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The Tin Men

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Fontana, London, 1970
(price: 5/-; 160 pages)

(first published 1965)

The blurb on the back:

'Dazzlingly funny' - Observer
'Goes straight into the Evelyn Waugh class' -
Sunday Times
The Tin Men are computers and the executives who nanny them. Mr Frayn is brilliant at getting exactly right how technocrats get things absolutely wrong.' - Julian Jebb, Sunday Times
'One knew, sourly, that his book was going to be funny; one did not see how it could be so continuously funny... The fun of
The Tin Men is outrageous because it is so serious.' - Anthony Burgess, Guardian
'Bitingly alive and on occasion brilliantly funny. With razor-sharp accuracy he snicks his way to the core of our secret dreams and hidden vanities.' -
'As brilliantly funny as all Michael Frayn's work' - PG Wodehouse
Winner of the Somerset Maugham Award

The coming of the PC may have revolutionized everyday life, but the principal philosophical questions raised by computing - consciousness, artificial intelligence, future evolution &c. - have remained pretty much the same for the last fifty years. So the issues in Michael Frayn's novel, even though it's set in the Olden Days of computers, are still relevant to continuing debates.

Frayn, of course, became much better known as a playwright (particularly with Noises Off) and there's no doubt that his greatest strength was as a dramatist. But this still has some fantastic moments, and really needs to be read. The setting is the William Morris Institute of Automation Research, where a new Ethics Department is shortly to be opened by the Queen. Imagine, if you will, the post-Lucky Jim redbrick faculty, complete with the eccentricities and paranoia attendant upon it, crossed with a farcical reinterpretation of The Old Men At The Zoo, and you'll be close.

The big questions are addressed obliquely rather than directly, since Frayn's primary focus is on satire, but the underlying theme is the way in which computers and society interact - how human activities have been changed by the advent of computing and automation, and how that advent was facilitated by the structure of human activities.

Take prayer. The academics researching the use of automation and computing argue that we cannot know: (a) whether God exists, (b) whether, if he exists, he hears our prayers, and (c) whether, if he hears, he acts upon them. The outcome of prayer is therefore uncertain and out of our hands. But if we cannot control the output, we can at least control the input and, since human beings seem determined to keep on praying, we should use machines to do the work for them. A computer will be able to pray much faster than a human being, with a greater degree of accuracy and comprehensiveness, and with much improved efficiency (no distractions, for example). So we set the computers to praying, and thereby free up vast quantities of human time and energy.

The extensions are almost limitless. This is written, for example, at the height of the social engineering phase of British architecture, when tower-blocks were seen as the obvious next step after slum clearance - you can apply the prayer paradigm for yourself.

Elsewhere Frayn just enjoys himself with some wonderful flights of fancy. You've got the Queen coming to open a building, so you need some ceremonial scissors. Where do you go? To a ceremonial scissors salesman, of course:

'Now here's rather a nice model, sir. This is the Sandringham. A very nice scissor - a very nice scissor, indeed. Perhaps you'd like to hold it, sir. Do you feel how snugly it sits in the hand? Try it on this demonstration tape here ... that's right, sir. Lovely action, isn't it?
'Or perhaps you'd prefer something more traditional? Have a look at the Osborne. A very conservative scissor, this one. I expect some people would think it was a bit old-fashioned, but as a matter of fact we sell quite a lot of them. Oh yes, there's something about tradition, sir, whatever they say...
'This one, sir? This is the Holyrood. It's a heavy-duty scissor for the thicker tape. You'll find some of your big contractors and engineering firms put up a very heavy gauge tape if you don't watch them.
'Now this one's the Balmoral. Very fashionable now, sir.' (p.89)

Wondrous stuff.

Mr Frayn
Michael Frayn


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