Robot stories: vN and Black Mirror

Last week in Strange Horizons, I was disappointed with Rosa Montero’s Tears in Rain. But I actually read that book a month or so ago; more recently, I’ve come across two more pieces of fiction that have caused me to continue the train of thought I started in my SH review. The first is vN by Madeline Ashby, which I read because I saw it being discussed as one of the likely novels that missed out on the BSFA Award shortlist.

For the first few pages of vN, my impression was favourable. We’re introduced to Jack Peterson, whose wife Charlotte and daughter Amy are both self-replicating androids (von Neumann machines, or vN). Right from the start, ethical complexity is at the front and centre: all vN from the same clade (‘family’) look identical, and this will also be trur for Amy and Charlotte; so, Jack wonders, “what if one day, years from now, he kissed the wrong one as he walked through the door?” (p. 8). There’s no chance of that yet, though, because Jack is deliberately refraining from feeding Amy a full diet of vN food, so that she can grow up at the same rate as a human child. But, as Amy’s principal points out, this may not be such an appropriate thing to do: “She is not a kindergartener, and has not been one for years” (p. 22). The stage is set for a thought-provoking read.

By the end of the prologue, I was feeling less enthusiastic. At Amy’s kindergarten graduation, her grandmother Portia appears and tries to kill her. A boy dies in the ensuing scuffle, and a ravenously hungry Amy eats her own grandmother, which causes her body to grow into that of an adult. In the context of another book, I’d probably like this offbeat spirit; but here it set alarm bells ringing that cartoonish violence might win out over the more thoughtful material – and so it proves.

Amy spends most of the novel on the run, pursued by members of her own clade and others besides. She’s of interest to them because her failsafe (which stops vN from harming humans, but also induces nausea in them if they witness human injury and suffering) no longer works. This chase plot allows Ashby to show more of her future society. There’s further exploration of the place of vN, and how their presence has changed things. it is certainly much more searching and satisfying than the examination of ideas in Tears in Rain – but, for all that, it’s  clearly playing second fiddle to the action.

And, despite some striking images (such as Amy being set upon by crowds of vN who look just like her), much of the novel is quite uninvolving, Partly this is down to the prose, which never seems to catch fire again as it did in the first pages. But mostly I think it’s because the sense of place is so very sketchy. The backdrop of Tears in Rain may be generic, but at least it has an atmosphere, however ready-made; too often, the events of vN may as well be taking place in front of a blank wall (a sequence set in a museum of the city of Seattle really shows up the limitations of the rest). As a result, Ashby’s book is lacking in the detail and context that would help to give the action dramatic weight. By the time the final plot revelations came, I just didn’t care any more.

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My other recent robot story is ‘Be Right Back’, the first film in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. We meet a young couple, Martha (played by Hayley Atwell) and Ash (Domnhall Gleeson). He heads out to return a courtesy car to the garage; she, an illustrator, stays at home to work on an urgent new commission. But Martha experiences a growing sense of dread that the worst has happened to Ash – and her fears are swiftly confirmed. At the funeral, Martha’s friend Sarah offers to introduce her to “something that will help”. At first, she doesn’t want to hear it; but soon finds herself signed up for – and swiftly drawn into – a service that uses a dead person’s online traces to reconstruct a virtual version of their personality. Martha moves from messaging ‘Ash’, to speaking to his construct on the phone – before paying for it (him?) to be downloaded into an artificial body.

As a fully rounded piece of drama, ‘Be Right Back’ has its shortcomings, particularly that the opening section establishing the couple’s relationship is that bit too compressed for one to become fully invested in it emotionally. But ‘Be Right Back’ is weighted towards its ideas, and there it works better. I actually found it the most satisfying of these three robot stories, because it’s best able to achieve what it sets out to do, and reaches furthest into its issues.  ‘Be Right Back’ is content just to focus on the relationship between two individuals, which is quite a refreshing change in a contemporary work of science fiction. We see Martha’s changing reaction to Ash, shifting from the delight of being able to hear his voice again to the despair of the uncanny valley as she realises that this is not him – that the robot looks and sounds like Ash, but doesn’t sleep, breathe, or react like him. The surface is there, but not the spark.

In the great scheme of things, ‘Be Right Back’ may not go as deep as it could (it’s not as searching or elegant as Chris Beckett’s ‘The Turing Test’, for example). But where it does go is still worthwhile: in one of the film’s later scenes, Martha – now at her wit’s end – has taken the Ash-robot to the cliffs, and instructs it to jump. At first, ‘Ash’ is calmly accepting of this, until Martha remarks that he would be afraid – at which point the robot slips seamlessly into the role of crying, pleading Ash. It’s a stronger moment than anything in vN or Tears in Rain – and just the sort of touch that a story like this needs.

The Heston Blumenthals of literature

Tonight I’ll be watching the new series of Great British Menu, which is perhaps unusual for someone who’s not overly interested in cooking per se. If you’re unfamiliar with the programme, it sees leading British professional chefs competing to have their dishes selected for a unique banquet (last year’s was a celebration of the London Olympics; this year’s is to mark thirty years of Comic Relief). Each week, three chefs from a particular region have their menus (one course per day) tasted and scored by another chef acting as mentor. The lowest-scoring chef is eliminated on Thursday; on the Friday episode, the entire menus of the two remaining chefs are judged blindly by a panel of food critics.

I got into watching Great British Menu last year, when I realised that it was treating cookery as a form of art – and therefore was a kind of art competition. Now, this programme goes out five nights a week on prime-time BBC Two, goes into the minutiae of cooking, and sees professional critics judging their subject at a high level in a way that’s meaningful to an interested general viewer. Imagine a TV programme doing something like this for just about any other creative art. Film programmes in the UK are nowhere near, and book programmes are even further behind.

I can see where Great British Menu is coming from, because I can understand that push for excellence in books. Actually, when I look at the other food programmes I like most, I can see parallels with what I like in books. A few years ago, I started watching River Cottage, and went on to read a book of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s food writing. I came away with a clear sense that he cared about what he was doing, had a broad interest in his subject but always with a focus on quality – and I found his style of writing and presenting very engaging. This (analogously) is a lot of what I look for in the books I read.

But if there’s one figure from food television who most sums up what I like in books, it’s Heston Blumenthal. I find the enthusiasm he shows in his TV programmes infectious; but, above all, I love his capacity to have an idea and just go with it, however outlandish it might seem to the viewer – to say, ‘why not?’ before others have even said, ‘why?. I see this kind of attitude in the works of writers like Helen Oyeyemi and Nick Harkaway; in books like The Quiddity of Will Self, or Nod, or the one I’m reading now, Communion Town. I love to come across the unusual and distinctive in books – and, when those books are reaching for and achieving excellence, I could scarcely be a happier reader.

March wrap-up

March felt like a month that was relatively light on reading, though I must admit I haven’t counted up to confirm this. There was still a fair amount of stuff on the blog, though, as I shall now list.

Book of the Month

The best book I read in March came from the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist. Generosity by Richard Powers is a fascinating story about stories and science and being caught up in change. It’s in my top two contenders for the Clarke, with only one book on the list left to read.

Reviews

No book notes this month, but quite a few full-length reviews:

… and I finally completed Volume I of The Oxford Library of Classic English Short Stories.

Features

Books On The BBC: World Book Night

Yesterday was World Book Night, an event organised by Jamie Byng (publisher of Canongate Books), in which 20,000 people across the UK and Ireland gave out 48 specially-printed copies of a favourite book – a million books in total. BBC Two devoted two-and-a-half hours of its programming last night to Culture Show specials on books, beginning with A Million Books For Free, a half-hour documentary about World Book Night itself; later in the evening, there were five-minute-long live visits to World Book Night events in Glasgow, Manchester and London. These programmes showed us people with lots of enthusiasm for books, and some pretty inspiring stories of what particular books meant to different people.

I knew that the evening was also going to include a film about popular fiction, and one about the Culture Show’s list of twelve new literary novelists, so I was expecting that there’d be some sort of “populist vs literary” tone to proceedings. What we got, though, was something stranger: three programmes which presented three very different, almost completely separate, views of the book world.

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The Books We Really Read was an odd, disjointed documentary which didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be, or what it wanted to argue. The one-line pitch of it would go something like this: lifelong reader of literary fiction Sue Perkins set out to investigate bestselling fiction, with a particular focus on crime, romance and thrillers; and certainly, from the title and the opening commentary (“I’m here [at an airport bookshop] to unearth a dirty secret”), I was anticipating a snobbish, let’s-laugh-at-this-stuff-and-the-people-who-read-it kind of film. And there was an element of that, but there was also a genuine enthusiasm for bestselling fiction; the trouble was, the programme couldn’t let go of either of those approaches.

There were contradictions in the programme from the start, of which it didn’t seem aware: Perkins didn’t have much experience of reading bestselling fiction, and wanted to be able to understand what made it so popular – yet she liked Agatha Christie (whose work was treated at some length), and explained eloquently what it was that she liked so much, which was not all that different from what other contributors said about other bestselling authors. The highbrow world of judging the Booker Prize was (it was implied) far removed from bestsellerdom; yet there, clearly visible on the bestseller shelves, was Wolf Hall, the very novel to which Perkins and her fellow judges had given the Booker in 2009. To my mind, this points to a rather more complex picture than the programme was prepared to contemplate.

The actual treatment of the three genres was awkward, with each one being surveyed in a different way; and the reading of novel extracts in an arch tone of voice sat rather at odds with the positive tone which the programme sought to take towards bestsellers as it went along. Some of the comments made by the authors interviewed made me wince (such as Felix Francis talking about continuing his father Dick’s legacy of horse-racing thrillers, and implying that writing fiction was something anyone could do, because “you make it all up”); but there were also some useful contributions – Ian Rankin made one of the most interesting when he suggested that crime fiction  was good at examining society, and that it had not done itself any favours by taking a detour into amatueur-sleuth territory; there was no time to examine these thoughts any further, though.

What makes a bestseller, then? In the end, the film did not seem to get much further than “a compelling plot”. (What came across to me in the interviews with readers was that the actual book seemed less important to them than what the book facilitated, whether that’s escape, or the chance to solve a puzzle, or whatever.) Perkins ended the programme by suggesting that it would be good if literary and genre fiction borrowed more from each other’s toolkits (another thought that needed expanding: Perkins said that most of the novels she read for the Booker didn’t have a plot – I don’t recognise that in most of the literary fiction I read). First of all, the content of the documentary didn’t seem to me to lead up to that conclusion; second, this already happens – in both directions.

The Books We Really Read couldn’t seem able to decide whether to celebrate or mock its subject, and ended up doing both at times, but wasn’t terribly convincing at doing either. It hinted at a more complex and fluid (and more interesting!) literary landscape than the one it painted, and wound up frustratingly short of being truly insightful.

***

On to the final programme of the night, New Novelists: 12 of the Best, in which John Mullan introduces the list of twelve British debut novelists he and and a panel of fellow-judges selected from 57 submissions made by literary publishers. This enterprise has already caused something of a stir in the corner of the internet to which I pay most attention, partly because the list itself is somewhat lacking in diversity (see here for my own take on that issue), and partly because of a specious article on literary fiction published by Mullan in the Guardian last week (see Maureen Kincaid Speller’s posts here and here for a good overview of this).

The film did not have the tiresome snobbery of Mullan’s article, but what it really lacked was proper context. Segments on the twelve chosen authors were interspersed with a history of… well, not so much literary fiction as of lists of literary novelists. Mullan concentrated on Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists lists, but said precious little about how they were received by general readers; of course the evening’s films were made in isolation but, given that we had just seen a  documentary founded on the assumption that literary fiction and bestseller status were pretty much mutually exclusive, one could be forgiven for asking how the landscape presented by Mullan related to the one presented by Perkins.

Mullan also touched on the rise of creative writing courses, noting that a third of the submissions he had received were by creative writing graduates. What effect this might have had on the novels themselves was, however left largely unexamined, aside from a comment made by one of the judges at the very end that many felt similar (in what ways, and whether this was truly detrimental, remained unsaid). Neither was it explored whether this situation was really all that different from the likes of Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain and Kazuo Ishiguro being creative writing graduates twenty or thirty years ago.

The programme was on better form when dealing with the individual novelists and their books (the writers chosen were David Abbott, Jenn Ashworth, Ned Beauman, Deborah Kay Davies, Samantha Harvey, Adam Haslett, Rebecca Hunt, Stephen Kelman, Jim Powell, Anna Richards, Eleanor Thom and Evie Wyld). The film was at its most engaging when the judges were discussing the books, and the author interviews were, by and large, also interesting. As for my opinion of the books on the list: I’ve read three, found one excellent, one good, and the other left me cold – but that’s the way with such lists; there are certainly other books on there that I want to read.

***

For all its flaws, New Novelists was a rare chance for debut writers to get some coverage on television; but the way it was presented made it seem closed off from the wider literary world. There was a passion for what bestselling books could offer somewhere in The Books We Really Read, but it was buried so far under the gimmicks of the format that it became hard to see clearly, and again there was a sense of disconnection. I’d rather take the view of the literary landscape shown by the material about World Book Night itself, the one where all kinds of people read all kinds of books, and the enthusiasm of a reader – who may be a learned academic, or a person who’s never read a book before in their life, or someone in between – for a book they love is what counts the most.

February wrap-up

A new month begins, so here’s a look back at what appeared on this blog during the last one.

Book of the Month

I should read non-fiction more often, and I’d love it to all be as good as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot’s wide-ranging account of how one woman’s cancer cells became, unbeknownst to her family, a key tool in modern medical science. It was the best book I read in February.

Reviews

Full-length reviews:

Shorter write-ups:

… and my blogging of Volume I of The Oxford Library of Classic English Short Stories continued.

Features

Behind the scenes at The TV Book Club

Last week, I and several other book bloggers (Simon from Stuck in a Book; Claire from Paperback Reader; Keith from Books and Writers; and Cherry from Cherry Mischievous) were invited to watch an episode of The TV Book Club being filmed – the episode that was broadcast tonight, in fact. This is my little account of the day.

The sofas and chairs of the TV Book Club studio are directly opposite the set of Saturday Kitchen, and it was in front of that programme’s counter that we sat to watch the filming (doing so was what really brought home to me how small the space is; though the actual set of The TV Book Club seemed relatively large from where I was sitting, there really isn’t much more outside of what you see on screen). Two episodes were being filmed that day, and we saw the second – which was actually the first in order of broadcast. So, whilst I would have loved to witness the discussion of Even the Dogs in person, I shall have to wait until next week; today was the turn of Michael Robotham’s Bleed for Me.

Filming of the programme ran more or less in ‘real time’, and the broadcast result was not much different  from what we saw in the studio (apart from the editing-out of the moment where the panel gave too much away about the murderer’s identity in Bleed for Me). Nigel Havers was an excellent guest – great to see someone so enthusiastic about books; Val McDermid’s film, in which she interviewed her forensic anthropologist friend, Sue Black, was interesting; and the discussion engaged enthusiastically with Bleed for Me.

After the filming, we were taken to the gallery to see some of the production work, and then to the green room, where a celebration was held for the birthday of one of the production team. I also had the chance to speak to presenters Jo Brand, Dave Spikey and Meera Syal. All in all, a fine and interesting day; many thanks to The TV Book Club for inviting me along.

Photo courtesy of Specsavers: Our Intrepid Hero peruses Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese; Keith and Cherry are in the background.

Links

The other bloggers’ posts on the day:

Keith

Claire

Simon

Cherry


Books On The BBC: Faulks on Fiction and Birth of the British Novel

The BBC’s year of book-related programming has begun; here is a look at two of the first documentaries.

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Faulks on Fiction is a four-part BBC Two series in which Sebastian Faulks looks at the characters of the British novel. Later episodes will focus on lovers, snobs, and villains; but this first part was all about the figure of ‘the hero’. This is a term that seems fairly straightforward, until (or so I found) you actually try to define it, at which point it becomes a much more nebulous concept – after all, most novels have protagonists; what is it that distinguishes them from ‘heroes’?

The programme never gave a clear definition of its terms, with the result that, though Faulks was an engaging presenter, his journey through the heroes of British fiction seemed rather arbitrary. The following characters were discussed:

  • Robinson Crusoe (1719)
  • Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749)
  • Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair, 1847-8)
  • Sherlock Holmes (first appeared 1887)
  • Stephen Wraysford (Faulks’s Birdsong, 1993)
  • Winston Smith (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949)
  • Jim Dixon (Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, 1954)
  • John Self (Martin Amis’s Money, 1984)

Several questions – which, I’m afraid, I am not widely-read enough to be able to answer – spring to mind after considering both this selection and Faulks’s wider argument:

  • Was this meant to be an exhaustive survey of heroes in British literary fiction?
  • Why only one female character?
  • Were there really no relevant examples to be drawn from outside the work of straight white men?
  • Were there really no relevant examples from between the time of Conan Doyle and Orwell, so that we had instead to go on a clumsy detour into Faulks’s own work to cover the First World War?
  • Is it truly the case that, as Faulks asserted, Martin Amis’s Money marked the end of the road for the hero in British literary fiction?

All these issues could have been addressed if the programme had defined its subject more clearly (though some, especially the lack of diversity amongst the authors whose works were considered, would have been hard to defend even then). All programmes of this nature must be selective, of course, but I would like to have confidence that there was a better rationale behind the selection than ‘books which have received screen adaptations from which we can show clips’ – and I don’t have that confidence.

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A couple of days later, BBC Four broadcast Henry Hitchings’ Birth of the British Novel, a stand-alone documentary which examined the development of the British novel in the 18th century and the interaction between it and the wider history of the period. This felt to me a more coherent programme than Faulks’s (and Hitchings’ treatment of Crusoe and Jones seemed fuller), perhaps because it was more chronologically bounded. It also covered a considerable range of material, switching ably back and forth between consideration of authors, their works, and the historical context. More so than with Faulks’s documentary, I came away from Birth of the British Novel feeling that I had actually learnt something (not least that I really ought to read Tristram Shandy).

Hitchings’ film also found room to include a female author, Frances Burney (though its suggestion that Burney wrote a form of proto-chick lit was both inherently anachronistic and carried the implied slur that novels by women writers were frivolous from the very beginning – the whole Books On The BBC season really needs to improve its treatment of female authors). I was quite surprised to discover from one contributor (Emma Clery of Southampton University) that women novelists outnumbered their male counterparts in Britain between 1780 and 1810. What those women were writing, and what different avenues it might have taken the documentary down, I don’t know, because the programme didn’t explore it.

This also points to a wider problem with trying to tell a literary history in so confined a space: using the work of individual authors as a framework means that some will almost certainly have to be omitted; and a viewer unfamiliar with the subject matter (as I was in this case) won’t know what is missing. I have no idea what kind of shape the documentary might have had if different works had been discussed, which is why I’d welcome a clearer statement of the rationale behind selections in programmes like this.

Something else that I think Birth of the British Novel in particular could have done with was a definition of the novel. Hitchings made much of the fact that the novel emerged in Britain during this period, and that its writers were testing what the form could do; in this context, it would have been helpful to state what was new about the novel, and how it differed from existing prose forms. The question ‘What is a novel?’ was raised only once, 45 minutes into this hour-long film, when Hitchings asked it of the novelist Tom McCarthy. He laughed and replied, ‘A novel is something that contains its own negation’ – which I’m sure is an interesting idea (though no clear explanation was offered of what McCarthy meant); but it’s of no use at all as the only definition of a novel in a documentary about the emergence of the novel.

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A flawed beginning, then, for Books On The BBC. Faulks on Fiction got off to a poor start, and the parameters of its format don’t give me much hope that the entire series will be much of an improvement. Birth of the British Novel was good, but had its shortcomings (though a full chronological history in the style of Hitchings’ documentary would be worth watching). Here’s hoping for more from later programmes in the season.

See also
This review at The Arts Desk, which comes to a similar conclusion about the relative quality of the two programmes.