Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

"The Turing Test" by Chris Beckett (Elastic Press, 2008)

Winner of the 2009 Edge Hill Short Story collection prize, ahead of Ali Smith et al. 14 stories, 243 pages. Sci-Fi/Fantasy, but then so is Borges, so are Greek Myths.

  • "The Turing Test" - Art using corpses; Virtual creations that pass the Turing Test; the narrator's relationship with a toyboy; dangerous streets. Themes: Meaning of Life. Reality and Reproduction.
  • "The Warrior Half and Half" - Theme: Relativity of Good and Evil
  • "Monsters" - Relativity of relationships. Narrator likes the son, but his unlikeable mother was right about him after all.
  • "The Gates of Troy" - Disowning inheritance. Son doesn't like rich father, though son's friend does.
  • "The Perimeter" - best of the lot so far. Questioning reality in a Matrix world. Disappointing end.
  • "Valour" - VR and voices from other worlds. Spiritual anomie, ending with "he's lost an awful lot of blood"
  • "Snapshots of Apiriana" - anthropological snapshots
  • "Piccadilly Circus" - continues "The Perimeter"
  • "Jazamine in the Green Wood" is set in a world where females dominate
  • "Dark Eden" is disappointing - another "new Eden" piece
  • "We Could be Sisters" continues "The Turing Test", introducing multiverses. p.186 gives me an SF tingle-up-the-spine.
  • "La Macchina" - coping with emergence of sentient robots. Tame ending, but fine until then.
  • "Karel's Prayer" - Theme: identity. For all I know, some of the plot's been done by Star Trek TNG, but all the same it's well done.
  • "The Marriage of Sky and Sea" - Anthropology explorer. The story starts fast and doesn't let up. p.230-231 are the best parts of a good story. Shades of Le Guin.

The dazzlement is deadpan, the narrators are unfazed by wonders. I guess this might impress people who don't read much SF - the "science" is mere backdrop. It's a strategy that works for SF-readers too - to them, the worlds are familiar and need little explanation.

Institutionalised religions (in this book there's no other type) don't fare well, and other meaning-of-life props ("identity", "the other") are undermined too. Deceptive appearances abound. Not only do people hide their feelings and misunderstand those of others, but the first person narrators confess their dissimilation. In the main the info-dumping's not too conspicuous - in "The Perimeter" it's done by way of an adult teaching a child. In "Piccadilly Circus" the narrator's conveniently writing a history book.

It seems to me that the author respects the readers and assumes they'll be hard to surprise, so plot-twists are often fore-shadowed. For example, in "Karel's Prayer" Mr Occam and Mr (doubting) Thomas challenge Karel's beliefs (Karel Capek first coined the term 'robot'), and standard TV interrogation strategies are assumed. "We Could be Sisters" starts with "Nature is profligate. All possible worlds exist. In one of them there was once an art gallery in Red Lion Street, London WC1, and its manager was a woman called Jessica Ferne", which given the title adumbrates the plot.

The final 4 stories plus "The Perimeter" are my favourites. The final story could easily serve as a metaphor for the whole mission. A celebrity anthropologist/author travels to other planets carrying a computer shaped like an egg. The computer's more than a dictaphone, it can write to order - "add a chapter about the Aristotle Complex. What we know of the early settlers, their motives, their desire to escape from decadence ... and so on. Themes: finality, no turning back, taking risks, a complete beak with the past [...] Neo romantic style with a small twist of hard-boiled. Oh and include three poetic sharp edge sentences. Just three. Low adjective count.". At the end the writer's boat is burnt (his space-ship destroyed), and he feels as if he's put down a burden. The egg says "A good ending for the book!" and the author replies "What book you idiot?". No longer a detached observer, he "went to the rope ladder and began to lower himself, carefully avoiding looking down."

At times there are apparent lapses that an editor could have ironed out

  • On p.75 there's "It's a windy night" then 3 lines later "she was winding him up"
  • p.99 has Mr Gruber going to a "grubby kitchen"
  • In a story about Classia Fall, the narrator's writing a book entitled "The Decline and Fall of Reality"
  • The language is pared down, but even so there are choppable words - e.g. in "We could be sisters" there's "its manager was a woman called Jessica Ferne" - why is 'a woman called' needed? Perhaps to indicate that Jessica wasn't a robot?

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