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The Turing Test by Chris Beckett

01/10/2008. Contributed by Gareth D Jones

Buy The Turing Test in the USA - or Buy The Turing Test in the UK

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pub: Elastic Press. 243 page enlarged paperback. Price: 5.99 (UK), $12.50 (US). ISBN: 978-0-9553181-8-4).

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If I ever write enough half-decent stories I'll be sure to submit the collection to Elastic Press. The anthologies they produce look fantastic. Not only is the full-cover art excellent, but the minimal text on the cover allows you to enjoy the illustration fully. It also feels great. The cover has an almost vinyl quality that speaks of high production values. The collection contains fourteen stories that were published over the past twenty years in 'Asimov's Magazine' and 'Interzone'. The big question of course is whether the fiction lives up to the high standard of publication.

The title story, 'The Turing Test', opens the collection and tells of a virtual PA that is promulgating itself around the web, being very helpful to those who make use of its service and all the while learning and developing. When art dealer Jessica receives a copy of the PA she starts to wonder whether the programme has sinister motives, whether it really is becoming alive or just doing a jolly good job of faking it. The story cleverly compares the relationship with those we have with the real people in our life and questions what it is to be alive. A thoughtful start to the collection.

'The Warrior Half-And-Half' takes us into the far future where the Earth is almost recognisable but new nations and empires hold sway. The eponymous warrior is seemingly immortal and has been locked away for a century for crimes against the state. Can he be trusted to serve the new emperor if he is released? The dialogue is very well written as are the thoughts and reactions of the stoic soldier sent to fetch him from incarceration. The tale mixes fantasy and science, questioning the beliefs of that future society and providing an entertaining story along the way.

Beckett has been compared to Philip K. Dick and this came across to me especially in 'The Perimeter' that reminded me of 'Time Out Of Joint' mixed with a spot of 'The Matrix'. The virtual world that Londoners inhabit is an ingenious development on the standard VR worlds seen in many other stories. Here, the people and their pets may only appear in black and white and 2D unless they can afford an upgrade to 128 or 256 colours. Wandering occasionally among them are Outsiders who appear to be real flesh and blood. This is the part of the story that makes the whole concept intriguing. This poignant tale develops the concept into a brilliant and original setting.

Holiday photos are the setting for 'Snapshots Of Apirania', a brief but intriguing tour of a far-off society that rivals Jack Vance for detail and originality. The matter-of-fact narration contrasts brilliantly with the touching story of the natives' way of life and came across in a surprisingly powerful way.

I had enjoyed the entire collection up until I arrived at 'Dark Eden'. At this point I was totally immersed in one of the best short stories I have ever read. The story involves a group of astronauts on an exploratory mission that goes wrong. The characters are all well developed for such a short story and the emotional interplay, told in the first person from two alternating viewpoints, adds extra depth to the captivating tale. It was one of those stories that leaves you breathless with wonder by the end.

As if that weren't enough, the collection finishes with 'The Marriage Of Sky And Sea', which I am also going to have to classify as one of my favourite stories ever. What more justification could there be for buying this book? An emotionally stunted author travels to a far-off lost colony to write his latest best-seller for the sheltered masses of home. Similarly to 'Snapshots Of Apirania', the first-person account is initially quite clinical, but the intriguing colony and it's inhabitants, the author's gradual involvement in their way of life and his relationship with his dictaphone make this a hugely enjoyable and touching story.

What makes this collection particularly special in my view is the recurring themes that pop up in various stories. This doesn't make any of them repetitive or derivative, but makes them somehow familiar and give them more depth. 'The Turing Test' and 'We Could Be Sisters' feature the same character, while the concept of 'shifters' who travel between realities also appears in 'Jazamine In The Green Wood'. 'Monsters' shares the same premise as 'Sky And Sea', whose character is similar to one in 'Dark Eden'. 'The Perimeter' and 'Piccadilly Circus' also feature the same character while 'Valour' and 'La Macchina' appear to share a common background. The overall effect is one of harmony. I can only echo my opening paragraph. Elastic Press make fantastic anthologies.

Gareth D. Jones

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