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Review: Beta-Life, Stories from an A-Life Future

December 13, 2014 Authors & Reviews, Books Comments Off on Review: Beta-Life, Stories from an A-Life Future
Beta Life, Stories from an A-Life Future

Some would argue that we humans are whizzing along nicely with our fast-paced technological innovations, taking everything in our stride and paying scant attention to ethical concerns.

That’s a theme taken up with style, digital insight, philosophical heft, futuristic projection and flashes of dark humour in Beta-Life, Stories from an A-Life Future, a new book from Manchester’s Comma Press.

An anthology of science fiction short stories set in the year 2070, this collection numbers 19 contributing authors, including Liverpool’s Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Macclesfield’s Stuart Evers, and Zoe Lambert, a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Bolton.

The stories take us into a future of artificial life, of swarm intelligence, of technology wet-wired inside humans – and of robots.

Man-made technology no longer stands apart from the natural world in the future envisioned in this book. But are these writers of short fiction, in their imaginative predictions and projections, on target scientifically? Well, in the main, they are, because each story is given a qualified thumbs up from a variety of natural scientists and technology experts. These academics write brief essays at the end of each submission, saying what they think about the issues raised.

But it’s the short stories that provide the fun and questing intrigue in this anthology.

My favourite among the tales is Everyone Says by Stuart Evers, in which a woman ‘links’ a man and falls in love with him, even though the fellow is ‘the most boring person she had ever linked’.

The man – David Collins – has agreed that people can ‘link’ him as part of a contract and that these men and women can watch all aspects of his life enfold, from quotidian events and extremely personal activities, to (as it turns out) his immense and shocking rage. The question is this: does all the linking to him, when it reaches a critical density, pile on pressure? And does the pressure of such technological inspection make him a bad man?

Beta Life, Stories from an A-Life FutureBut there’s is something odd in this tale. Between pages 93 and 94 the David Collins of the story is suddenly and inexplicably referred to as Robert Collins. Is this simply an editing error? I can see no other reason for it. Having said that, it doesn’t spoil a very good and eerie tale.  

Of course, there are echoes in the story of David Collins of the addiction to social media in our own age.The renowned British neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield says that modern technology is not only changing the way we interact; it is changing the wiring in our brain.

Professor Greenfield believes that the hyper-connectedness of today’s youth gives them shorter attention spans and makes them more narcissistic, more susceptible to depression and anxiety, and less empathetic. She has spoken on the subject in the House of Lords and has written a somewhat controversial book, Mind Change, which expands her ideas.

But back to Beta-Life, Stories from an A-Life Future. We are taken on a thrilling and oftentimes scary journey to a not entirely desirable brave new world.

Skyscrapers are growing biologically in the ocean in a story by Adam Marek as he has fun with nanotechnology, while Zoe Lambert offers a cautionary tale of two scientists who create collective consciousness in their own children by fusing neural pathways with a computer interface.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce with Bruno Wins! offers a witty and thought-provoking yarn about consumer addiction, marketing hype, the facile nature of social media, and the futility of seeking perfection in the future through technological innovation.

And I really enjoyed A Swarm of Living Robjects Around Us by Adam Roberts.

‘Robjects’ are robotic objects which exist to help serve people in ways domestic and personal. When a developer of such things – and even the fridge in this future can talk – dies after entering his house (which is packed with robjects), an investigation ensues.

The fridge proves a useless witness. It tells the investigator it ‘does not have any beliefs’ about the behaviour of the man who died, an Artificial Intelligence expert.

TRUCE (training and Research in Unconventional Computing in Europe), partner organisation of the book.

I couldn’t help smirking when told that the dead man was ‘something of a loner – as A.I. research geniuses tended to be’. When I learned that he ‘was unmarried, but lived (by his own account) a fulfilled sexual life with a series of fully programmed sexual robots’ I tittered out loud.

Don’t get the wrong idea though. Adam Roberts’s story raises some profound points about consciousness and how human brains and computers interact.

All through this anthology the stories concern themselves with what it means to be human, and how technology can change not just the way we live, but our very identities.

By Stephen Regan

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Beta Life, Stories from an A-Life Future, priced at £12.99 in paperback, is published by Comma Press and available to buy now (online price £10.99 from http://commapress.co.uk/books/beta-life)

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