McEwan gets a doin’

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(c) Penguin

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Earlier this week I was burning the proverbial midnight oil writing a new blog-post about a recent visit I’d made to the National Museum of Scotland, where I’d seen an exhibition with the self-explanatory title Robots.  It was a coincidence, then, when I decided to take a break from my labours, surfed a bit on the Internet and found myself reading a Observer interview with author Ian McEwan, talking about his new novel Machines Like Me: which is about robots too.  And about the general implications that come with the existence of artificial intelligence, and the troubling fact that, in McEwan’s words, humanity is “in the process of handing over responsibility for safety, but also for ethical decisions, to machines.”

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Then, half-a-dozen paragraphs into the interview, I read an assertion by the interviewer, Tim Adams, and some more comments by McEwan, which made my jaw drop.  “McEwan has an abiding faith that novels are the best place to examine such ethical dilemmas, though he has little time for conventional science fiction. ‘There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.’”

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What? I thought.  Oh, come on

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I also thought: f**k off!

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I know from reading other interviews with McEwan that he’s no fan of science fiction and thus he’s unlikely to have read the very long list of sci-fi stories that do indeed deal with whether a machine that ‘seems like a human’ has ‘responsibilities and rights and all the rest.’  These include Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Ray Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains (1950), Harlan Ellison’s I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream (1967), Arthur C. Clarke’s literary version of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and dozens, if not hundreds of other things going back to Isaac Asimov’s robot stories of the 1940s (later collected as 1950’s I, Robot) and probably before that too.  But I thought McEwan would have vegged out on the sofa in front of the TV at least once or twice and let himself watch a classic science fiction movie dealing with the topic, such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), itself based on the afore-mentioned Philip K. Dick novel, or Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic version of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed (1977), or Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014) – so that he would have some awareness that writing about this theme is not some startlingly original idea on his part but one that has a long, long pedigree in science fiction.

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(c)Film 4/DNA Films/Universal Pictures

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Predictably, twitter was soon busy with science fiction enthusiasts pouring scorn on McEwan’s assumption that sci-fi writers had never entertained the thought that the creation of robots and artificial intelligence might have some interesting ethical ramifications.  Among them were a few modern writers of science fiction.  For example, Charlie Stross tweeted: “Famous literary author reinvents the wheel, says something profoundly stupid about genre fiction not having wheels, while standing in front of genre fiction motorway crammed nose-to-tail with genre fiction trucks.”  And Adam Roberts speculated about McEwan’s thinking if he ever decided to write an opera: “Obviously I never listen to opera because it’s all crap but I had this idea for two doomed young lovers, a duel and a fat lady singing a really high note and I thought: nobody’s ever done that before so I will.” 

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What also makes this a bit rich is another remark that McEwan made, this time in an interview for the Glasgow Herald, to the effect that he doesn’t like science fiction because he finds it unscientific: “Although I am fascinated by science in general, my toes curl when people are crossing the universe at a trillion times the speed of light because the empiricist in me is saying: ‘Well, if they’re exceeding the speed of light, then we have to have a whole new physics.’” 

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Hmm. The premise of Machines Like Me is that it takes place in 1982, though in a parallel universe where Alan Turing didn’t commit suicide in 1954 but lived on to revolutionise computer science, to the extent that artificial humans have been created. (Both male and female ones, called – amazingly original thinking, Ian! – Adams and Eves.)  These are super-intelligent and can read literature, fall in love and even, in the case of the male ones, achieve erections ‘thanks to a reservoir of distilled water’ in their buttocks.  But even if Alan Turing had still been on the go, I find the notion that human technology would have reached this advanced stage by 1982 as scientifically laughable as, well, the moon hurtling out of orbit and carrying 300 people on a moonbase away on a tour of the universe.  (Yes, Space 1999, I’m looking at you.)

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Still, maybe it isn’t so much McEwan’s fault that he’s blinkered.  Maybe it’s the fault of the literary bubble that surrounds him and his contemporaries, the fault of all the critics, publishers, agents, supplements, magazines and so on who between them create a micro-verse that’s so precious, pretentious and stuck-up it makes anyone who spends time in it blinkered.  Britain’s literary establishment despises anything that falls into the category of ‘genre’ fiction, be it science fiction, crime, horror, humour, whatever, yet when an acceptably literary ‘name’ repackages an idea that’s been knocking around genre fiction for decades, said ‘name’ is applauded for their innovation and genius.  Hence, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow (1991) got shortlisted for the Booker Prize, even though its premise of a world where time runs backwards was one that’d seen duty away back in Philip K. Dick’s Counter-Clock World (1967) and J.G. Ballard’s Mr F is Mr F (1961).  And I’ve heard folk enthuse about Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) (a novel that, incidentally, I like) as if Ishiguro was the first writer in history to put pen to paper about the subject of cloning.  Arthur C. Clarke (author of 1975’s Imperial Earth) or Ira Levin (author of 1976’s The Boys from Brazil) might disagree.  As might a certain Aldous Huxley, who once wrote a wee book called Brave New World (1932). 

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(c) Penguin

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Ironically, this disdain for genre fiction was not shared by some of the big names in Britain’s previous generation of ‘literary’ authors.  Both Anthony Burgess and Kingsley Amis (Martin’s dad) were happy to write science fiction, espionage thrillers and comedies and, in Amis’s case, a ghost story.  In 1983, Burgess put together a list of what he considered the 99 best novels written in English since the start of the second World War and he found space for science fiction ones by J.G. Ballard, Keith Roberts and George Orwell – after all, 1984 (1949) is sci-fi – as well as fantasy (Mervyn Peake), crime (Raymond Chandler) and spy (Ian Fleming) ones.  Kingsley Amis was a champion of traditional science fiction (though he loathed the ‘New Wave’ school of sci-fi that surfaced in the 1960s) and once wrote a book on the subject, New Maps of Hell (1960).

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It cuts both ways, of course.  The gatekeepers of respectable literary fiction would do well to take science fiction more seriously because, over the decades, the field has seen some great writers with great ideas – Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, William Gibson, Ursula K. LeGuin, Thomas M. Disch, Brian Aldiss, Harry Harrison and dozens of others – and it would be good if they were discovered by a wider readership.  But an awful lot of dire crap has been written in the name of science fiction too, often by fanboys – and they tended to be boys – who’d never read anything outside the parameters of sci-fi and who probably thought that Sir Walter Scott was the chief engineer on board the Starship Enterprise.  Even today, I suspect there are some sci-fi hacks whose work would improve (slightly) if they broadened their reading horizons and sampled something for a change that wasn’t science fiction.  (Personally, I have little time for the old-school likes of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt, and anything that takes place in a spaceship, space station or space colony and has more than a minimum of futuristic technobabble usually leaves me cold.  That said, I’m partial to the works of the technology-loving Arthur C. Clarke.)

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It’s a shame to see McEwan make a dick of himself like this because I actually like his books, especially Atonement (2001) and the faintly science-fictional The Child in Time (1987).  I certainly prefer his work to that of his mate Martin Amis, which I find largely unreadable.  And incidentally, I was really into McEwan’s earlier writings when I was a teenager.  This was the phase of McEwan’s career that produced the novel The Cement Garden (1978) and the short stories that were gathered together in the collections First Love, Last Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets (1978), all of which were dark, morbid and macabre.  In fact, they gave me the impression that McEwan was a horror writer.  I wonder how the genre-disdaining McEwan would react if I ran into him now and exclaimed: “Oi, Ian, you’re a master of horror – every bit as good as James Herbert and Stephen King!”  Yeah, I bet he’d really love that.

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Indeed, one of his stories from In Between the Sheets, Pornography, was included in the 22nd Pan Book of Horror Stories (1981).  Ha!

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(c) Pan Books

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One other thing.  If McEwan is as dismissive of science fiction as he makes out, it probably wasn’t wise to let the Observer take a photo of him dressed as Tom Baker, the fourth Doctor Who.   

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(c) Suki Dhanda / The Observer
(c) BBC

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