Anax thinks she knows history. Her grueling all-day Examination has just begun, and if she passes, she’ll be admitted into the Academy—the elite governing institution of her utopian society. But Anax is about to discover that for all her learning, the history she’s been taught isn’t the whole story. And the Academy isn’t what she believes it to be. In this brilliant novel of dazzling ingenuity, Anax’s examination leads us into a future where we are confronted with unresolved questions raised by science and philosophy. Centuries old, these questions have gained new urgency in the face of rapidly developing technology. What is consciousness? What makes us human? If artificial intelligence were developed to a high enough capability, what special status could humanity still claim? Outstanding and original, Beckett’s dramatic narrative comes to a shocking conclusion.
This book was more philosophy than dystopia or science-fiction. I found it strange, though intriguing for the most part.
This entire book takes place through an interview, which was a novel approach. Anaximander is interviewing for the Academy, which isn't just a place of study. People prepare for these interviews by becoming experts in one particular subject area. As such, Anax talks, prompted by the examiners, about Adam Forde and one of the first artificially intelligent machines, this one called Art. (I, writing this, just realized that Art might be short for Artificial Intelligence...)
I really enjoyed this set up. In a way, it felt like a podcast or a lecture, and it heightened the tension as Anax was under so much pressure. The examiners prodded her to get more complex answers from her and to encourage her to explain her reasoning.
Anax had supposedly different views on the series of events Adam Forde had been part of, radically different views, and she supported these through making holograms based on real dialogue transcriptions from Adam and Art.
Though we didn't see much directly about Anax, I felt like I got to know her through seeing how she interpreted events differently from those who came before her. She was also the type of person to watch the sunset every day, which makes her a kindred spirit. Her relationship with her mentor was additionally fun.
I loved the ideas presented in this book, especially when Beckett talked about the idea of Ideas being as much a force as humanity. The ending was a lovely plot twist that added dimensions to this book.
For those looking for something philosophical, this book will get you thinking about humanity and how we perceive the world.
This book tells a good story. Unfortunately for me, the method by which it delivers that good story bored me half to death. This interesting look at the possible future consists of roughly 70% dry exposition couched as an academic oral exam and 30% philosophical debate on whether machines can actually attain sentience. There are a couple of "twists" thrown in at the end. The first wasn't very twisty and I called it early on. The second I didn't expect until a few pages before it happened, but by that point I didn't really care one way or the other.
I didn't notice many glaring typos (yay!), but the formatting of my Kindle version was atrocious. There was something wonky going on with the spacing in the paragraph breaks (when there were spaces between paragraphs, which wasn't always the case). Also, and perhaps most annoying, each question-and-answer oral exam section was basically a non-indented, aligned-left wall o' text. Bleh.
Overall, it was just okay. I don't feel I wasted my time, but I won't be running out to get more of Beckett's work right away. Or maybe ever. Life is short, and Mt. TBR is tall.
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?