[14 October 2013]
The struggles encountered by three men, as they try to create the world’s first truly intelligent, completely sentient computer is the premise at the center of A Working Theory of Love, Scott Hutchins’ debut novel in which he deftly establishes himself as a refreshing, new literary voice. Making its paperback debut, the novel makes for a charming essay about the lives of people in San Francisco, as we visit the offices of Amiante Systems, a small technology company led by the charismatic Henry Livorno where he works with programmer Laham and a non-scientist by the name of Neill Bassett, Jr. the story’s actual protagonist.
Why is Basset employed at Amiante? The answer is actually quite simple, the computer they’re working on has been loaded with journals written by Bassett’s late father and Livorno has the son “talk” to the computer in order to make its answers more lifelike and realistic. Their purpose is to pass the famous Turing test, which has scientists analyze answers to questions they pose to a screen and then has them trying to figure out if said answers came from a human being or a computer. Basset describes his job as Amiante: “Livorno putts, Laham programs and I talk all day to a computer model of my dead father. It’s like Apple but without the pressure to make anything useful.”
However, the more Neill talks to the computer—which they refer to simply as Dr. Bassett—the more he becomes in touch with a part of his life he tried to block: his father committed suicide when his son was 19 and in college, the reasons behind his death a complete mystery to everyone, especially seeing how content he seemed with his life according to his journals. While the fact that the man kept journals for every year of his life, seems a bit contrived, there’s not a single phony moment in this sweet novel. Neill isn’t just a 30-year-old with daddy issues, he’s also a recent divorcé, trying to get back into the dating game in San Francisco.
After realizing his life had become a series of one night stands, he tries to find the purpose of love again and begins dating a free spirited barista named Rachel, who isn’t only a decade younger, but also belongs to a strange sexual cult in which female members have their clitorises stimulated by males they barely know. Neill is flabbergasted by the concept, but allows Rachel to get to know herself and even attempts dating Jenn, a woman closer to his interests, who also happens to work for Amiante’s main competitor.
Of his adult encounter with Jenn, Neill says, “In the dusky light of her kitchen I stand naked and eat leftover salami. Her place is as neat and impersonal as an IKEA showroom and I admire it.” Throughout the novel we get a sense that by dating these women, Neill is also trying to define who he is. In Rachel he wants to find the sense of careless youth he was denied when his father killed himself and he had to take on the role of “man of the house”, even if he confesses not being extremely close to his mother, either. With Jenn, he seems to want to achieve exactly what his father had: an admirable life, with a working plan that would lead him to eventual happiness.
Neill’s worldview often seems quirky and strange, but he’s a character we enjoy getting to know. His best scenes, unsurprisingly, are those in which he talks to Dr. Bassett, their exchanges presented in bold lettering without any capitalization—apparently Dr. Bassett isn’t programmed to do punctuation—in these moments Hutchins explores what might be the novel’s most fascinating subject: the concept behind what makes us human. Is Dr. Bassett’s digital consciousness equal to Neill’s? If not why, then, do we yearn to hear more from it when it’s gone? Why does Neill have a hard time staying away from the computer?
Without much fuss Hutchins turns the computer into a metaphor for books, as well. Are these characters truly alive because we’re enjoying them so much? Is their humanity as important as ours? A Working Theory of Love makes for a delightful satire that asks profound questions without making it look like a great effort. Hutchins’ writing is so simple and straightforward that the book often reads like a good conversation. It’s not hard to figure out that by the time we get to the actual Turing contest at the end of the novel, we have been so won over by Dr. Bassett that we don’t care if scientists think it’s human or not.