TagChris Beckett

Clarke Award 2013: And the winner is…

Quite a belated announcement at this point, but this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award went to Dark Eden by Chris Beckett. Not the result I had predicted, but that’s the Clarke for you.

All congratulations to Chris Beckett, who’s a writer I think deserves to be much more widely read. I didn’t get around to reviewing Dark Eden properly, so instead let me point you to some of my previous reviews of Beckett’s work: I’ve written about his Edge Hill Prize-winning collection The Turing Test (and did a guest post for Gav Pugh’s blog on the title story); and I considered his novel The Holy Machine (in a double review with Naomi Wood’s The Godless Boys).

Faith, Love, and Hatred: Chris Beckett and Naomi Wood

Chris Beckett, The Holy Machine (2004)
Naomi Wood, The Godless Boys (2011)

The two books I’m discussing today revolve around small atheist communities in worlds dominated by religious belief. Though they take their stories in different directions, both examine what kind of role faith may play in someone’s life (and what may fill a similar role in its absence), and offer fascinating studies of characters caught at the intersection of faith and non-belief.

Chris Beckett’s 2004 debut The Holy Machine is narrated by George Simling, a translator in the Balkan city-state of Illyria, a nation founded on the principles of rationalism after the rest of the world was taken over by religious extremists. George’s only company is his mother Ruth, a former scientist who has retreated from the world and now spends most of her time in the virtual reality of SenSpace. As a result, for all the material comforts in his life, George is missing true human contact (‘I spoke eight languages fluently, but I had no one to talk to and nothing to say’, p. 3).

George finds himself getting involved in radical groups who feel that, in its hard-line take on rationalism, Illyria is becoming as oppressive a place as the world’s fundamentalist states (and, indeed, the Illyrian government begins to persecute its foreign ‘guestworkers’ purely because they are uneducated). But even this does not provide him with what his is seeking; instead, George falls in love with Lucy, a syntec (a robot designed to be indistinguishable from a human) programmed for sex. Slowly, Lucy is becoming self-aware, and when the authorities announce plans to reprogram syntecs every six months to prevent their going out of control, George decides that he must escape from Illyria with the robot, even though syntecs are considered blasphemous (and therefore to be destroyed) in the outside world.

The Holy Machine examines several complex issues, and refuses to draw neat conclusions about them. One such issue is the relative merits of religion and science, and Beckett creates no simple opposition between the two; I’ve already described how Illyria is shown to be pretty much as intolerant and repressive as the religious nations of the book, but the issue is also explored through the character of George Simling himself. George is not religious, and his conversations with some of the believers he meets show how shaky the foundations of their beliefs really are. Yet George’s reaction to Lucy has a similarly flimsy basis, and his journey through the world beyond Illyria increasingly takes on the character of a pilgrimage, as he searches for the ‘Holy Machine’ of the title, a robot which is said to have a soul. ‘You’re actually just like an Illyrian atheist!’ George shouts at one priest. ‘You look at the appearance and not at what’s inside!’ (p. 221) Neither faith nor rationalism can entirely give George what he is looking for, but aspects of both are important to him.

Another key question posed by Beckett’s novel is that of just what it is that makes us human. The whole way in which George falls in love (or believes he does) and decides to run away with Lucy is clearly impulsive; he knows that Lucy is really an ‘it’ rather than a ‘she’, that the syntec will never belong to the natural world however much it comes to comprehend – but he can’t bring himself to admit this, and becomes shocked and angry when forced to confront the fact of Lucy’s mechanical nature. Contrasting with this, we have the character of Ruth Simling, who in a sense is the opposite of Lucy; whilst the syntec is a machine which at least appears to be turning more human, Ruth is a human merging with a machine – she spends so much time in SenSpace that her body wastes away and her consciousness has to be wired directly into the virtual reality. What is it, then, that makes characters human in The Holy Machine? Body? Sentience? The ‘human spirit’ championed by George’s radical associates? The question is left open.

By novel’s end, the principal characters have found a peace of sorts, and George might even have filled the gap he felt in his life. A search with a more concrete objective provides the impetus for Naomi Wood’s first novel, The Godless Boys. The Church gained political power over its alternate England in 1950, and a series of riots led to members of the Secular Movement being sent to ‘the Island’, where they and their children now live in isolation. The Malades, a gang of boys born and bred on the Island, have taken it upon themselves to root out any English spies or believers; they’ll attack the houses and persons of anyone they suspect.

In the last week of November 1986, a girl named Sarah Wicks stows away on the last boat of the year bringing supplies from England; she intends to find her mother Laura, who was involved in a church-burning ten years previously, and may have been deported to the Island. Sarah is discovered by Nathaniel Malraux, one of the Malades, who falls in love with her, and tries to keep her existence a secret from his fellow gang-members; inevitably, though, he can’t do so forever.

Wood creates a wonderful sense of place in her novel. Cut off from the technological advances of England, the Island feels like a community out of time, one that’s almost hermetic (an impression reinforced by the fact that we don’t actually see life on the mainland, nor even hear mention of the other countries in our British Isles). It’s a community where the glorious optimism of independence has been replaced by inertia (‘Now the Islanders were free to do what they wanted, and they did very little,’ p. 189). Wood evokes the drabness of this place through the detail in her prose; and her careful use of dialect words (all the Islanders speak a north-eastern dialect; as a rebellion that would have been at least as much political as religious, the Secular Movement appears to have been a largely regional phenomenon) also goes a long way towards constructing the novel’s atmosphere, in a nicely subtle way.

The issue of religious faith itself impinges on The Godless Boys in a different way than on The Holy Machine; we see much of Wood’s novel through the eyes of characters who don’t truly understand what religion is, but they do know that their parents were against it; for those young people, it’s as much a political issue as anything, or even a matter of tradition. Nathaniel emphasises to the Malades the importance of knowing their history (‘You have to go [to the Island’s museum] often…so you can ken your past…You’ve got to go so you can understand who you are,’ p. 17); but one of his fellow young Islanders, Eliza Michalka, finds the letters INRI in the Island’s ruined church, and doesn’t know what it signifies.

The only truly religious character in the novel is John Verger, one of the original exiles, who later found God whilst wandering through the remains of the very church he helped to burn down. Verger’s faith is shown to be a guiding hand and source of comfort in his life, which is elastic enough to hold, whatever the circumstances. To the Malades, in contrast, what religion really represents is the opposite of the wild freedom offered by the Island; as one of them, Jakob Lawrence, reflects:

Jake had felt sick when he’d first seen these paintings of Christ. To be so coddled, he thought, with blurry distaste, to be so watched, was as abhorrent to him as his rare imaginings of what went on in England, with its damp and girlish God, and its feeble, pandering folk. (p. 209)

As with The Holy Machine, there are pairs of characters who may be seen as opposites: Sarah comes to the Island in search of answers; Eliza yearns to leave it for the life that she wants. Nathaniel’s love for Sarah and fondness for John Verger (who brought his parents together) leads him to feel conflicted over the gang’s activities; Jake, on the other hand, takes a much firmer stance. All these matters come to a head in the finale of The Godless Boys, which is brilliantly tense.

Both Wood and Beckett create worlds through which their characters negotiate with some difficulty. Some find their way, others don’t; some get what they wanted, others don’t even know what that is. It all makes, though, for a pair of very interesting and compelling novels.

Links

The Holy Machine
Chris Beckett’s website
An extract from the novel at Infinity Plus.
Other reviews: Michael Levy for Strange Horizons; Niall Alexander at The Speculative Scotsman; Paul Graham Raven at Velcro City Tourist Board.

The Godless Boys
An extract from the novel at Litro.
Metro interview with Naomi Wood.
Other reviews: Harry Slater for Libri Populous; Karen McCandless for Bookmunch; Mary Fitzgerald for The Observer.

Chris Beckett’s ‘The Turing Test’: a guest post on NextRead

Gav Pugh of the NextRead blog devoted last month to posts about short stories. He published a number of guest reviews during the month, and was kind enough to accept one of mine. I decided to go back to Chris Beckett’s collection The Turing Test (which I reviewed here last year), and look at the title story in more detail.

My review of ‘The Turing Test’ is here, and you can read the story itself here. While you’re at NextRead, be sure to check out the other Short Story Month posts; there’s quite a variety of stuff covered in them. My thanks to Gav for posting my review, and for highlighting short fiction in this way.

Chris Beckett, ‘Johnny’s New Job’ (2010)

Chris Beckett’s professional background is in social work, and (he says in his guest editorial) he was inspired to write ‘Johnny’s New Job’ by reactions to the Baby P case. In Beckett’s story, a girl’s ‘wicked stepfather’ leaves her to die down a well. This is judged to be the fault of Welfare, and a Welfare Officer is denounced in public by the Chief Accuser. A crowd of people (including the titular Johnny) is soon out for the Welfare Officer’s blood — and so events move inexorably on…

As a satire on kneejerk reactions, the flow of this story may not be too difficult to anticipate — but I suspect that’s rather the point. Beckett constructs his tale as a kind of larger-than-life fable: many characters are identified en masse or by role, rather than by name, so they come to represent more than just individuals (and even Johnny is something of an everyman), and the telling has a folk-tale quality about it. ‘Johnny’s New Job’ is swift, sharp, and very good indeed.

Links
Chris Beckett’s website
My review of The Turing Test, Beckett’s Edge Hill Prize-winning collection

This story appears in issue 227 of Interzone. Read all my blog posts about that issue here.

Eastercon: Odyssey 2010

I’m back from my first full Eastercon, and what an experience it was. For those who don’t know, Eastercon (to borrow an idea from Gareth L. Powell) is something like a Glastonbury Festival for science fiction, only in a hotel. Probably, no two attendees experience quite the same thing, as an Eastercon can seem less like one event than an amalgamation of four or five different ones. But there are programmed items of various kinds (such as panel discussions, talks, and workshops), mixed in with plenty of socialising.

It was great to catch up with old friends (Nick, Gary, Tony, and everyone else) and meet new ones. There was quite a lot of meeting new people, including those I already knew from online, some I knew of but hadn’t interacted with personally, and others I hadn’t known in any capacity — but I am glad to have met them all. In alphabetical order: Liz Batty, Claire Brialey, Nic Clarke, Niall Harrison, John Jarrold, Gareth D. Jones, Caroline Mullan, Abigail Nussbaum, Alison Page, Paul Graham Raven. And I know there were other people there I know online whom I didn’t get a chance to meet — some other time, hopefully.

Though I’ve been to other conventions before, this was the first where I was a participant — in Niall’s panel on the conlcusion to the BSFA survey, along with Claire, John, and Caroline. Naturally, I was nervous to begin with, but in the end I rather enjoyed it, and now like the idea of doing another one. I’m not going to attempt to summarise what we discussed; Niall intends to post a transcript in the near future — I hope you’ll find it interesting.

Other events I attended included: various panels on topics such as reviewing, anthologies, the Clarke Award (whose consensus was that The City & the City should win), grammar (the most heated of all discussions to which I went), and the definition of ‘mainstream’ (which is likely to inspire a separate blog post from me); an apple-tasting workshop (from which I conclude that, indeed, apples do not all taste the same; a gig by Mitch Benn (‘this is the closest I get to a homecoming gig’), and the BSFA awards (congratulations to all the winners, but particularly to Nick Lowe, who won for his Interzone film column — great to see that being recognised). [EDIT, 9.20pm: Somehow I omitted to mention Ben Goldacre‘s excellent talk on bad science. Consider that rectified!]

One of the things that sets conventions like Eastercon apart from other kinds of literary festival is that authors (including the Guests of Honour) are as much a part of the crowd as anyone else — which means you never quite know whom you’ll encounter, or how. I had a couple of those surprising moments: looking through the Dealers’ Room, I came to the TTA Press stall, where I saw a copy of Marcher by Chris Beckett. I very much enjoyed his story collection The Turing Test last year, so I decided to buy the novel — and did a double-take when I realised that the person currently staffing the stall was Beckett himself.

But my biggest surprise of the convention came when I went to the launch of Jetse de Vries’ new anthology, Shine — and Alastair Reynolds (who was a Guest of Honour) walked up to me and said, ‘You’re David, you just reviewed Terminal World, didn’t you?’ I didn’t expect that to happen…

So, I returned from Eastercon having had a great weekend, with many more books than I intended (this has been the case with every sf/fantasy convention I’ve been to), and looking forward to next year’s. My thanks to everyone involved in Odyssey for all their hard work in staging the event.

The Turing Test by Chris Beckett (2008)

4102ooW3sWL._SL160_AA115_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.

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