Posts Tagged ‘Isaac Asimov’

Radio 4 Serialising Ian McEwan’s Robot Book Next Week

April 23, 2019

I don’t belieeeve it! As the great Victor Meldrew used to say. Next week, according to the Radio Times for 27th April – 3rd May 2019, Radio 4 is serialising Ian McEwan’s latest literary offering, Machines Like Me, about a love triangle between a man, his wife and the android he has bought. It’s in ten parts, Monday to Fridays at 12.04 pm, and read by Anton Lesser.

I’ve already put up two posts about the book, which has only just been published. McEwan’s novel is one of a long-line of SF stories about humans falling in love, or pursuing sexual relationships with the humanoid robots they have built, such as Asimov’s ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’. Genre science fiction writers have explored the issues of machine consciousness and its philosophical and ethical issues, from highbrow authors like Poland’s Stanislaw Lem, to comic book writers like Pat Mills in 2000AD’s ‘ABC Warriors’. The issue I have with McEwan’s book, and other literary authors that are planning similar works of fiction, is that while genre science fiction is still looked down on somewhat by the literary elite, McEwan’s book is going to receive immediate acclaim as proper literature.

Now Radio 4 has serialised a number of great works of SF, including Robert Silverberg’s masterwork Dying Inside, and has, like some of the other channels, Radio 3 and Radio 4 Extra, put on SF plays. Not so long ago there was a series of these, with the title Dangerous Visions. SF buffs will recognise this as the title of the groundbreaking SF anthology edited by Harlan Ellison, that ushered in the SF New Wave over in America. But despite the achievements of genre SF authors, there is still this feeling that it hasn’t quite won critical respectability in the elevated literary circles that support McEwan, Jeanette Winterson, Kazuo Ishiguro and the other regular literary award winners, who are writing or preparing to write books about robots and AI.

As I’ve said, I feel very strongly that if McEwan and co. win literary awards for their SF works, like Machines Like Me, then those awards should have the decency to drop some of the snobbishness and include genre SF authors. Whose latest works I hope the Beeb will also serialise the moment they come out.

Reviewing the ‘I’s’ Review of Ian McEwan’s ‘Machines Like Me’

April 21, 2019

George Barr’s cover illo for Lloyd Biggle’s The Metallic Muse. From David Kyle, the Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas & Dreams (London: Hamlyn 1977).

The book’s pages of last Friday’s I , for 19th April 2019, carried a review by Jude Cook of Ian McEwan’s latest literary offering, a tale of a love triangle between a man, the male robot he has purchased, and his wife, a plot summed up in the review’s title, ‘Boy meets robot, robot falls for girl’. I’d already written a piece in anticipation of its publication on Thursday, based on a little snippet in Private Eye’s literary column that McEwan, Jeanette Winterson and Kazuo Ishiguro were all now turning to robots and AI for their subject matter, and the Eye expected other literary authors, like Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, to follow. My objection to this is that it appeared to be another instance of the literary elite taking their ideas from Science Fiction, while looking down on the genre and its writers. The literary establishment has moved on considerably, but I can still remember the late, and very talented Terry Pratchett complaining at the Cheltenham Literary Festival that the organisers had looked at him as if he was about to talk to all his waiting fans crammed into the room about motorcycle maintenance.

Cook’s review gave an outline of the plot and some of the philosophical issues discussed in the novel. Like the Eye’s piece, it also noted the plot’s similarity to that of the Channel 4 series, Humans. The book is set in an alternative 1982 in which the Beatles are still around and recording, Tony Benn is Prime Minister, but Britain has lost the Falklands War. It’s a world where Alan Turing is still alive, and has perfected machine consciousness. The book’s hero, Charlie, purchases one of the only 25 androids that have been manufactured, Adam. This is not a sex robot, but described as ‘capable of sex’, and which has an affair with the hero’s wife, Miranda. Adam is an increasing threat to Charlie, refusing to all his master to power him down. There’s also a subplot about a criminal coming forward to avenge the rape Miranda has suffered in the past, and a four year old boy about to be placed in the care system.

Cook states that McEwan discusses the philosophical issue of the Cartesian duality between mind and brain when Charlie makes contact with Turing, and that Charlie has to decide whether Adam is too dangerous to be allowed to continue among his flesh and blood counterparts, because

A Manichean machine-mind that can’t distinguish between a white lie and a harmful lie, or understand that revenge can sometimes be justified, is potentially lethal.

Cook declares that while this passage threatens to turn the book into a dry cerebral exercise, its engagement with the big questions is its strength, concluding

The novel’s presiding Prospero is Turing himself, who observes that AI is fatally flawed because life is “an open system… full of tricks and feints and ambiguities”. His great hope is that by its existence “we might be shocked in doing something about ourselves.”

Robots and the Edisonade

It’s an interesting review, but what it does not do is mention the vast amount of genre Science Fiction that has used robots to explore the human condition, the limits or otherwise of machine intelligence and the relationship between such machines and their creators, since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. There clearly seems to be a nod to Shelley with the name of this android, as the monster in her work, I think, is also called Adam. But Eando Binder – the nom de plume of the brothers Earl and Otto Binder, also wrote a series of stories in the 1930s and ’40s about a robot, Adam Link, one of which was entitled I, Robot, which was later used as the title of one of Asimov’s stories. And although the term ‘robot’ was first used of such machines by the Czech writer Karel Capek in his 1920s play, RUR, or Rossum’s Universal Robots, they first appeared in the 19th century. One of these was Villier de l’Isle-Adam, L’Eve Futur of 1884. This was about a robot woman invented by Thomas Edison. As one of the 19th centuries foremost inventors, Edison was the subject of a series of proto-SF novels, the Edisonades, in which his genius allowed him to create all manner of advanced machines. In another such tale, Edison invents a spaceship and weapons that allow humanity to travel to the planets and conquer Mars. McEwan’s book with its inclusion of Alan Turing is basically a modern Edisonade, but with the great computer pioneer rather than the 19th century electrician as its presiding scientific genius. Possibly later generations will have novels set in an alternative late 20th century where Stephen Hawking has invented warp drive, time travel or a device to take us into alternative realities via artificial Black Holes.

Robot Romances

As I said in my original article, there are any number of SF books about humans having affairs with robots, like Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, Lester del Rey’s Helen O’Loy and Asimov’s Satisfaction Guaranteed. The genre literature has also explored the moral and philosophical issues raised by the creation of intelligent machines. In much of this literature, robots are a threat, eventually turning on their masters, from Capek’s R.U.R. through to The Terminator and beyond. But some writers, like Asimov, have had a more optimistic view. In his 1950 I, Robot, a robot psychologist, Dr. Susan Calvin, describes them in a news interview as ‘a cleaner, better breed than we are’.

Lem’s Robots and Descartes

As for the philosophical issues, the Polish SF writer, Stanislaw Lem, explored them in some of his novels and short stories. One of these deals with the old problem, also dating back to Descartes, about whether we can truly know that there is an external world. The story’s hero, the space pilot Pirx, visits a leading cybernetician in his laboratory. This scientist has developed a series of computer minds. These exist, however, without robot bodies, but the minds themselves are being fed programmes which make them believe that they are real, embodied people living in the real world. One of these minds is of a beautiful woman with a scar on her shoulder from a previous love affair. Sometimes the recorded programmes jump a groove, creating instances of precognition or deja vu. But ultimately, all these minds are, no matter how human or how how real they believe themselves to be, are brains in vats. Just like Descartes speculated that a demon could stop people from believing in a real world by casting the illusion of a completely false one on the person they’ve possessed.

Morality and Tragedy in The ABC Warriors 

Some of these complex moral and personal issues have also been explored by comics, until recently viewed as one of the lowest forms of literature. In a 1980s ‘ABC Warriors’ story in 2000AD, Hammerstein, the leader of a band of heroic robot soldiers, remembers his earliest days. He was the third prototype of a series of robot soldiers. The first was an efficient killer, patriotically killing Communists, but exceeded its function. It couldn’t tell civilians from combatants, and so committed war crimes. The next was programmed with a set of morals, which causes it to become a pacifist. It is killed trying to persuade the enemy – the Volgans – to lay down their arms. Hammerstein is its successor. He has been given morals, but not to the depth that they impinge on his ability to kill. For example, enemy soldiers are ‘terrorists’. But those on our side are ‘freedom fighters’. When the enemy murders civilians, it’s an atrocity. When we kill civilians, it’s unavoidable casualties. As you can see, the writer and creator of the strip, Pat Mills, has very strong left-wing opinions.

Hammerstein’s programming is in conflict, so his female programmer takes him to a male robot psychiatrist, a man who definitely has romantic intentions towards her. They try to get Hammerstein to come out of his catatonic reverie by trying to provoke a genuine emotional reaction. So he’s exposed to all manner of stimuli, including great works of classical music, a documentary about Belsen, and the novels of Barbara Cartland. But the breakthrough finally comes when the psychiatrist tries to kiss his programmer. This provokes Hammerstein into a frenzied attack, in which he accidentally kills both. Trying to repair the damage he’s done, Hammerstein says plaintively ‘I tried to replace his head, but it wouldn’t screw back on.’

It’s a genuinely adult tale within the overall, action-oriented story in which the robots are sent to prevent a demon from Earth’s far future from destroying the Galaxy by destabilising the artificial Black and White Holes at the centre of Earth’s underground civilisation, which have been constructed as express routes to the stars. It’s an example of how the comics culture of the time was becoming more adult, and tackling rather more sophisticated themes.

Conclusion: Give Genre Authors Their Place at Literary Fiction Awards

It might seem a bit mean-spirited to compare McEwan’s latest book to its genre predecessors. After all, in most reviews of fiction all that is required is a brief description of the plot and the reviewer’s own feelings about the work, whether it’s done well or badly. But there is a point to this. As I’ve said, McEwan, Winterson, Ishiguro and the others, who may well follow their lead, are literary authors, whose work regularly wins the big literary prizes. They’re not genre authors, and the type of novels they write are arguably seen by the literary establishment as superior to that of genre Science Fiction. But here they’re taking over proper Science Fiction subjects – robots and parallel worlds – whose authors have extensively explored their moral and philosophical implications. This is a literature that can’t and shouldn’t be dismissed as trash, as Stanislaw Lem has done, and which the judges and critics of mainstream literary fiction still seem to do. McEwan’s work deserves to be put into the context of genre Science Fiction. The literary community may feel that it’s somehow superior, but it is very much of the same type as its genre predecessors, who did the themes first and, in my opinion, better.

There is absolutely no reason, given the quality of much SF literature, why this tale by McEwan should be entered for a literary award or reviewed by the kind of literary journals that wouldn’t touch genre science fiction with a barge pole, while genre SF writers are excluded. It’s high time that highbrow literary culture recognised and accepted works and writers of genre SF as equally worthy of respect and inclusion.

Private Eye: Literary Authors Now Turning to SF’s Robots for Subject Matter

April 17, 2019

According to this fortnight’s Private Eye, the British literary authors Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson and Kazuo Ishiguro are turning to the world of robots and AI for their next books. A brief snippet on page 34 of the issue for 19th April – 2nd May 2019 runs

For middle-aged authors looking for a reboot, the trendiness of artificial intelligence and robots is proving a godsend.

In Ian McEwan’s just-out Machines Like Me, a couple acquire a male synthetic human and a love triangle duly develops ( a set-up quite similar to the main storyline of Channel 4’s sci-fi drama Humans, with the robot’s gender switched).

In her forthcoming Frankissstein, Jeanette Winterson – unfazed by having missed last year’s Frankenstein anniversary – reworks Mary Shelley’s novel in a story featuring not only Victor Stein, a professor “leading the debate around AI”, but also a character who sells sex bots. Kazuo Ishiguro told the Oxford literary festival his next book will be about AI too… Who else? Rushdie? Amis? Jeffrey Archer? 

One of the complaints of the SF world back in the 1990s was that literary fiction, and writers like McEwan, Rushdie, Amis, Winterson and the rest of them were lifting ideas from Science Fiction to great critical acclaim, while the genre itself remained despised by literary critics and prizes. This seems to be yet another example.

Not all serious literary critics are dismissive of Science Fiction. The late J.G. Ballard and Ursula Le Guine managed to achieve mainstream critical appreciation, and some of the newspapers do give good review to SF books, like the Guardian and the I. And the years have passed since I heard the late Terry Pratchett speak at the Cheltenham Festival of Literary, telling the crowd that the Festival’s organisers seemed to look at him as if they expected him to give a talk on mending motorbikes. Brian Aldiss in his and Peter Wingrove’s history of SF, The Trillion  Year Spree, states that in the 1950s even pornography had a higher reputation among critics than Science Fiction. More recent critics and historians of the genre have pointed out that there never was quite the severe break between proper literature and Science Fiction in Britain as there was in America. Serious literary writers like Kingsley Amis and Anthony Burgess also wrote Science Fiction, as did C.S. Lewis and Conan Doyle. Nevertheless, I still get the impression that there is in certain literary quarters more than a little of the old literary disdain still remaining. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is dystopian Science Fiction, but she has still sneered at the genre as ‘talking squids in space’ apparently.

And looking at the plots of some of the books mentioned in the Eye article, I wondered how many of the literary types reading these pieces would be aware of similar works by some of the great genre SF writers. If you’re talking about romances between humans and robots, there’s Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, about a girl who has an affair with a robot, which is destroyed by jealous human males.  The robot scientist, Geoff Simons, mentions a series of SF tales about romances between people and robots, or the construction of sex robots, in his book Robots: The Quest for Living Machines (London: Cassell 1992) including Satisfaction Guaranteed (1951), by Isaac Asimov; Maria Bujanska’s Krwawa Maria (Bloody Mary), 1977, R. Forsyth’s ‘Silicon Valley of the Dolls’, 1979; The Pleasure Machines (1969); Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (1974) and such as Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966) and Sins of the Fleshapoids.

As for Frankenstein, Brian Aldiss has argued that Mary Shelley’s classic should be regarded as the first real work of Science Fiction, as it was based on genuine science, as it was understood in the early 19th century. He also wrote a book inspired by Shelley, Frankenstein Unbound, which is split between Shelley’s time and a technological future. It was later filmed by the old producer of low-budget SF, Roger Corman.

Winterson has previous in taking themes from science/ science fiction. Way back in the 1990s, when everyone was getting very excited at discovering a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) or ‘theory of everything’, she wrote a book, GUT Symmetries, about it and parallel world. She’s also written novels of feminist Magic Realism, following the feminist fairy tales of Angela Carter. But the Polish author, Stanislaw Lem, who wrote Solaris, filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky, also wrote a series of tales about robots, The Cyberiad and Mortal Engines, set in a fairy tale universe in which robots were the dominant life form. Another of Lem’s books is a series of philosophical explorations of machine and human intelligence and nature from the point of view of a vast computer that has far surpassed the intellects of its human makers. Lem was a high-brow author, who, after winning various awards from the Science Fiction community, then went on to decry Science Fiction, so he personally shared the sneering view of some mainstream literary critics. However, his books are still well worth reading.

And any literary exploration of robots, AI and the human condition inevitably involves Asimov’s robots of the books I, Robot and the Caves of Steel, and his Three Laws of Robotics, as well as William Gibson and Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk’s a form of SF set in dystopian near futures, where humans are able to ‘jack into’ cyberspace, a Virtual Reality inside the Web, and where AIs have consciousness and some rights. The classics of this genre include Gibson’s Neuromancer, Count Zero, Burning Chrome and Mona Lisa Overdrive.  One of his novels, relevant to any literary discussion of humans and AI, was Idoru, about a man, who has an affair with a Virtual celebrity. Gibson was very hip with his worlds of urban decay and high-tech criminality mixed with the glamour of the super-rich and celebrities. Shortly after Idoru was published, one of the Japanese tech firms declared they had created the first, computer-generated rock star. There was a powerful impression, shared by Gibson himself, that the computer industry looked to his books for ideas without accepting that his books were also part of SF’s tradition of ‘literature as warning’. His futures had great AIs and cool Virtual Reality and hackers, but they also featured poverty, despair and a massive gap between rich and poor.

And then there’s the film Bladerunner, one of the great SF classics, and the problems it poses about humanity and human capacity for compassion within the narrative of the detective thriller. It’s another dystopian future, where animals are all but extinct and humanity has created a class of artificial slaves, replicants. These are indistinguishable from real humans, except through psychological testing. The final speech by the replicant leader, Roy Batty, ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Set ships on fire off the shores of Orion’, written by actor Rutger Hauer, has itself become one of the classic speeches of cinema, and quoted and parodied by other SF writers.

In my opinion, whatever McEwan, Winterson and Ishiguro write about robots, genre writers will have got their first and done it better. And I wonder if the literary critics and award judges will recognise that when these books inevitably get put in for the Booker and other literary awards. And I also feel that when they are, these awards should be open to self-conscious genre writers. Because if the literary crowd can write about robots and win literary prizes for them, it’s only going to be snobbishness that keeps the genre SF writers from winning them too.  

Government Internet Censorship in Stephen Baxter’s ‘Titan’

July 6, 2017

One of the very real concerns about the current attacks on freedom of speech by British and American governments is these states’ demands for increasing powers to regulate and censor what is posted on-line. This has all been framed under the pretext of protecting the British and American peoples from pornography, especially paedophile, and terrorism.

Stephen Baxter is one of Britain’s leading writers of Hard SF. This is the subgenre of Science Fiction, which follows Asimov and Clarke in being based on real science, though obviously also with a greater or less degree of extrapolation and invention permitting the inclusion of FTL drives, AIs and aliens. Baxter’s best known for his Xelee sequence series of books. These are set in a universe dominated by the advanced and unknowable Xelee, an alien race so far ahead of humanity that humans and the other intelligent species compete with each other to scavenge bits and pieces of their technology. At the same time, the universe is being prematurely aged by the Photino Birds, dark matter creatures for whom the light and warmth of the universe of normal matter is a hostile environment.

Baxter has also written a number of novels set in an alternative world. In Voyage, he described a crewed NASA expedition to Mars, whose triumph – a successful Mars landing – comes just when the entire American space programme is cancelled. The book was adapted as a radio play and broadcast on Radio 4.

In Titan, published in 1995, Baxter tells the story of a group of NASA and JPL scientists and astronauts, who launch a manned expedition to Titan to investigate further the discovery of living biochemistry by the Cassini probe. This is to be NASA’s last hurrah after the crash of the Columbia space shuttle results in the cancellation of the manned space programme. The story begins in 2004, in a world that is almost identical to the present of the time the book was written.

There are a few exceptions, however. Amongst the new inventions of this future past are computerised tattoos, which change shape according to the wishes of the wearer, and soft computer/TV screens, which can be rolled up and pasted on walls like paper.

And one of the issues that is very alive is the American government’s ruthless censorship of the internet. This is discussed in one scene, where NASA’s head, Hadamard, meets Paula Benacerraf, an astronaut aboard the ill-fated Columbia mission, her daughter, Jackie, who is responsible for publishing the discovery of life on Saturn’s moon, and her young son, at an official ceremony in Texas to honour China’s first taikonaut, Jiang Li.

He found Paula Benacerraf, who was here with her daughter, and a kid, who looked bored and restless. Maybe he needed to pee, Hadamard thought sourly. On the daughter’s cheek was an image tattoo that was tuned to black; on her colourless dress she wore a simple, old-fashioned button-badge that said, mysteriously, ‘NED’.

Hadamard grunted. ‘I’ve seen a few of those blacked-out tattoos. I thought it was some kind of comms problem -‘
Jackie Benacerraf shook her head. ‘It’s a mute protest.’
‘At what?’
‘At shutting down the net.’
‘Oh. Right.’ Oh, Christ, he thought. She was talking about the Communications Decency Act, which had been extended during the winter. With a flurry of publicity about paedophiles and neo-Nazis and bomb-makers, the police had shut down and prosecuted any net service provider, who could be shown to have passed on any of the material that fell outside the provisions of the Act. And that was almost all of them.
‘I was never much of a net user,’ Hadamard admitted.
‘Just to get you up to date,’ Jackie Benacerraf said sourly, ‘we now have one licensed service provider, which is Disney-Coke, and all net access software has built-in-censorship filters. We’re just like China now, where everything goes through the official news agency, Xinhua; that poor space kid must feel right at home.’
Benacerraf raised an eyebrow at him. ‘She’s a journalist. Jackie takes these things seriously.’
Jackie scowled. ‘Wouldn’t you, if your career had just been f***ed over?’
[Censorship mine].
Hadamard shrugged; he didn’t have strong opinions.
The comprehensive net shutdown had been necessary because the tech-heads who loved all that stuff had proven too damn smart at getting around any reasonable restriction put in place. Like putting encoded messages of race-hate and smut into graphics files, for instance: that had meant banning all graphics and sound files, and the World Wide Web had just withered. He knew there had been some squealing among genuine discussion groups on the net, and academics and researchers who suddenly found their access to online libraries shut down, and businesses who were no longer allowed to send secure encrypted messages, and … But screw it. To Hadamard, the net had been just a big conduit of bullshit; everyone was better off without it.
(pp. 130-1).

This is Science Fiction as the literature of warning: against cuts to the space programme, and net censorship. It even mentions rising graduate unemployment, in a scene where Paula Benacerraf arranges a meeting with her team to discuss the possibility of launching a crewed mission to Titan. They meet at dinner party in Benacerraf’s house, served by her housekeeper, Kevin. Kevin is a fine art graduate, who is working as Benacerraf’s housekeeper in order to work off his student debt. His works are the usual horrors inflicted on the world by contemporary artists. In her only visit to his atelier, Benacerraf is shown a 1/4 size sculpture of himself which Kevin has gnawed from a block of lard. This is just a study for a full-size work, which he intends to gnaw from his own liposuctioned fat or faeces. As she and her guests are being served by Kevin, she reflects that he is like the majority of graduates, who will never have a job.

Well, the shuttle programme has been cancelled, but hopefully this will not prevent the further exploration of universe. The Chinese certainly are looking to put a person into space, and are believed to be aiming to land a human on the Moon by 2020. Baxter also mentions this in Titan in his description of the spacewoman’s mission to the Deep Black, where he states that this is believed to be in preparation for a moon landing in 2019.

And Baxter is absolutely correct about the demands for a comprehensive censorship of the internet by the British and American governments. The only difference is the terrorists the governments are panicking about are Islamist, rather than neo-Nazi. So far, the demands for censorship have been limited, so there isn’t the almost-complete shutdown of the net described in Baxter’s version of the recent past.

But this is still a very real danger, as these accompanying threat, which Baxter didn’t predict, of increased state surveillance of electronic communications, for the same reasons as censorship.

Someone once remarked that all science fiction is really about the issues of the time they were set. Titan reflects the fears about the internet that were present back in the 1990s, when it was first emerging. These fears, and the consequent demands by government to censor nearly everything we see or read online, are still very real, and Baxter’s book is still very relevant.