Authors of science fiction are sometimes unduly credited with predicting giant leaps in sci-tech, but the joy of reading them remains. Technology fiction came to be regarded as a serious literary sub-genre in the mid-20th century. The advent of the earliest computer, Alan Turing’s “Turing Machine,” and advancements in space exploration largely coincided with the works of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein who collectively spawned a new imagination of dystopian futures and alternate realities.
Following are quick reviews of three novels of no particular pattern or common theme, except for fitting the bill of sci/tech-fi in western English fiction. Forget the law for a moment and woo the literary muse.
Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan (2019) – The anachronistic narrative is set in a computerized London during the Falklands War. The United Kingdom suffers a crushing defeat to Argentina. Alan Turing invents the internet and is the brain behind 25 humanoid machines (no, he doesn’t take his own life). One of the machines of the male gender, Adam, is “a manufactured human with plausible intelligence and looks, believable motion and shifts of expression.” Charlie Friend, the narrator and AI enthusiast, purchases Adam who is sentient, has a self, and is somewhat in an offspring-parent relationship with Friend and his partner Miranda.
McEwan has refused to slot this work as sci-fi although he deploys familiar tropes like machines that behave like humans (the title is literal) and AI overpowering its creators. Layered on these is a story of human frailties, dilemmas and conflict. In a dramatic denouement, Turing berates Friend for smashing up Adam in a fit of rage. “You didn’t just negate an important argument for the rule of law. You tried to destroy a life,” the scientist says.
Should the law protect sentient AI from harm by humans – a volte-face from Isaac Asimov’s first rule that no robot shall harm a human? A more fundamental question is, what is sentience in machines? Is sentient AI “life”? Tech-fi is constantly spoilt for ideas.