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REVIEW – Genesis (2006) by Bernard Beckett

June 17, 2009

Strange Horizons have my review of Bernard Beckett’s Genesis.  Originally published in 2006, the novel won a few awards and is now getting a wider release (including one with a Young Adult-oriented cover).

I really enjoyed writing the review and thinking about the more technical elements of the novel (an aspect of genre writing that is frequently overlooked) but the positive evaluation (my first for a work of SF in a little while) was really not assured until I actually wrote the conclusion of the review.  Initially, upon finishing Genesis, my sense of disgust and betrayal at the ending was so visceral that I nearly threw the book into the nearest bin. But after sitting on the book for a few weeks before attempting a review, my view of the ending mellowed as my appreciation for the book’s other elements grew.

Genesis also brought to mind a couple of other points that I couldn’t manage to squeeze into the review :

Book Cover

Book Cover

Firstly, the book’s experimental structure is reminiscent of John Langan’s short story “Technicolor”.  One of the stand-out stories of Ellen Datlow’s decidedly uneven anthology Poe (reviewed by me at Strange Horizons), “Technicolor” takes the form of a university lecture about Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death”.  As with Genesis‘ oral examination format, “Technicolor”‘s structure as a lecturer speaking directly to both his audience and the reader allows ideas to be engaged with directly without their needing to be dramatised.  However, as with Genesis, “Technicolor” also has a melodramatic twist-in-the-tail ending.  This ending works slightly better than that of Genesis but it still shows that authors experimenting with this kind of direct engagement with ideas feel somehow exposed and compelled to scuttle back into conventional structures for their endings.  In my review, I mention that Stapledon’s lecture-like works never felt this urge and I could not help but wonder whether what we’re seeing in Langan and Beckett is not a lack of confidence in their own prose. a lack of confidence never felt by Stapledon who relied upon his writing and ideas far more than traditional narrative techniques such as the ubiquitous and much over-rated “strong character we can identify with”.

Book Cover

Book Cover

Secondly, while I think it makes sense within the context of the book, Genesis is another in an increasingly long line of works of SF that try to engage with contemporary psychology only to collapse back into notions of folk psychology.  Much like Peter Watts’ Blindsight (reviewed by me at my old site), the book invokes John Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment as a touchstone for what it is to be genuinely human or genuinely conscious.  In Genesis, Adam accuses Art of being a chinese room; a series of boxes and arrows that is able to take in information and give appropriate responses without ever being aware of what that information actually means.  Similarly, the main protagonist of Blindsight had part of his brain removed, leaving him as a chinese room.

The Chinese Room functions as an argument by appealing to our intuitions.  A room which merely processes information does not intuitively constitute ‘understanding’ and so we must conclude that computers are not genuinely intelligent or conscious.  But the thought experiment does not really take us beyond our intuitions.  It starts from the assumption that ‘understanding’ is something that does not appear from mechanical processes, then it details some mechanical processes and concludes that mechanical processes do not result in understanding.  If one were to respond that one’s intuitions suggest that there is no meaningful distinction between the room’s evident intelligence and real intelligence then Searle has very little to say to you.

What I find frustrating about SFs treatment of issues of consciousness and artificial intelligence is that, by and large, it struggles to get past Searle’s intuition.  For example, Blindsight allows for the existence of non-conscious intelligence and embraces the idea that the human self is largely a folk psychological construct we use to try to make sense of our own opaque neural processes, but rather than concluding that this is all human cognition actually is, the book maintains the existence of consciousness, suggesting that it is a different form of cognition to the AI/Alien Chinese Room-style inteligences.

Genesis responds to the Chinese Room by having Art pick holes in the experiment.  He asks how the room decides what answer to give.  What would the room say if the person outside it threatened to burn the building down?  How would the room decide between saying “please don’t do that” or “I’m coming out to kick your arse”?  Whatever it is that makes these decisions, according to Art, displays understanding and the same kind of cognitive capacity possesed by humans.  In other words, Art responds “I disagree with your intuitions”.  The intuitions the book champions are that consciousness and understanding are real psychological characteristics and that computers do possess them.  So for all of Genesis’ erudition and argument, the book’s engagement with understandings of consciousness and artificial intelligence boil down to “You’re not intelligent!”  “Am too!”.

What is the minimum degree of sophistication a book must demonstrate in order for one to say that it is engaging with a set of ideas rather than posturing with them?

2 Comments
  1. June 18, 2009 12:06 am

    When people (or writers, being people) cannot admit that Form=Function, that a thing shaped exactly like a brain IS a brain, then they really subscribe to the mythological notion of a ghost (“soul”) in the machine (the human brain).

    Having said that, I wholeheartedly support writing speculative fiction about the nature of consciousness, or alternative forms of consciousness, or new models of it…

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  2. June 22, 2009 5:13 pm

    To be fair, the brain does seem to be singularly transparent to our intuitive understanding of it. But then if consciousness is a product of the brain then I suppose said consciousness attempting to understand the brain is a bit like warmth trying to understand fur :-)

    I wish SF dealt more aggressively with contemporary psychology. But other than that Egan story whose name escapes me (“Mister Volition”?), I haven’t seen a take on it that didn’t cop out.

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