The well worn path of Ian McEwan and science fiction

Stephen Cox
Apr 19, 2019 · 4 min read

Ian McEwan’s new book involves romantic relationships between humans and artificial people, set in an alternative timeline. It’s currently selling rather well, with lavish news coverage.

To be honest, some of his comments appear to me as going out in public with your trousers down.

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Very human looking male robot (image, Pixabay,

Looking at artificial intelligence, he told the Guardian ‘There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas…’

The statement in bold is pretty much what average to good science fiction (SF) is about — exploring the human consequences of change. Conversely, the statement in italics is not, and never has been, what science fiction is “about”. The Poirot stories are not about being Belgian. In fact, by framing it that way, McEwan convincingly shows he has read very little of it.

It is doubly grating for McEwan to say that his book is not science fiction because it is set in an alternative past. SF has played with parallel realities since the Thirties, if not earlier. It’s not science fiction because I’ve used a well known science fiction setting.

McEwan says, ‘If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.’

I agree. And literature has been doing just that for a very long time.

200 years ago, Mary Shelley asked in Frankenstein, if we could make a non-human — something thinking and feeling, a person — what are our obligations to them? This is arguably the founding work of science fiction. The story of what Frankenstein owes to the creature is to me more interesting than the technical detail of how the doctor builds the body. In my reading, Shelley implies that we make the creature a murderer by how we humans treat him.

Frankenstein may be the first story which asks, ‘just because scientists can, should they?’- the first book to say technical progress would bring new stark ethical dilemmas. That’s certainly a strand of the book. But for me, I read no proof that the monster had to be a monster. Treated kindly, kept from unkind eyes, Frankenstein and the creature could end the book sitting by the fire, drinking port and talking philosophy.

Capek’s play, Rossum’s Universal Robots (1920) has artificial people who are also organic constructs (not tin cans). These slave workers revolt and develop human feelings. The famous play which introduced the word robot to the world, includes two of them falling in love.

More recently, the TV series Humans covered all this rather well. Or, a friend has published a novel on this. He works in artificial intelligence, but the novel centres the unethical exploitation of artificial people, and perhaps surprisingly, half way through, no-one has anti-gravity boots.

SF writers and fans are angry because literary ignorance and snobbery are not challenged, and many of those buying McEwan’s book might enjoy their work too. It feels to some like someone being lionised for climbing the well-worn paths of Snowdon.

I’m not with those who say SF owns the ideas, only SF writers can have these toys, because only they know how to use them. Of course, anyone is entitled to try out ideas. What you can’t do is write a detective story and think ‘the butler did it’ is a world-first clever twist. (An example from Iain Banks who wrote both acclaimed literary fiction and gutsy SF as well.) Ideas do get worn, but can be revived in the hands of the right person.

I have skin in this game. Our Child of the Stars is, by most people’s definition, science fiction. The boy Cory is an alien, last survivor of a disaster in space. In terms of its emphasis on character and the family dynamic, most of its SF readers accept it as SF which has made certain editorial choices. To the non-SF reader, I start with talking about the characters and the dilemma. I wrote it in part as a bridge between two worlds, just as Cory the alien boy bridges his culture and ours. I’m proud of the fact that people who don’t read science fiction seem to like my book. And Cory sees the story of Frankenstein, bowdlerised in a comic-book, as metaphor for his position.

What I don’t need to do, when plugging my book, is berate ‘literary fiction’ for weak ideas or ‘science fiction’ for bad characterisation.

McEwan has a massive platform. He could have said, ‘Conventional science fiction has addressed these issues, but it isn’t read in some circles. I wanted to look at these ideas, and bring them to a wider audience.’ The SF world would have nodded and moved on.

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