‘The Turing Test’ by Chris Beckett

Chris Beckett is one of a number of writers whom I first read in the pages of Interzone and The Third Alternative magazines; then read again in collections from the much-missed Elastic Press. Reading one of the books was like rediscovering its author, as I gained a deeper appreciation of their work as a whole.

For me, ‘The Turing Test’ is one of Beckett’s key stories. It concerns Jessica, a gallery owner who is sent a virtual PA that shakes her sense of self to the core. The titular test is used to assess whether an artificial intelligence can convince as human when interacting with a person. The spine of the story is Jessica’s unspoken fear that she might not pass the Turing test herself.

But it’s not just that. Every time I’ve read ‘The Turing Test’, I have found something new to appreciate. There are so many images of disconnection: Jessica lives in a ‘subscriber area’, safely tucked away from people who couldn’t afford security clearance – yet she’ll happily spend hours in the sinister virtual world of Night Street. Her gallery displays works containing human body parts, but she shows little concern for the feelings of those related to the deceased.

The collection The Turing Test won the Edge Hill Short Story Prize in 2009. It is still available now, and still a fine introduction to Chris Beckett’s work.

(Read and first published in Interzone #183, October 2002. Also available in the anthology A.I.s, Ace Books, 2004, and the collection The Turing Test, Elastic Press, 2008)