“‘I wasn’t built by humans. I was built by Ideas […] Thought built me because Thought could. And what will happen next? Thought will use me, just as surely as it has used you. And who will last longer, you or I? Answer me that, Mister Flesh and Bones. Who will last longer? Who will Thought prefer?” (98-99).
Bernard Beckett, not to be confused with our dear friend Samuel, has written an intriguing 150 page YA novel that will keep you guessing until the end. First published in 2006 by Longacre Press, (though my copy, which I read for a class on Posthumanism, is the 2010 First Mariner Books edition), the book follows the oral entrance examination of Anaximander, a young woman working to be accepted to the elite institution known only as “The Academy.” Her oral exam takes three hours, and thus the book is written in three parts, with a short break between each hour. As a history student, Anaximander recounts the life of a famous historical figure, Adam Forde, and it quickly becomes apparent to the reader that this “history” is our own dystopic future. Beckett is doing something very interesting with the dystopian genre here by telling the story of a dystopia from the perspective of someone who lives in a post-dystopic, utopian world… or is it?
The world of Adam Forde is post-apocalyptic. New Zealand has cut itself off from the rest of the world due to a terrible plague, a fence has been put up all around the country, and people are stationed to shoot down anyone who attempts to enter the country. Adam is one of these sentries. While this dystopic world is being explained by a student in her oral examination, Anaximander’s attention to detail provides a clear picture of this world, a world in which change is banned, where people are divided into four distinct classes based on genomic readings, where men and women lived separately, and in which Adam must kill his partner in order to save the life of a young girl trying to get to shore. Beckett’s writing is clear and straightforward, and manages to make the reader feel immersed within the story, regardless of the distance of the narrator.
It isn’t until almost half way through the book that Anaximander begins to describe the complex relationship between Adam Forde and a robot named Art. While on a first reading it seems odd to have taken so long to get to this point in the narrative, on a second reading it becomes very clear how essential the first half is for the sake of the conclusion. Talking to Art is Adam’s punishment for saving the unnamed girl (later titled “Eve”.) Art has an incredibly sophisticated form of Artificial Intelligence, he is a machine that cannot be programmed to think, but is rather programmed to be programmed by thinking (53). Through his philosophical debates with Adam, Art gains a fully realized consciousness. This poses a very interesting question for both Adam, and for the reader – what is it about the human body that makes humanity supreme? Should machines gain a sense of self, of consciousness, or perhaps even a soul, who then is the supreme being?
Combining liberal humanist philosophy with evolutionary theory, Beckett poses some intriguing questions that only science fiction can ask. With an intense, shocking conclusion, you may find yourself in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with ideas you hadn’t considered previously. If you like a quick read that will keep you not only guessing, but also thinking and re-thinking, this is the book for you.