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A.I. and the ineffable

Do not fear: this is a highly entertaining thriller with well-drawn, interesting characters. Whatever your level of philosophical fitness, you’ll love this workout.

A.I. and the ineffable

The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

Science fiction (SF) writers used to position themselves as hardened rationalists, purveying a literature of technocratic problem-solving for an age grown too wise for religion. It’s possible some of them even believed this, but I’m not sure how any serious reader of the genre could. Whether you think of “science fiction” as beginning in the ‘20s, with the pulps, or you trace it back to older works (The Time Machine, Frankenstein, and Lucian’s True History are some of the more popular candidates), science fiction is recognizably besotted with religion: stuffed with Christ figures from Heinlein’s Valentine Michael Smith to David Tennant’s Doctor, and hungry to answer the sorts of life-universe-everything questions a story simply can’t touch without leaving science’s precincts for larger ones. Its interest in “first and last things,” which it shares with horror and fantasy, is one of the secrets of its massive and ongoing popularity and, not infrequently, the source of its greatest artistic triumphs. These things are precisely what we need stories for.

Adam Roberts is an atheist, but he has written a book that functions as a brief digest of the best arguments for the Christian God’s existence. He has written a book that will teach you, painlessly, more about Immanuel Kant than you thought you were capable of knowing. He has written one of the only convincing takes on AI in fiction. He has solved the famous Fermi paradox, pastiched James Joyce without making a fool of himself and captured the cold claustrophobia of John Carpenter’s great SF horror film The Thing. He has written a book that is fast-paced, terrifying and fun. He has done all this in one novel. It is called The Thing Itself, and it’s one of the masterpieces both of the genre and of the era.

It begins on an Antarctic research base in 1982, another nod to Carpenter’s film. Two bored researchers discover a creature that exists outside of all human perceptual strategies: time, space, the senses. (For those of you keeping score at home, these are the same categories that Kant labeled synthetic a priori forms of knowledge. But you don’t have to know that to enjoy the book!) Many years later, the more arrogant of the two men has used his brush with the ineffable to gain Powers We Weren’t Meant to Have, which makes the other guy, of course, The Only One On Earth Who Has a Chance of Stopping Him (with the aid of a chatty artificial-intelligence bot). The suspense and pathos of this familiar setup serves as a structure for Roberts’s restless mind; he incorporates several other mini-plots that span centuries and galaxies and that, when you finally figure out what they’re doing in the book, add another layer of satisfaction to its puzzle-solving pleasures and another layer of ideas to a book already thick with them.

Roberts has exactly the sort of mind you’d expect from someone who writes a novel that is brilliant in ways you never thought to look for. He’s a true polymath: a scholar of Romantic poetry as well as SF, and one of the relatively rare scientifically literate people in this culture who also has a head for philosophy (perhaps because he specializes in an era when these two things had not fully split off from each other). Regularly reading him constitutes a liberal education in itself. The last I looked in on his blog, he had, oh-so-casually, just written the most readable translation of Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue I’ve ever read. As one does on a Saturday.

I fear I have praised Roberts’s brilliance at such length as to put off readers who don’t think of themselves as “intellectuals” (that cursed word). Do not fear: this is a highly entertaining thriller with well-drawn, interesting characters. Whatever your level of philosophical fitness, you’ll love this workout. But for Christians, it is a heartening defense of some of our central ideas, from an unexpected source; for Christians in dialogue with the Reformed tradition, it also provokes some important questions. (Is the God of Kant also the God of Abraham, Ruth and Jesus? Karl Barth for one would say no.) And it reminds us how little we often ask from what we stupidly call “genre” literature (as if all books didn’t belong to genres of some kind). It provides all the thrills of an airport-bookstore read, and a universe besides.

About the Author
A.I. and the ineffable

Philip Christman

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