Earlier this month, the winner was announced of the Edge Hill Prize for the Short Story. The shortlist included collections by a Booker Prize-winning author, and two former Booker nominees — and this Elastic Press book of science fiction stories by Chris Beckett. A classic case of tokenism, one might think — except that Beckett won.
‘It was…a bit of surprise to the judges, none of whom knew they were science fiction fans beforehand,’ commented one of the judging panel. Well, the obvious thing to say to that is that you don’t need to consider yourself a ‘science fiction fan’ to appreciate science fiction, any more than you have to be a ‘literary fiction fan’ to enjoy literary fiction (not, of course, that the two need be mutually exclusive). Readers interested in good fiction shouldn’t be surprised to find stories of interest in any given quarter — but apparently some still are.
Anyway, I don’t know the other books, but it’s not hard to see why the judges thought The Turing Test a winning book, because Beckett’s stories are superb. He’s especially good at examining human concerns against the background of a science-fictional future. The title story sums this up nicely. The ‘Turing test’ refers to a means of assessing whether an artificial intelligence is convincing enough in conversation to be indistinguishable from a human being. Our protagonist is a gallery owner named Jessica, who finds herself the recipient of a highly sophisticated ‘virtual PA’. Jessica is feeling rather insecure with life (one of her first acts is to ask the PA to change its avatar to something less attractive, and hence less threatening to her self-esteem), and the real question Beckett asks is not whether a computer could pass the Turing test, but whether a person could — perhaps Jessica’s greatest fear is that she could not.
The theme of artificial intelligence returns in ‘La Macchina’, where a man finds his ideas about robots challenged when he vists his brother in Italy. Robots are now commonplace, but they’re not supposed to talk to humans, except in superficial, rote ways — so when one tries to strike up a friendly conversation with our man, does that alone make it a ‘Rogue’ that could cause havoc, and hence needs to be destroyed? Then there’s the ‘Safe Brothel’ staffed by sinteticas made to look indistinguishable from human women — but sinteticas are more popular, so some human women pretend to be robots. What’s the protagonist to make of that? All adds up to a very different kind of robot story; the experience of reading it is distinctive.
The same could be said of many stories here; Beckett transforms SF staples with the ‘ordinary’ grounding he gives them. ‘Dark Eden’, for example, is a space opera where a small group of people travel to an exotic world — but the ups-and-downs of their relationships are not so different from ours. And ‘The Marriage of Sky and Sea’ puts yet another spin on the form with its tale of a spacefaring writer who makes a living from books about the cultures of more ‘primitive’ human colonies than his own — but his latest trip, to a Viking-style society, makes him question his attitude…
My favourite story in the book (which forms the first half of a pair) is about virtual reality, though with Beckett’s characteristic twist. ‘The Perimeter’ is set in a London where the vast majority of people are ‘consensuals’, living in a virtual world; and the more they can afford to pay, the higher their resolution. Only a few, very rich, individuals remain flesh and blood, inhabiting the ruined ‘real’ world, and able to experience the virtual reality through an implant. This story tells of how young consensual Lemmy meets the physical Clarissa Fall, and has his very sense of self challenged. But the tables are turned in ‘Piccadilly Circus’, where we meet Clarissa again a few years later, and she has to face up to her increasing irrelevance as a ‘physical’. To my mind, these stories — and ‘The Perimeter’ especially — have the best fusion of ideas and human consequences; but many of the other tales are almost as strong.
In his introduction to The Turing Test, Alastair Reynolds makes what has turned out to be a very appropriate comment: that he hopes the book will bring more attention to Chris Beckett’s fiction. He ends by saying, ‘I’m confident that you’ll finish The Turing Test wanting to turn more people on to this singularly underrated writer.’ So I’ll end by saying: yes. Yes, I do.