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The Turing Test

Chris Beckett

 
" And then when the train came in she promptly tried to step onto it. Of course she fell straight through onto the track, it being a virtual train, part of the Field, which couldn't bear physical weight, only the notional weight of consensual projections. She broke a small bone in her ankle. It hurt a great deal and she began to hobble up and down begging for someone to help her."

Reviewed by Tania Hershman

Chris Beckett's award-winning short story collection is bursting with imagination, enough to fill ten books, and once you read it, you may never be content to read anything "realist" again. For the worlds of Beckett's stories are not the ones we are familiar with, although they are never too far removed. The characters are, well, to say "human" would be limiting, but I mean it in the sense that we can identify with them, with their needs and desires, if not with the exact circumstances in which they find themselves. Isn't that the beauty of good fiction? You may be reading about a place you have never been, a situation you have never been in, but you feel what the characters feel, you go through it with them, and you are changed as a result of having read it. Well, this is as true for Beckett's fiction, although we may be in the future or on a different planet rather than in Alaska or in the head of someone off the opposite sex. These rich and compelling stories deal with issues that concern us all: love, war, identity, desire, loss, the nature of existence itself. 

Of these fourteen stories, written between 1991 and 2006 and almost all published first in British science fiction and fantasty magazine Interzone (see our blog for an interview with Chris Beckett about his 20-year relationship with Interzone), there are three pairs of stories that feature the same characters. One of these pairs of stories, The Perimeter and Picadilly Circus, I found extraordinarily  moving. In it, Beckett has painted our world in the near future when we realise that our planet cannot sustain all this human life. The majority of the population has chosen for their brains to sit in a vat while they live in a "consensual world" created by The Field and superimposed on the "physical world". In this consensual world, each person is given a virtual body, and the resolution of the image (high-res or low-res) depends on how much they are willing to pay: 

"Lemmy and his friends were Dotlanders. They were low-res enough to have visible pixels and they only had 128 colours apiece, except for James that is, whose parents had middle-class aspirations and had recently upgraded to 256. They were all low res and up in the West End they would all have looked like cartoon characters - even James - but down in Grey Town they looked like princes, the objects of envy and hate."

Lemmy has no idea he is "consensual", but then he follows a white hart wandering through town, meets Clarissa Fall, one of the few  "physicals" who decided not to have their brains put in a vat for eternity, and learns the truth. Beckett writes with simplicity and elegance, never ramming home to the reader just how this new society has exacerbated class divisions rather than narrowed them, limiting people's freedoms rather than enhancing their lives. 

In the second story, Clarissa herself is the heroine, elderly and longing once more to see the lights of the Picadilly Circus of her childhood. Her interactions with the consensuals, whom she can choose to see via an implanted switch, make this extremely poignant - she both wants not to be lured into this false world and to see the lights again, which only exist virtually, now that London is just a burnt out shell of itself. 

The remaining stories range far and wide.  There is the wonderful story of The Warrier Half-and Half, "the love child of an angel and a demon", immortal and possessed of immense powers, but destined always to balance out any good he does with equal evil so that the result is always zero. In Dark Eden, when a planned space mission to seek new life is cancelled due to the President's new priorities, the crew, comprised of a Turkish Air Force Officer, a devout Christian and a serial womanizer, decide to go anyway, but their illegal action has unintended consequences when the space police vehicle chasing them is destroyed and they and the two space cops are marooned. And The Gates of Troy, in which spoiled rich kid Alex longing to escape from his overbearing father, takes a cruise with a new schoolfriend and, he hopes, soulmate, but Alex's father turns up with time-travelling technology and Alex sees the truth about his friend. 

La Macchina is set in a future Florence where robots are the norm, but one robot, a museum security guard, seems to be breaking free from its bounds. The story begins:

 "On the first day I thought I would go and see David at the Accademia but what really caught my imagination wasn't David at all but The Captives....They were intended for a Pope's tomb but Michelangelo never finished them. The half-made figures seem to be struggling to free themselves from the lifeless stone. I liked them so much I went back again in the afternoon. And while I was standing there for the second time, someone spoke quietly beside me:

    'This is my favourite too.'

    I turned smiling. Beside me was a robot. "

Suffice it to say, the fate of this robot, which the Italians call la macchina diabolica, is not a happy one, but Beckett never quite goes where you are expecting, wrong-footing the reader delightfully, and never wrapping stories up neatly. He forces you to look at things differently, never telling one story in the same way as the next (first person, third person, alternating two characters' points of view). 

There are stories I found less compelling, in fact the ones that were closest to our reality didn't hit the spot for me as well as the stories in which Beckett truly lets his imagination go. Perhaps I was simply spoiled by the unfamiliar wonders in the other stories (fire horses, the Apiranians and their Motherhouse, the game of sky-ball, the language splice). Beckett sets a high standard for himself to live up to. 

The philosophies that his stories introduce are thought-provoking (in Valour we learn of a race which believes that everything comes in threes: three genders, and, instead of good and evil, Goodness, Valour and Evil.) Yet these are not manifestos nor vehicles for Beckett to educate us about his worldviews. They are gripping tales, which rarely allow you to put them down once you begin. 

Beckett's surprise win in the 2009 Edge Hill Short Story Prize, a small-press-published "genre" collection, beating heavyweights Anne Enright, Ali Smith and Shena Mackay and Gerard Donovan, really should not come as a surprise to anyone who has read his work. This is the essence of great storytelling. It is only a shame that the small press that published The Turing Test, Elastic Press, ceased its publishing operations in 2008. We need more small presses like these.

Read the title story from this collection on Chris Beckett's website

Tania Hershman is the editor of the Short Review. Her short story collection, The White Road and Other Stories, is published by Salt Modern Fiction.
Tania's other Short Reviews: Etgar Keret & Samir el-Youssef "Gaza Blues"

Melvin J. Bukiet "A Faker's Dozen"

Rusty Barnes "Breaking it Down"

Roy Kesey "All  Over"

John Klima (ed) "Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories"

Kelley Eskridge "Dangerous Space"

18 Lies and 3 Truths: StoryQuarterly 2007 Annual

Aimee Bender "Wilful Creatures"

Paddy O'Reilly "The End of the World"

Annie Clarkson "Winter Hands"

Yannick Murphy "In a Bear's Eye"

Declan Meade (ed) "Let's Be Alone Together"

Lise Erdrich "Night Train"

Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

Alexandra Chasin "Kissed By"

Tamar Yellin "Kafka in Bronteland"

Mary Miller "Big World"

Ali Smith "The First Person and Other Stories"

Petina Gappah "An Elegy for Easterly"

 

Publisher: Elastic Press

Publication Date: 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Awards: Winner, 2009 Edge Hill Short Story Prize 

Author bio: Chris Beckett's first story was published in Interzone in 1990, and his stories have since appeared in Britain, the US and Russia. His novel The Holy Machine was published in 2004 by Wildside Press and his second novel, Marcher by Leisure Books, in 2008. He lives in Cambridge with his wife and three children and lectures in social work.

Read an interview with Chris Beckett and read more about his relationship with Interzone on our blog.


Buy this book (used or new) from:

AbeBooks

The Author's Recommended Bookseller: Elastic Press

Amazon

Book Depository

BetterWorldBooks.Com

And...don't forget your local booksellers and independent book shops! Visit  IndieBound.org to find an independent bookstore near you in the US


If you liked this book you might also like....

Kelley Eskridge "Dangerous Space"

John Klima (ed) "Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories"

Daniel Marcus "Binding Energy"

What other reviewers thought:

Strange Horizons

The Guardian

Follow the Thread

Goodreads

SF Crow's Nest

This Place Here

Tony Ballantyne