REVIEW: “Turing Test” by Eric Scheller

Review of Eric Scheller, “Turing Test”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 215-220. — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The interior of the case is decorated like a florid setting room, wallpapered, the floor spread with a rug of oriental design. There are three automata and all three are instantly recognizable…

A spec fic story about Alan Turing and automata? Oh, my heart, yes, please! One thing that sometimes frustrates me about science fiction as a genre (painting with very broad brush strokes here), is how narrowly “science” is often interpreted. As a scientist myself, I am often longing to find representation of my kind of science in traditional SF stories. But the laws of logic are desperately hard to play with, almost more so in fiction than in real life, where logicians think nothing of speaking of true contradictions and impossible worlds. So I had high hopes for this story as being “close enough”, not my science but close enough to it.

When one says “automata” in the context of SF, many readers probably think first of dumb robots moving mindlessly — something embodied. The automata that I know and love (and sometimes hate) from my days in grad school are much more abstract: They are (sometimes deterministic, sometimes not) (sometimes finite, sometimes not) state-machines that take as input strings of symbols and after a (possibly unique) computation (or “run”) of the machine either gets into an infinite loop, or accepts or rejects the string (Deterministic finite state-machines will never cycle infinitely, and will always accept or reject the input.) The most general class of automata is the class of Turing machines — and here we circle back to the content of the story as opposed to a mini lesson in computation.

Alan, who “loves permutations and crossword puzzles” (p. 215), enters the Ashmolean Museum and asks to see the automata the curator has in storage. But the automata that he is shown are not Turing machines but the embodied type, three versions of Oscar Wilde each in a different guise and a different pose. I am disappointed that the automata are not the ones I wanted them to be, but this lessens my enjoyment of the story only in passing. Scheller takes us through a story that is both history and fantasy, and captures all of the aching sadness that surrounds Turing and his life. For all that so much of him differs from me, there is so much of him that I can see in myself, and for that, I am satisfied.

(Originally published in Meet Me in the Middle of the Air, Undertow Publications, 2016).