass the hour until dinner, Pearl got out her latest modeling kit. The kits had been on Apricity's contentment plan for Pearl. She was nearly done with her latest, a trilobite from the Devonian period. She fitted together the last plates of the skeleton, using a tiny screwdriver to turn the tinier screws hidden beneath each synthetic bone. This completed, she brushed a pebbled leathery material with a thin coat of glue and fitted the fabric snugly over the exoskeleton. She paused and assessed. Yes. The trilobite was shaping up nicely.

When it came to her models, Pearl didn't skimp or rush. She ordered high-end kits, the hard parts produced with exactitude by a 3-D printer, the soft parts grown in a brew of artfully spliced DNA. Once again, Apricity had been correct in its assessment. Pearl felt near enough to happiness in that moment when she sliced open the cellophane of a new kit and inhaled the sharp smell of its artifice.

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