Anax is brought before her post-apocalyptic ruling elite – The Academy – to take an examination for her entry into it.
Her dissertation (for want of a better word) is a young man called Adam Forde, who broke the rules of her society a few generations ago and is either a hero or a villain for doing it.
For his crime, Adam was locked in a room with a robot, and he can’t tell if the robot is thinking or just doing a really good job of pretending to think.
And there are more surprises in store for Anax when she comes to be questioned about his life…
This is a short book, but the depth of philosophy it covers is vast and ancient, and the themes of this isolated society – what makes it work, the role of the individual, what place they have in the state – are as ancient as the Platonic Ideal they are based on. This is, literally, a Utopia – a world where everyone is happy and contented and has a role to fill. We’re given glances of that world, and more chillingly, what happens to those who don’t fit in – more of that later.
Back to the philosophy, a question as old as thinking mankind: What is consciousness? How do recognise it in other beings, or is it all an illusion created simply by our neurons firing? If I make a robot and give it the facsimile of being conscious, so it can reason and argue, so it knows where it is in the world and the effect it has on those around it, is it conscious?
That’s the big question hanging in the picture of the book, and since no one knows what consciousness is, there are no answers. (Personally, I like Alan Turing’s definition: If you can’t tell the difference between a machine thinking and a machine programmed to imitate thinking, then the distinction no longer has meaning).
I said this was question hanging in the picture of this book, but what’s also startling is the revelation that the frame around that picture has surprises as well: Anax is a robot being questioned by robots, a descendent of the robot that Adam Forde was locked up with.
To maintain the status quo, those robots who take too close an interest in Forde are terminated; those are the ones who Society has deemed won’t fit in - the Deviants who must be destroyed.
So this society continues, stable and unchanging, eternal. However, if a Utopia must remain stagnant, or it will fall apart…then is it a Utopia?
Beckett takes the form of a stripped court dialogue for most of his book, a format which works well for the cool, unemotional robots at its core and this viciously logical society. There are also nice echoes of Christianity; Adam saves a girl from the sea, who becomes known as Eve, and he introduces Original Sin – the ability for a robot to break its fundamental programming and kill.
I think this one would work great for a book club. So many themes to explore, and they need an audience to debate them. There aren’t any answers though, to the most basic question: What is consciousness? Does a machine have a soul?