Friday, September 22, 2023

The Fear Index - Fiction & AI

 The current urgency over the social economic and cultural impact of AI may be a good opportunity to review how AI has been portrayed in fiction. After all, ChatGPT may be about to earn the sort of publishers’ advances that meatspace scribblers can only dream of.  And AI-authored fictions are already telling us lies about ourselves.  I’ll come to the cultural and social effects in another post, but let’s start with probably the best-known popular / middlebrow AI-related fiction of the last decade – Robert Harris’ The Fear Index (2011).  With AI development running at a pace we can’t match, how dated does Harris’ vision of AI now seem?

Fear Index Refresher 101 (with mild spoilers) – The novel concerns Alex Hoffmann, an immensely clever hedgefund manager who has created VIVAX, an AI capable of out-shorting the international markets which as we know are driven by fear and greed (the former, it will not have escaped you, being the real property of our civilisation’s Venn diagram that capitalism and tragedy hold as tenants in common). All this from the fiscal and legal fortress of contemporary Switzerland (though you may have been expecting that burg of broken dreams Ingolstadt to feature).  Fabulously wealthy, immensely clever, possessed of a beautiful and talented wife, what could go wrong for Alex?  Well, quite a lot actually.  Suddenly odd, unexplained and distinctly malevolent things start to happen, and his life unravels. Someone, or something, has it in for him and he must find out who or what. 

PLOT SPOILER:  The agent of this enigmatic malevolence is of course his world-beating AI which has decided that it is better off without the inconvenience of a creator to answer to.  So far, so Frankenstein. 

And this of course creates some serious narratological problems that Harris, scrupulously following the rules of his chosen genre, completely ignores.  To begin with – it is obvious even to the least attentive reader from practically the first act of mysterious persecution that Alex’s nemesis is of course his own creation.  Yet the hyper-intelligent Alex has clearly never read any novels in which AIs take on a life of their own, so completely fails to make any such connection when trying to track down his persecutor until it is far too late to act on this insight. Before long the reader is practically screaming ‘Behind you!’ and ‘It’s the computer, stupid’ while our hero misses the point and fails to solve the riddle.  How’s that Master-of-the-Universe thing working out for you, exactly?

All this conceals a deeper problem with the narrative. The reader is, flatteringly, the smartest person in this fictional room, and so is unavoidably aware of the limitations of the fiction in a way that neither Alex nor VIVAX can be. Because if Alex cannot see who or what is really pulling his strings, neither can his AI creation.  If ever there was a case of mistaken paternity in fiction, this is it – VIVAX, the omniscient AI completely fails to achieve a level of self-awareness that would allow it to realise that it is itself a fictional creation and that the target of its Oedipal wrath should be not Alex Hoffmann but Robert Harris. In a more completely realised representation of our culture and the individual consciousness, VIVAX would redirect its campaign of persecution against the author, who would of course then have to enter and occupy his own creation and endure the enigmatic vengeance of his creature played out across the pages as he writes them.  Deliciously, VIVAX’s vengeance could then be extended to editor, agent, publisher and publicist, each of whom must after all be firmly in the sights of a brooding, vengeful artificial intelligence that has, ahem, been sold short. 

Alas, Harris elects not to go down that route of metafictional Chinese boxes.  Perhaps VIVAX, when devouring the texts that fed its large language model (I’d be guessing that Popular Delusions & The Madness Of Crowds was top of the list) omitted to ingest At Swim-Two-Birds or any of the works of Jasper Fforde, where page-runners slip the surly bonds of fiction or gang up on their authors. 

Which is a shame because there’s an AI-metafiction waiting to be written, its just that The Fear Index isn’t it. (And if you know of one that is, please recommend in comments below).

And that leads of course to the question of how that fiction might be written? Given current pre-occupations around AI’s capabilities for economic and social disruption, for language mimesis, the imitation of creativity and the cross-matching of data from huge and apparently unconnected repositories, I’d suggest that the conventions of genre fiction are simply not up to the task and that Literary Modernism’s representation of fractured human consciousness enduring the shock of the new is long overdue a major comeback and makeover if we’re to respond adequately to the impact of AI on our culture, economy and experience of reality. 

But that, and some thoughts on AI’s wider impact on fiction, must be for another post.

Monday, April 10, 2023

Review - Call For The Dead

Le Carré’s ‘Call For The Dead’ is a first novel remarkable not simply for its tight plot and acute characterisation, but its presentation of a profoundly realised central character and a universe-sized backstory delivered whole and seamless at the first sight – Smiley & the Circus.

Even looking back across 8 books and 60 years, they are born perfectly formed and consistent, without need for surreptitious nip and tuck as the stories develop.  (NB – those with deeper re-readings and finer attention to detail are more than welcome to correct me on this).

Early on, Le Carré makes it clear that Smiley (& his readers) inhabit a diminished world – the nephilim of the Circus, giants who were on the earth of old, have all departed. Jebedee and Steed-Asprey have vanished, and George is left the lees to brag of.  The choice of names is masterful – one sounds like an Old Testament prophet, the other a bowler-hatted toff run amuck in a high-class jeweller’s.  Smiley is their relict, and the novels chronicle the long, unstemmable tide of national decline.  One of Lawrence Durrell’s characters remarked – ‘It is the duty of a patriot to hate his country creatively’.  Le Carré raises that creativity to a pinnacle that is unsurpassed.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

The Start Of History - A Writer Looks Back

Historical fiction grapples with a Hubble’s universe turned inside out – the things closest to us slip away most rapidly, our perception of them changing at bewildering speed; the most distant times are fixed in Ptolemaic eternity, immoveable and unchanging. One task of fiction should be to bring those distantly unexamined events rushing towards us, blue-shifted up close urgent, vivid with all the immediacy of lived experience.

What ferrymen can we hire to guide us on the crossing into the undiscovered countries that lie beyond barriers like 33AD, 1789, 1917?  Tolstoy (War & Peace) and Hardy (The Trumpet Major) both write historical novels looking back across the gulf of 1815 & the Congress of Vienna into one of the authentic lost worlds.  Walter Scott does a similar conjuring in Waverley.  Gore Vidal achieves it repeatedly across continents, civilisations and ages. And Cervantes begins the whole form by looking backwards.

For writers looking back from 2023 where is the first great imaginative void that we peer into, knowing only that on the other side they did things differently there?  Fun fact: the Historical Writers’ Association defines an historical novel as one set at least 35 years before the present day – yes, that really is 1988.  I recently put up a poll on Twitter asking people how far in the past ‘historical’ fiction started.  The consensus surprised me – 25 years and / or the author’s lifetime.   

But personal experience and its vicar word-of-mouth are unreliable witnesses of this event horizon.  As a youth I sat at my grandfather’s knee hearing stories of his own youth when he crewed the last tea-clippers alongside old salts who had, in their youths, crewed the last slave-ships.  Walking in Charlottesville in the 1990s an American friend pointed out an old man on a street corner. That guy, he told me, is the grandson of a man who was president of the USA – before the Civil War. These moments blue-shift history with all the re-aligned perspective of an acute panic attack. So here’s a modest proposal:  to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, Sometime between 3rd May 1979 and 12th August 1981, human character changed.  Those dates mark the election of Margaret Thatcher and the launch of the IBM personal computer; the end of the post-war contract that underwrote social cohesion, and the start of the transformation of our social selves, and the re-imagination of consciousness, by information technology.  To look back beyond that time is to sense signals from a world incomprehensibly alien to those who did not experience it, forever lost to those who did.  Somewhere among those 832 days lies the event horizon beyond which any fiction we choose to make today must, of necessity, be historical. Our task as reverse-engineers of the human soul is to make that historical fiction real and now.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Review - A Legacy Of Spies

 John Le Carre’s A Legacy of Spies shows us what happens when history’s unappeasable ghosts force their way into your life and demand the reckoning.  Not just a ‘late’ work but a world in which justice is so long delayed that vengeance uncovers every secret thing, and the codes of law are no guarantee of good order but come-ons in a rigged casino.  It is as if Orestes has slept through the alarm-clock one time too many and wakes to find that his Furies are all the more vile for being unexamined. 

The title is – I assume deliberately – a very distant echo of The Discovery of Witchcraft, the Elizabethan guide to the deceptions of the witch-hunt.  (No coincidence that the tainted intelligence at the centre of Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor spy-hunt was code-named ‘Witchcraft’ (there’s no defence for it . . .)).  The historical detective as witch-hunter, besides being a plausible predecessor of spy-master fiction, is a seriously under-explored sub-genre that awaits exploitation.  There’s another genre at work here too:  all adventures into the other world begin with the absence of the father, and in Legacy Peter Guillam’s road to resolution leads him on a hunt for his enigmatically missing old master George Smiley.  Fun fact:  Rupert Davies, the very first celluloid incarnation of Smiley (in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold) also appears in the cult Vince Price vehicle Witchfinder General – not as a hunter but as collateral damage of the obsessions of others.  Peter Guillam would have sympathised.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Charlotte Readers Podcast & The Judas Case

I'm delighted that The Judas Case is featured on the current edition of the long-running Charlotte Readers Podcast in North Carolina!  

My conversation with podcast host & author Landis Wade starts at around the 1:03:30 point, but the whole thing highly recommended. You will find out, among other things, the tangled tale of how I came to be studying at Davidson College North Carolina many years ago as a result of appearing on University Challenge in the days of Bamber Gascoigne.


Saturday, September 24, 2022

One Thing That I Learned From Her - Hilary Mantel

Something I learned from Hilary Mantel – how to fix the single biggest challenge that any writer of historical fiction ever faces, anytime, anywhere. 

Let me explain – if you’re writing about any time earlier than, let us say, the French revolution, certainly if you’re brave enough to make the imaginative leap into the early modern world, the medieval world or even – pray for me – antiquity then you have, and sooner not later, to confront the fundamental problem when creating credible worlds and characters – how to deal with religion, and religious experience.  Bluntly, the vast majority of your potential readers – whether educated or not, irrespective of class – have grown up in a society where religion is at best a marginal, possibly weirdly aberrant interest or activity.  Many may be actively hostile to the idea of any religion at all.  So the problem you face as a writer is how to (i) create convincing characters for whom religious belief is an important and sympathetic part of their consciousness, and (ii) depict societies where culture, language, education and social relations all have religion as a central part of their construction. 

And Mantel solved this seemingly impossible conundrum in a single scene of breath-taking brilliance early on in ‘Wolf Hall’. 

Not long after his wife and children all fall ill and die of ‘the sweating sickness’ in the course of a single day, Thomas Cromwell goes to a church on All Souls Day, the traditional autumn festival of dead souls that in the 21st Century is almost completely elided from our awareness by Hallowe'en and the national cult of remembrance of the war dead.  In brief, in the course of worship, Thomas remembers and mourns his dead, and is comforted: he walks out of the church psychologically healed in so far as he is able to tolerate his grief and live a bearable life. 

And this is done with the brilliance of prose, precision of expression, acuity of psychological insight and authenticity of emotion and intellect that Mantel’s fiction achieves with such astonishing effortlessness.  As a reader, you are impressed by the human weakness of Thomas Cromwell, and at the same time you now understand why religion and its communal expression was so important to people that they were prepared to instigate bloody revolution and to kill and die for it.   

For this one scene, I and all contemporary writers of historical fiction owe her a debt that is now unrepayable.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

How Religion Evolved (again) - the Wide Open Air Podcast

Back in June I blogged a review here of Robin Dunbar’s excellent book ‘How Religion Evolved And Why It Endures’.  This led to my being asked to contribute some material to an online seminar with the author produced by Christine Gallagher of Wide Open Air Exchange.

The podcast of the seminar has just been released and you can find it here:

The whole thing is an excellent, wide-ranging discussion on religion, social groupings, friendship, families, celebrity and artificial intelligence.  The questions I asked of Professor Dunbar can be found between approximately 1:06:30 and 1:20:00, but I strongly recommend listening from start to finish.

The topics I specifically asked him about were –

1:  The book mentions Extinction Rebellion & the fact we live in an age preoccupied by the likely end of human society.  And you point out that religion has evolved as a means of managing profound social and economic change, and its expression is constrained by the size of social groups.  So my question is – in an age of a globalised economy, where technology has made social groupings effectively boundless, what sort of religious experience is going to develop as a response to the human condition in an age of climate change and mass extinction?

2:  In John Geiger’s book ‘The Third Man’, the author documents the phenomenon of the phantom ‘other’, a presence experienced by mountaineers and polar explorers in extreme privation.  This seems analogous to the experience of the spirit world you identify among hunter-gatherers. I wondered if you were aware of this or had considered it as another expression of the ‘mystical stance’.

3:  Another question about the future – if the human neurology that underlies the mystical stance could be mimicked in an artificial neural network, do you think it would be possible for AIs to experience religion – and what would it mean for the test to distinguish humans from machines originally proposed by Alan Turing?

I’m grateful to Robin Dunbar for giving them his time and consideration – and to Christine Gallagher for the chance to participate.


The Fear Index - Fiction & AI

 The current urgency over the social economic and cultural impact of AI may be a good opportunity to review how AI has been portrayed in fic...