Monday, 15 April 2019

Ian McEwan is patronisingly ill-read (and maybe should watch a film or two?)

Ian McEwan has written a new novel - Machines Like Me - that looks at the ethics around artificial intelligence. I haven't read the book and it might be utterly brilliant. What can't be left festering there, however, is McEwan dismissing 200 years of science fiction writing in one sentence:
McEwan has an abiding faith that novels are the best place to examine such ethical dilemmas, though he has little time for conventional science fiction. “There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.”
Seriously? What on earth does McEwan think Frankenstein - the seminal science fiction novel - is about if it isn't about "being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you"? This is the problem with literary novelists who discover SF and then pretend that nobody ever in the whole history of literature has ever considered those issues the oh-so-fucking-smartass-literary novelist wants to explore.

The contempt in McEwans' dismissal - "not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots" - shows a pathetic ignorance of science fiction. McEwan doesn't even seem to have got around to watching blockbuster SF movies - if he had, he'd have noticed that the whole premise of 'Bladerunner' was that it's hard to tell the difference between humans and humanity's machines. You'd have thought that, maybe - just maybe, McEwan might have run into the writing of Iain Banks at some point in his reading. Especially when he was planning to explore the ethics around artificial intelligence - something that's right bang in the middle of Banks' 'The Culture' series of novels.

I could go on, talk about Olof Stapledon, Brian Aldiss, John Brunner and new wave science fiction. Maybe mention the cyberpunk movement or cite Paolo Bacigalupi's 'Windup Girl'. But it is a fruitless task because I know that, at some point in the next year or so, some grand literary novelist will turn his or her hand to spec fiction and, in doing so, claim that what they're doing is finding some sort of new direction for novel writing rather than joining hundreds of other great writers who chose to create SF - not "conventional" SF (although some space opera is great) but thoughtful, intelligent examinations of the dilemmas given to humanity by the growth of technology and the pushed boundaries of science.

And the saddest thing is that, rather than acting to break down the chasm between SF and literary fiction, the work of a grandee like McEwan will be feted while commenters chitter around him agreeing - because they've never read any and SF is just Star Trek and Star Wars - that its good that real writers are looking at the ethics of AI.


1 comment:

Sackerson said...

One possible explanation: "When I want to read a novel," said Benjamin Disraeli, "I write one."