Postal Reading group
May 2020
Notes on the book The Turing Test by Chris Beckett

The Turing test is a collection of short stories by Chris Beckett, many of which were first published in the magazine Interzone between 1991 and 2006. The unifying feature of this collection of stories is that they are all set in future dystopian societies and include many elements which are currently the province of science fiction.

It often seems that it is difficult to write good short stories, with little space in which to develop a storyline or complex plots. Not surprisingly, the quality of the stories presented here is variable: a few appear undeveloped, or at least I failed to understand them; others start well, but have a weak ending; and some are really good. Some of the stories have a ‘follow up’ later in the collection, and some ideas and characters reappear in different settings.

I noticed that, throughout the book, even some of the weaker stories are often thought provoking, asking some of the big questions concerning human existence. Beyond this, typical topics of science fiction including robotics, genetic engineering, and interstellar travel are all represented in this collection. Hopefully, therefore, most readers, whether or not they are devotees of science fiction, will find something in this collection to capture their interest.

The first story which gives its title to the collection is a good case in point. Appropriately enough with a title like ‘The Turing test’ (named after Alan Turing’s famous imitation game in which a computer tries to fool its questioner into believing that it is human) it features artificial intelligence in the form of Ellie, an electronic personal assistant who “passes the Turing test in 99% of cases”. Unlike the rather spooky Amazon Alexa, this is much better, or worse, depending on your viewpoint. The story starts well with the witty remark “I run a London gallery specialising in contemporary art, which means of course that I deal largely in human body parts”, but sadly finishes before the author has fully explored the consequences of Ellie’s artificial intelligence. However, despite this, it still succeeds in posing questions concerning human identity and intention.

This story is also one of the ones which merits a follow up later in the book, this time featuring ‘shifting’ between worlds which are slightly different, yet related. This, of course, is similar to the ‘many worlds’ interpretation of quantum physics. This too raises important questions: are our twins in parallel universes different people because they have had vastly different experiences, or the same because they look identical, have shared parentage and so on? I’ve often thought that such possibilities would make a good theme for a full length novel, and perhaps in a different universe one has already been written!

One of my favourite stories in the collection was ‘The perimeter’ concerning the inhabitants of a virtual world which interacts with the physical world. This is similar to the idea that we are merely characters in an advanced computer simulation. While I don’t subscribe to this idea, I am aware that it is easier to dismiss it than it is to disprove it, especially when we don’t have Clarissa or Terence to show us the reality. Equally, of course, the virtual world is as real to its inhabitants as the physical world is to us. This story is followed up by ‘Piccadilly circus’ which continues Clarissa’s adventures and explores similar themes. Ultimately, perhaps, the credibility of this idea is reduced by the vast amounts of power which would be required by the computers to generate the virtual world. Certainly, I can’t see such a virtual world as being a solution to the problem of global warming!

Another good story was ‘Valour’ which also features virtual reality, but this time as a rather more advanced version of the technology which is already familiar to us. As the inhabitants of this future European nation increasingly prefer the virtual world to the real one, the story asks the question “what is all this cleverness for?” This is tantamount to questioning the meaning of life. While there are no easy answers, it raises further questions on what would constitute an answer, and whether one is even possible.

In summary I found this to be an interesting collection of stories. Although the quality of individual stories was variable, I believe that many were sufficiently thought provoking to make the collection worthwhile. Beyond this there are some amusing characters and occasional witty remarks. Although I doubt whether much of the technology will ever materialise, there are some interesting ideas here too. Anyone worried about the consequences of such technology can take comfort from history which has shown that predictions of the future are often wide of the mark. None of this makes the stories any less worthwhile, however.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler