GENESIS by Bernard Beckett

Book Quote:

“I am not a machine. For what can a machine know of the smell of wet grass in the morning, or the sound of a crying baby? I am the feeling of the warm sun against my skin; I am the sensation of the cool wave breaking over me. I am the place I¬†have never seen, yet imagine when my eyes are closed. I am the taste of another’s breath, the color of her hair.

“You mock me for the shortness of my life span, but it is this very fear of dying that breathes life into me. ¬†I am the thinker who thinks of thought. I am curiosity, I am reason, I am love, and I am hatred. I am indifference. I am the son of a father, who in turn was a father’s son. I am the reason my mother laughed and the reason my mother cried. I am wonder and I am wondrous….”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew (MAY 28, 2009)

Anaximander was a Greek philosopher (611-546 B.C.) who contributed to many avenues of learning, among them astronomy and metaphysics. He thought everything issued from and returned to “the Boundless.” In his inquiries into biology, he advocated a¬†rudimentary form of evolution¬†too, claiming that human beings had¬†generated from fishes. He was, in short, one who¬†thought one kind of substance might beget another.

Another Anaximander (Anax), this time a young female historian, is the main character and narrator of Bernard Beckett’s novella, Genesis. She has been called before a panel of Examiners at The Academy. She¬†expects to defend her interpretation of the life of Adam Forde, 2058-2077, as a¬†precursor to being asked to join this prestigious group that governs¬†her civilization.

Adam was¬†a nonconformist in the twenty-first century Plato Republic,¬†modeled after the Greek Plato’s ideal city-state in which citizens are divided into Soldiers, Laborers, Technicians, and Philosophers. The Republic cut itself off from the rest of the world¬†as¬†a pandemic swept the planet, and the Philosophers continued to impose absolute¬†isolation¬†over time to¬†preserve their Republic. Adam, assigned as a Soldier guarding the¬†Great Sea Fence,¬†committed a treasonous act and instead of drawing the normal death penalty was imprisoned¬†to serve as a “companion” to¬†an android named Art.¬†Adam was supposed to benefit science by talking to the machine. Philosopher William, who had designed and built¬†this artificial intelligence, thought Art could “learn” from Adam. As part of Anax’s examination, she must recreate, in the form of holograms, her interpretation of the debates that were recorded between this man and machine about the nature of being “alive” and whether a mechanical entity could ever be sentient¬†like¬†a human being.

Alan Turing, the real twentieth-century professor,¬†proposed a test that could theoretically determine whether a machine could “think.” Soon after, John R. Searle countered with his Chinese Room which asked the question in a slightly different way: Is the human brain¬†a type¬†of computer, the mind software,¬†and can its computing capabilities be duplicated by a digital computer? In the Chinese Room someone sits¬†alone among many pulleys and levers. Notes are passed from the outside in a language, say Chinese,¬†not understood by this isolated individual. But the person inside has an instruction book which, if followed precisely, will permit him to use the mechanics at his disposal to answer the note. The person has no idea what he has said,¬†but the one outside getting the answer¬†does understand it, and it makes sense to him. However,¬†the outsider,¬†in turn,¬†cannot tell whether the note was answered consciously or unconsciously by the person inside.

Art and Adam fenced with each other on these issues, using the Chinese Room test as their basis for argument. Art claimed that if he could give the same answers to questions as Adam then he was as alive as Adam. The man rejected this hypothesis, insisting that Art himself was a Chinese room (without the person) . Adam considered Art to be the pulleys and levers and insisted the android could not have a conscious conversation even if he said all the right words.

The Examiners Socratically try to elicit from Anax¬†perspective on¬†Adam and Art. They grill her about the emotion she has attributed to Adam during his jousts with Art. They are especially focused on her view of what ultimately takes place between Adam and Art when¬†Adam wants to¬†escape. They¬†interrogate her about ¬†whether¬†androids could not only¬†be conscious but also capable¬†of overcoming programming with cognitive imprinting. Could¬†conversation with Adam really influence Art?¬†Could Adam and Art be similar in a way she hadn’t¬† considered? Could biological intelligence “beget” true intelligence in an “artificial” medium? Could “evolution” not be limited to change on¬†organic levels? Art¬†rebuked Adam, “You take pride in your Ideas, as if they are products, but they are parasites. Why imagine evolution could only be applied to the physical? Evolution has no respect for the medium. Which came first: the mind, or the Idea of the mind? Have you never wondered that before? They arrived together. The mind is an Idea. That is the lesson to be learned, but I fear it is beyond you. It is your weakness as a person to see yourself as the center. Let me give you the view from the outside.”

Beckett’s slim volume ¬†(160 pages) delves into many crevices¬†of the debate about identifying the constitutive elements of consciousness and then authenticating them in individuals. Just because something walks, talks, and acts like a being with a “soul” doesn’t necessarily mean it¬†is one.¬†The ability to imitate may always leave doubt and an inability to reliably verify. However, Beckettt’s novel leans toward claiming “proof” of artificial intelligence’s sentience: Art says that even if the “man” in the Chinese room doesn’t know what the pulleys and levers are doing, they (the pulleys and levers) know! Quite a declaration and one¬†that can’t (thus far anyway) be proved, only asserted.

Drawing farther out¬†and¬†perusing Genesis plot again, symbolism and references to numerous historical, literary, and cinematic sources can be traced. Biblical allusions, including to the Creation story are prominent. Some science fiction such as the Terminator saga and a few pointed episodes from the classic television show, The Twilight Zone also readily come to mind when reading this book. From the obvious futuristic Platonic societal organization to echoes of Spartans, Nazis, and¬†Orwellian totalitarianism, Genesis is a study in what can happen when¬†a society¬†chooses control and conformity¬†to ensure continuity. Anax has¬†adopted¬†thoughts about the history of the new Plato Republic. She tells the Examiners at one point: “The founders of The¬†Republic sought to deny the individual, and in doing so they ignored¬†a simple truth.” She continues, “The only thing binding individuals together is ideas. Ideas mutate, and spread: they change their hosts as much as their hosts¬†change them.”

Where did those ideas originate? Art also¬†lectured Adam about¬†Ideas: ” You people pride yourselves on creating the world of Ideas, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Idea enters the brain from the outside….The successful Idea travels from mind to mind, claiming new territory, mutating as it goes. It’s a jungle out there, Adam. Many Ideas are lost. Only the strongest survive.”

The Republic’s dominant Idea was that the fear of death — the fear of being “[b]ookended by oblivion” — had to be combated at its root.¬†Its leaders¬†decided: “To bury the individual beneath the weight of the state, is to bury too the individual’s fears.” Until, that is, the time of the Great War and the aftermath of “a great and lasting peace.” Anax, a citizen and historian¬†in that aftermath discovers she may not have as much information about Adam Forde and the Great War as she thought, and that forces her to reevaluate her own conclusions and herself. She questions the conventional interpretation of¬†“The Final Dilemma” (the official last conversation between Adam and Art) leading to¬†unanticipated revelations that¬†topple her¬†carefully constructed view of¬†the “truth.”

In this astute, if certainly incomplete, study of the duties of the State and the composition of individuals and their “beingness,” Beckett¬†accomplishes much. He has created a framework on which to ponder many critical issues of philosophical, political, and scientific import. Adam¬†flatly¬†vowed¬†to Art at one point, “We are different. And difference is all that matters.” He was referring to cellular life and artificial life and an unbridgeability between them. He pressed his point with the moving Walt Whitman-like¬†soliloquy¬†about human experience¬†quoted at the top of this review.¬†Anaximander will also face that question of whether Adam was right¬†about difference making all the difference.¬†It was a question governing life and death for Adam.¬†What will it¬†be for Anax?

Julia Hartwig, in a poem entitled “It Is Also This,” opined,

“Art casts a spell summoning life….
It is also an intelligence reconciling
discordant elements and similarities
It is brave
because it seeks immortality
by being — just like everything else — mortal.”

Does¬†Beckett’s Art (the walking, talking ‘bot…and¬†art¬†— the expression of creativity) really do this?¬†Do Art,¬†Adam,¬†Anax and the others have this commonality to bind them or not? The Greek Anaximander posited that everything created must return to¬†the Boundless, but while in its temporary created state, how much difference is there really (or could there be)¬†between neurobiological cognition and artificial intelligence?¬†In Genesis — a parable which, with consummate suspense, withholds critical information until the last pages —¬†those are the haunting¬†questions¬†deftly¬†explored

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 147 readers
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (April 20, 2009)
REVIEWER: Kirstin Merrihew
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Bernard Beckett
EXTRAS: Excerpt; another review and one more review
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: These books come to mind as possible books of interest:



May 28, 2009 ¬∑ Judi Clark ¬∑ No Comments
Tags: , ,  ¬∑ Posted in: Reading Guide, Speculative (Beyond Reality)

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