Yet another book set in 2023: The Turing Option, by Harry Harrison with Marvin Minsky #BooksSetIn2023

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Snaresbrook looked relaxed, efficient. Discussing the approaching operation with the anesthesiologist and the nurses, then supervising the careful placement of the projector. “Here is where I am going to work,” she said, tapping the hologram screen. “And this is where you are going to cut.”

Another book set next year, though published in 1992, three decades ago. The first chapter is dated 8 February 2023; the first 18 are set then and later in the year, the next 25 are set in 2024 and the last two in 2026.) I’m going to focus only on the parts set in 2023 here, but I’ll make one general observation: I found the prose to be rather clunky in a number of places, much more so than Harrison at his best, and wondered if Minsky, who was a well known artificial intelligence theoretician rather than a fiction writer, had possibly had more to do with the text than the cover credits suggest.

The narrative thrust of the book is about the development of artificial intelligence in computers, but in fact for most of the first half of it, that theme takes second place to the surgical problems of restoring human brain damage with advanced biological and technological techniques. This is described in immense and frankly excessive detail, though it is interesting that we are now starting to get close to this sort of cybernetic enhancement in real life.

The wounded computer scientist is Irish, which unfortunately allows Harrison to indulge in some stereotyping – Mary Robinson had been elected in 1990 and 1992 saw the X case, so it was clear to anyone who cared to look that the life experience of an Irish person born in 1999 (as his protagonist is) would be pretty different from the de Valera years. And there’s this passage on free movement:

“I have studied the relevant data bases. The European Economic Community forms a customs union. A passport is needed to enter any member country from outside the community. After that there is no need to show it again. However, Switzerland is not a member of this group. I thought that this problem might be postponed until we reached that country’s border.”

I’m cheating a bit because that’s from one of the 2024 chapters. But in fact we’ve had passport-free travel with Switzerland since 2009; and, sadly, we no longer have it with the UK. But this is a book about technological speculation, not future geopolitics. (The word “China” does not appear even once)

I can’t honestly recommend it except as a snapshot of Minsky’s thought at a particular moment, and frankly he said and did more interesting things later in his career. But if you want to, you can get it here.

Books set in 2023:
Revelations of the Dead-alive (aka London and Its Eccentricities in the Year 2023), by John Banim (1824)
Looking Further Backward, by Arthur Dudley Vinton (1890)
The Bedlam of Immortals, by Enki Bilal (1980)
Islands in the Net, by Bruce Sterling (1988)
The Turing Option, by Harry Harrison with Marvin Minsky (1992)
Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy, by Matt Ruff (1997)
Killing Time, by Caleb Carr (2000)
The Free Lunch, by Spider Robinson (2001)