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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Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 12

 

 

This post is about collocations, for which the Cambridge Dictionary gives the following definition: “a word or phrase that is often used with another word or phrase, in a way that sounds correct to people who have spoken the language all their lives, but might not be expected from the meaning.”  Collocations can involve verbs and nouns, as in ‘do your homework’; or adjectives and nouns, as in ‘heated argument’, or verbs and adverbs, as in ‘rain heavily’.

 

If, like me, you’ve spent part of your working life teaching the English language to non-native speakers of it, you’ll appreciate the difficulty students often have getting their heads around collocations in English.  I seem to have spent hours explaining to people that you don’t ‘write your homework’ but ‘do’ it; that calling an angry exchange a ‘hot argument’ just doesn’t sound right; and that you can’t describe extreme precipitation as ‘raining painfully’.  Note that with all these mistakes, I fully understood the meaning the speaker was trying to convey.  (The last mistake cropped up when I was working in a school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where, yes, it seemed to rain painfully every day.)

 

The problem is, we simply don’t put those particular words together to express those particular things.  It may well be that the reasons for certain collocations being right and other collocations being wrong are psychological, on the part of the listener, as much as they are linguistic, on the part of the language itself.  Also, it didn’t surprise me when I heard a language researcher claim one time that collocations are the biggest causes of mistakes in speaking and writing by high-level learners of English.

 

In literature, of course, the way in which a writer uses collocations can contribute greatly to his or her style.  Shunting together words that don’t normally collocate can add an inventive flourish to the prose.  However, if the results can be embarrassing if a writer overdoes it and the attempted collocation falls flat.  I still haven’t forgotten a sentence in an Anthony Burgess novel where a character ‘tramples’ a page with his ‘signature’ – ouch!  And I’ve read a review of Martin Amis’ 2012 novel Lionel Asbo – State of England, in which Amis is taken to task for the clumsiness of his writing – much of which is down to him trying to collocate words that have no business being collocated: for example, ‘Dawn sizzled…’, ‘unfallen eyes’ and ‘a heavy silence began to fuse and climb…’

 

Anyway, this is a prelude to saying that I recently noticed a mural painted on a wall outside a school on Colombo’s Duplication Road that makes heavy use of English collocations.  It pairs off various English verbs and adverbs so that the school-pupils receive a list of instructions about how to behave properly.  Some of the collocated verbs and adverbs work for me and some don’t.  I wonder if this is because the creator of the mural had mistaken ideas about what words collocate appropriately in English or if he or she simply stuck them together without knowing at all.  Or is it because these collocations have become acceptable in Sri Lankan English while it’s evolved apart from ‘standard’ English (whatever that is) over the years?  Or are they the result of literal translations from the local languages, Sinhala and Tamil?

 

By the way, I’m not trying to take a pop at Sri Lankan English here for being incorrect.  The dialect of English where I come from originally, Northern Ireland, has often been dismissed as being ungrammatical or uneducated or just plain incomprehensible, but I would absolutely defend people’s right to speak English that way.  And it contains some collocations of its own that would probably earn an arrest-warrant from the Standard-English Grammar Police: “It’s fierce hot,” “She’s a big age,” “The weather’s powerful today,” and so on.

 

 

So let’s see.  Which of the mural’s collocations work?  ‘Dress smartly’?  Obviously.  ‘Save regularly’?  Yes.  ‘Eat sensibly’?  I suppose so.  ‘Act fearlessly’?  Well, that’s a bit dramatic and it would be exhausting to act fearlessly all the time, but I guess it’s acceptable.  ‘Sleep sufficiently’?  Hmmm…  ‘Plan orderly’?  No, sorry.

 

Some of these collocations sound downright odd, yet I can think of certain people to whom they would make perfect sense.  ‘Spend intelligently’ – did you hear that, Mr. Johnny Depp, the man who last year was reputed to be blowing two million dollars a month on wine, staff, security, a private jet and 14 residences?  ‘Think truthfully’, meanwhile, would be excellent advice for Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Liam Fox, David Davis and the other members of Britain’s Brexiting Conservative government, who are currently possessed by self-delusion on an epic scale about Britain’s prospects after it leaves the European Union.

 

And ‘walk humbly’?  Well, I’m not quite sure how you would physically do that.  But I would advise this man to at least give it a try.

 

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© Stefan Rousseau / From the Times

From CBN News