REVIEW: “The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine” by Greg Egan

Review of Greg Egan, “The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 14-34 — Read Excerpt Online or Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

“…surely the planet still needed more than one person with the same skills?” (p.21).

Increasing automation and issues of basic income are contemporary big ticket speculative fiction fodder. Writers are looking at what effects these changes will have and what society will look like after the changes have taken place – what comes next?

Egan takes a refreshingly close and human angle to these themes in this novelette, focusing on the time period just as the situation begins to tip away from meaningful employment for everyone, but just before good solutions have been found. It’s a transitional period and nothing is quite working right.

The novelette’s protagonist, Dan, is made redundant from his job at a debt purchasing and consolidation firm, despite being good at his work. He begins to suspect that the company has outsourced his job to a machine.

The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine is less about Dan’s situation, though, and more a thoughtful exploration of how people would be affected by mass automation and related changes in various labour markets. How do you respond to large-scale change in a labour market when there are no viable alternatives yet and the old responses don’t work the way they used to? What happens if the services aren’t as good as they were previously, but are good enough? What employment prospects are left and how do you get them? What changes do you have to make to your lifestyle to cope with your new situation? What’s your least bad outcome? And how would corporations plan for and respond to the inevitable fallout of their ultimate end game?

Egan considers these questions through glimpses into the lives and experiences of different people in contact with Dan and going through similar employment problems. Seeing how these people respond to the circumstances – conspiracy theories, self-disillusionment, seeking frustrated justice – gives depth to the complexity of the situation at play. Policy makers often talk about a ‘primordial soup’ of solutions to a problem – this piece is all about showing that soup before the answers have been lifted out of it. The problems and solutions move around and opportunities are there to be taken, but not everything is necessarily viable and no-one knows what will work long-term.

The pacing is steady rather than quick, taking the time to consider all the elements of the premise being explored. I found the opening sequence a bit disorienting as well, but the narrative stabilised fairly quickly.

Importantly, the piece ends on a hopeful note, presenting the only sane path through uncertainty – focusing on what one person can do to help themselves.

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