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Book Review

Book Cover

The Turing Test


Author: Chris Beckett
Elastic Press
RRP: £5.99, US $12.50
ISBN: 978 0 9553181 8 4
Available 01 August 2008

Reality is often a lot more tenuous than it initially seems. Safe behind our ‘I think, therefore I am’ barricades we comfort ourselves with uncertain certainties. But how do we really know the nature of internal and external reality, and what happens when our certainties start to erode? What is it that makes us human...?

The Turing Test is a fine collection of short stories by Chris Beckett, which examine the nature of reality and especially what it is that makes us human. Now that all sounds like it’s going to be a little on the heavy side and full of existential angst when in fact Beckett has produced fourteen stories, which, whilst they are thought provoking, are also immensely entertaining. These are stories with many possible layers. So, if you like spaceships and robots - a particular favourite of my own - then Beckett provides these in abundance, as well as deeply personal stories about the nature of humanity.

Like all good writers he produces a nice mix of ideas and characters, some of which he uses more than once. In The Turin Test, Jessica is an art dealer who mainly panders for those with a taste for flesh art. Arriving home one day she discovers that a colleague has allowed his holographic personal assistant to copy itself to Jessica’s computer. Faced with this new entity, in the form of Ellie, Jessica is disquieted by how much like a real person Ellie is. Feeling that Ellie may be self aware, Jessica distrusts this supposedly free software’s motives.

Although, initially paranoid about Ellie, the two turn up again in We Could be Sisters, where Jessica finds a duplicate of herself who is slipping through the dimensions using a drug. A drug which also brings another shifter to a world almost bereft of men in Jazamine in the Green Wood.

There is a dystopian feel to a lot of Beckett’s work. Jessica lives in a compartmentalised London where the impact of poverty has turned the county's capital into a patchwork of gated communities. This is possibly the precursor to the eventual Consensual Field depicted in The Perimeter and Piccadilly Circus, where the population have had their selves reduced to their most basic components so that they can live in a virtual reality London in order to escape the impact that the human race is having on the planet. Once again Beckett examines the nature of reality as the inhabitants of the Consensual Field have, for the most part, forgotten that they were once solid humans and view the few remaining humans, which encroach on their world, with derision and annoyance.

Clarrisa, the main protagonist of both stories, is a wonderfully rounded character. Initially, in The Perimeter, she is portrayed as slightly twisted as she spends her time introducing the Consensual’s inhabitants to the reality of their position. By the time of Piccadilly Circus this has turned into a loathing for their existence and self loathing for her own, making her a tragic figure.

Not all the stories are interlinked. Snapshots of Apirania is written as a travelogue of a trip to a distant planet. Here Beckett demonstrates humanities ability to take the wondrous and reduce it to the sort of mundane experience that most of us feel watching other peoples holiday snaps. The Warrior Half-and-Half proposes an immortal warrior, in its examination of the meaning and price of victory. Whereas Warrior is more fantasy, than science fiction, Dark Eden is an old style tale full of big space ships and the old Adam and Eve ending.

Two of my favourite stories, The Gates of Troy and La Macchina, show off Beckett’s writing at its best. Troy is a time travelling story about a rich kid, Alex, on holiday with his friend, Hannibal, whose father provides the three of them with a time machine to visit Troy. What could have been a shallow romp turns into a character study of the two friends different reaction to the pain and suffering that they witness. The brothers Tom and Fred in La Macchina mirror the relationship between Alex and Hannibal, with Tom providing the sympathetic voice of the story after he becomes troubled about the treatment given to robots that display sentience.

The entire book hold fourteen of Beckett’s short stories, with an introduction by Alastair Reynolds, and in truth they are all well worth reading.


Charles Packer

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