Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Turing Test, Chirs Beckett

Last year, I heard about this little collection of short stories, that in spite of being tales of science fiction, "surprising"ly picked up the Edge Hill Short Story Prize for 2009. The award, given out in the United Kingdom for the best short story collection, had a shortlist crowded with a winner and nominees of the prestigious Man Booker Prize. This literary rivalry left Chris Beckett as the long shot, with many people feeling that his SF would count against him in the competition. Not only to Becket's surprise, but to the self-admitting judges surprise also, The Turing Test walked away with the win. And it completely deserved it. As judge James Walton put it:
"...once the judging process started, it soon became clear that The Turing Test was the book that we'd all been impressed by, and enjoyed, the most—and one by one we admitted it."

Published by the now (sadly) defunct Elastic Press, Becket's collection is yet available from online retailers (USA- UK) in a mass market paperback format. Happily for me, as readers of this blog can probably imagine, Elastic Press also issued The Turing Test in limited hardcover edition, comprising of only twenty-six copies, lettered and signed by Beckett. While not up to the standards of traditional lettered editions (no slip or traycase, no illustrations, no high end papers or binding - even the limitation page was created through the use of a signed plate!), at least the book is bound in cloth and has nice gilded spine text. Despite this, I was more than happy to purchase this ridiculously scarce hardcover for a very reasonable price (as a side note, this pricing reinforces my argument that cash value is not a direct factor of rarity alone; though this really is a discussion for another posting). Anyone else interested in a hardcover edition can still find copies through specialty retailers, notably Bad Moon Books, who at the time of this writing still has a couple of copies left.

In either case, The Turing Test, is one remarkable collection. Some of the tales begin to form a cohesive backdrop for Beckett's writing. Both "The Perimeter" and "Piccadilly Circus"  posit a world were most every human has been uploaded into a virtual existence. These Consensuals, as they are known, however are not all created equal. As the power consumption and demand for so many digital humans is astronomical, a heavy price is placed on definition. A person with  limited resources may not be able to walk around and interact with the field in high-def. In fact, the most destitute may only be able to afford a generic gray outline with only a hint of interactive ability and negligible emotive power. But these conditions are still favorable to the broken down, weed ridden, detritus strewn wastelands that the world has now become. Only the old or crazy still exist as the lonesome sentinels of physical humanity, the Outsiders.

One of my favorite stories, "We Could Be Sisters" eludes to a group of wanderers who have the ability to shift into neighboring universes through the simple act of taking a certain drug. When one woman, Jessica, meets a beggar who bears a too-strong resemblance to her, we find out how we live everyday just moments from drastically altering our lives via unknown pathways and choices. The story is one of the best works of the bubble-universe theory that I have yet read. Earlier in the book we met Jessica in another short story - the title story- where she finds that even though her friends and co-workers might be rude, depressing and dull, there is something to be said for a the companionship of a live human being. Something that AI, no matter how life-like, will ever be able to replace. 

What really sets Beckett's work aside is his notable ability to create the setting as a character in and of itself. His world building is incredible. And while he works to deliver the scenes to us in a few meaningful sentences, he also tells the human stories, how they connect to the world and how they connect to each other. The Turing Test really is a collection that deserves to be read and one can hope the wining of Edge Hill will bring Beckett's work to a wider audience.

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