Under my byline

Art and Adam

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 28 May 2009

Socrates and Plato in a medieval illustrationA philosophical novel of utopias — for “young adults”

What a fantastic book this is! But you have to read it twice to know that. Repetitio est mater studiorum, after all, as Arthur Schopenhauer reminds us in an essay on reading, before going on to explain that “Any kind of important book should immediately be read twice, partly because one grasps the matter in its entirety the second time, and only really understands the beginning when the end is known; and partly because in reading it the second time one’s temper and mood are different, so that one gets another impression; it may be that one sees the matter in another light.” Everything he says here is valid for this book.

Yes, it’s because there is a twist in the tail — but it is also because first you will be reading for story. The second time around you can set story aside and make the most of the author’s game.

Bernard Beckett is a middle-school science and math teacher in Wellington, New Zealand. He has nine novels to his name and a number of fiction awards. Genesis, first published in 2006, triggered a bidding war at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair early last year. Quercus of the UK got it for £100,000, the largest sum ever paid for a “young adult” novel from New Zealand; expecting it to be a “crossover” hit, they have published it in two editions, including one for adults.

Appropriately, this novel is about an exam. Anaximander (“Anax”), 14, is giving the equivalent of her PhD orals after three years of study into the life and impact of the long-dead Adam Forde (2058-77). If she passes this gruelling interview, and few do, she will gain entry into the Academy which supervises her island society.

The interview provides the structure for the book. There are four sections. In the first, the three forbidding examiners probe Anax’s knowledge of the past, starting in the late 2020s. It is an apocalyptic tale, encompassing the exhaustion of Earth’s oil, terrorism, the breakup of Europe, climate change and the faltering of faith in the future. World war broke out in 2050, in the course of which man-made plagues were released and began to wipe out the human population. So far, so familiar.

Fragments of Plato's "Republic"But then, while civilisation was spinning apart, in New Zealand a very rich man named Plato convinced the citizens to unite to seal off their islands from the rest of the world. The Republic, directed by Plato and his fellows, was constituted to defend itself against plague-bearing refugees from the world outside (its motto: “Forward towards the past”). There were four classes — Labourers, Soldiers, Technicians and Philosophers — into which every child was sorted. As the rest of humanity died and the threat waned, the glue that held the Republic together weakened. At this time Adam Forde, as a teenage Soldier, broke upon the scene. He was a rebel and rule-breaker, too intelligent and restless to conform, and with one action he threw the Republic into disarray.

In the second section, Anax is asked about Adam’s trial and the punishment devised for him: to be confined with Artfink (“Art”), an artificially intelligent android, so that Art could learn from the human interaction.

In the third section Anax must reconstruct and analyse the dialogue of Art and Adam. It is a deeply unsettling contest, in which Beckett lays out the chief philosophical theme of his book: can a machine be conscious, and if so, what will its relationship with humans be? It is Art who, by constant probing, forces Adam to try and explain what exactly separates man from machine.

In the last section, Anax is presented with new evidence, which changes the game entirely, and leads to the shock ending.

This is a “novel of ideas”. As such, it is a plant well watered by old intellectual streams. Of course there is Plato and his Republic; but there is also Socrates, since most of the novel is in the form of a Socratic dialogue (between Anax and her examiners, and Art and Adam), designed to test assumptions; and More’s island Utopia, Orwell’s 1984, the Bible, Turing’s test of artificial intelligence, Huxley’s Brave New World, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Asimov’s three laws of robotics, Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, The Stepford Wives, Terminator… It’s hard to see how this book will be appreciated by “young adults”, because it appears to suit the ideas-hungry demographic drawn to books like Sophie’s World and (much more accomplished) authors like Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino.

But that’s all right — young readers can come back to it later. In the meantime, Genesis is a reminder that although we live in successive cocoons — nested utopias — from self to species and far beyond, we have all but ceased to theorise them. How sad: has the world so escaped our comprehension and our faith in reason that we can’t play at planning a better one?

Bernard Beckett, GenesisGenesis
Bernard Beckett
vi + 186


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