Thursday, June 25, 2009
GENESIS by Bernard Beckett
Let’s gather some characters: Plato, Aristotle, Pericles, Adam and Eve. What do you get? Actually, a dystopian novel from New Zealand. It’s short, which is good, because much of the book is a dialogue – as in Plato’s Dialogues -- between the main character, Anaximander (named after another Greek philosopher), and four Examiner’s giving “Anax” a kind of oral exam for her to get accepted into the Academy. Genesis is a provocative quick read on some fundamental philosophical questions, such as, What does it mean to be human? and just how “human” can we make artificial intelligence?
This is all taking place, of course, in Plato’s Republic, but we’re not sunning in the Greek Isles here. In fact, in good dystopian fashion, it is the future, there was plague and wars, and a very rich man, who saw the ensuing destruction, bought an island and encircled it with a huge, impenetrable sea wall. Welcome to the future Plato’s Republic.
Enter Anax. She’s a young history student taking her oral exam to gain admittance into the Academy, whose members lead the Republic. Her chosen subject to study was Adam Forde (and yes, there’s a brief appearance by an Eve), who played a key role in the development of the Republic. To give you an idea of the timeframe here, Adam lived from 2058-2077 and that was the distant past to Anax.
The book is divided into four sections, each one an hour “dialogue” between Anax and her four Examiners. There are brief interludes between the sections during her breaks. Much of her exam concerns Adam Forde’s imprisonment in the Republic, with her replaying key moments. The Republic is divided into four classes, and after years in this supposed utopia, the lower classes were getting restless. Who wants to be a laborer when there are riches to be had? The idea is born to perfect a human-like android – artificial intelligence – that can take over those jobs and make the working class happy. But the top android prototype needs more work; in fact, it needs a human to interact with so it can grow and learn and, well... become human? Adam is in prison and in comes Art, an android with a talent for philosophical debate and the face – literally – of an orangutan.
As I swiftly wound my way through Adam’s debates with Art on what it means to be human and have consciousness, and Anax’s questioning by the examiners, it became clear (to me anyway) that Genesis is about much more than questions about what it means to be a thinking human being, and enters into ideas about government and power. I must say I saw the ending coming from afar. But don’t let that stop you from grabbing this fascinating book. When you set it down you will be filled with many more questions than answers.