Michael Frayn: Overview

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Editor: Jay P. Pederson
Date: 1996
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,637 words

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Michael Frayn is not an easy writer to categorize. The Tin Men is obviously not SF but witty comedy, school of Waugh; on the other hand, it obviously is SF, as it purports to be written by a computer and satirizes men who behave like computers and are trying to make computers behave like men. When a robot comes to write its own prehistory, it will have to give classic place in its mythology to Macintosh's ethical machines and their struggles on the sinking raft. But the novel is not so much SF itself as an exuberant account of the men who are trying to make our world into an SF dystopia. The great discovery of Macintosh and Goldwasser is that, because all human life is of no purpose other than to provide newspaper headlines and statistics, humans can stop living and let the computers do it for them. Computers can produce newspapers, sports results, pornography, prayers: who needs people? The characteristic inverted logic of Frayn's tin men naturally produces a novelist who begins by writing the blurbs, the potted biography, and the reviews, and only then tries writing the book (formulaically, of course), before capitulating to the superior power of his typewriter keyboard. What The Tin Men itself lacks as a novel is a story worthy of its theme. Admittedly the story, which concerns the opening of the Ethics Wings in a computer research establishment, not by the Queen, as planned but by her stand-in for rehearsals (an ungainly man called Nobbs), illustrates several aspects of the theme of illusion mistaken for reality, but its spirit of low farce inoculates the reader against taking the book seriously. Also, the novel's short-breathed episodic quality—it is really only a series of sketches strung loosely together by a farcical plot—too openly betrays the author's work as a whimsically satiric journalist. The short-breath syndrome is familiar among SF novelists who are really short story writers; in The Tin Men we have an essayist trying to write a novel and not quite succeeding.

A Very Private Life also has a mosaic quality (as indeed does Frayn's stimulating philosophical work, Constructions), but here the small pieces compose a highly satisfactory work of art, one of the most delightful fabulations in the genre. The heroine, Uncumber, begins as a misfit in a society where what the Haves have is privacy: they meet by holovision, as in Asimov's The Naked Sun. Uncumber falls in love with...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420002978