Amazon Exclusive: An Essay by Bernard Beckett, Author of Genesis
When I tire of my computer it's considered quite acceptable, environmental issues aside, for me to bin it, bury it, or rip out its innards and convert the shell into a fish bowl. It is considered less acceptable for me to do any of these things to my still functioning cat. And that feels much as it should be.
Yet my computer routinely beats me at chess, while my cat struggles to use a cat door. Whatever we believe sets the animal apart from the machine, with each passing year it becomes harder to believe that processing power is the defining factor. And that's the apparently harmless thought at the heart of Genesis.
Our instincts cling to the mysticism of the life force, the élan vital that appears to animate the world of creatures and separate them from our machines. Instincts though are rarely enough. The modern understanding of evolution makes it easy to view life as little more (or less) than a trick of chemistry, and the harmless question takes on an edge.
The novelist though mustn't be content with simply exposing the edge. I am drawn to stories that tear at me. I like my reading to leave a little scar tissue and I aspire to create stories that might do the same. Just as we are sure that cats and computers are not just different things, but different kinds of things, so we quite naturally draw a line between a cat and human that feels inviolable. The life force may no longer be so puzzling, but surely the mystery of consciousness remains secure. Not everybody thinks so, and that provides the gap into which a story can be wedged.
This thought spent a good few years trapped inside my own consciousness. I knew that at the heart of the novel would sit a confrontation between a man and a machine. I knew humanity would be represented by a criminal, imprisoned both by the justice system and his own inflexible beliefs. I also knew the machine would be charming, irascible and provocative. What I didn't know was anything about the story in which this central conceit would be wrapped. I wrote a short play in which the prisoner was a psychopath and spent a couple of years trying on and off to develop that into a novel but it never worked. I needed a trick that would position the audience first with the human and then somehow twist that loyalty, ideally without them realising it was happening.
As is so often the case I didn't get to the final product small step at a time. Rather I tried, failed and turned away. And then, a couple of years later while distracting myself from another task I found the problem had solved itself offstage. Such are the strange workings of the mind.
(Photo © Bruce Foster)
From Publishers Weekly
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