Blog: Turning Pages: Ian McEwan joins the Artificial Intelligence club – Sydney Morning Herald
Today’s science fiction writers are drawing on traditions created by such pioneers as Isaac Asimov (I, Robot), Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), William Gibson (Neuromancer), Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game) and Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey). They envisage future worlds where AI cares for us, a universal nanny state where the goal is to protect all humans from harm – which may not be as desirable as it sounds.
In Dan Simmons’ Hyperion series, the AI beings are elevated to the status of gods and have their own corner of the universe. In Iain Banks’s Excession, part of his Culture series, the universe is dominated by AI Minds that don’t agree, and sometimes go to war with each other.
The robotic characters can be nice guys, like Holmes IV in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress; or cute pets, in Ted Chiang’s The Lifecycle of Software Objects. Or they can be a hardbitten old droid hero like Murderbot in Martha Wells’ All Systems Red, who solves crimes, saves the day, hates humans and watches soap operas for fun.
They can draw their intelligence from ethically dubious sources. In Ted Williams’ City of Golden Shadow, the machines in a fabulous virtual reality world for the rich are run off the brains of children in the real world.
McEwan’s novel is an alternative history of the 1980s, where the famous codebreaker Alan Turing didn’t kill himself and survives to make more scientific breakthroughs. Turing turns up in another alternative history of computing itself, Louisa Hall’s Speak, a poetic journey through the centuries. And Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice takes a wild ride into a far future where characters don’t have a gender.
The attraction of AI stories is that there seems no limit to where they can go.
Two Australian women have made notable recent contributions to AI literature. In her debut novel A Superior Spectre, Angela Meyer follows the trail of Jeff, a dying man who is dabbling in time travel and mind control, accompanied by an obliging robot who performs services for him, some of them sexual. Jeff is not the least bit grateful.
And in Rupetta, Nike Sulway evokes a female automaton built in 1619 from brass, leather and wood. She must be wound like a clock, and the novel traces her relationship with a succession of female winders.
The attraction of AI stories is that there seems no limit to where they can go. Nothing is too wild, too outlandish. And yet they are not so much about fabulous machines as about ourselves, and all our deepest hopes and fears.