David Lodge has long been a writer of engaging, literate, witty, entertaining novels, many of them taking place in an academic setting. Reading him is always a pleasure because his irony is never savage; while poking gentle fun at his characters, such as the famous Morris Zapp in Changing Places (1975) and Small World (1984), he never dislikes them. His is a tolerant, wryly amused voice, one that always has empathy for the small vanities and hypocrisies, the tangle of imperfect relationships and thwarted desires that seem to go with the human condition. Thinks . . . is no exception. As in Nice Work (1988), in which Lodge juxtaposed a trendy female left-wing academic with her direct, opposite, a down-to-earth, practical businessman, so in Thinks . . . he sets up his two main characters as typifying opposing approaches to the nature of human consciousness, the topic he wishes to explore. Lest the reader find such a topic too daunting, Lodge makes sure that he does not lose his comic touch, and his gift for presenting real characters in believable interactions is as apparent as ever. The ideas do not overwhelm the story, which is skillfully plotted and contains many twists and surprises along the way.
The two protagonists in Thinks . . . are Ralph Messenger, professor of cognitive science at Gloucester University, and Helen Reed, an established novelist who is taking on a temporary assignment as a creative writing instructor at the university. The story alternates between their points of view and also has chapters told by a narrator in the third person. There are also some fine literary parodies which occur when Reed’s students, in a literary exercise, imitate the styles of some well-known writers.
Messenger (that is what his wife calls him) is a fine creation. He is a charismatic, highly successful academic and media star, the sort who is always popping up on radio and television explaining new scientific discoveries, hot psychological issues, and the like. As a popularizer, he is regarded with some suspicion by other academics, particularly his dour, uptight colleague Douglas C. Douglas, who has the brains but lacks Messenger’s powerful presence and so misses out on the trappings of success. Messenger’s intellectual interests lie in the field of consciousness, the systematic study of the human mind, which, he says, was once the domain of just a few philosophers but is now the biggest game in town, attracting the interest of physicists, biologists, zoologists, mathematicians, and neurologists. Messenger heads the prestigious Holt Belling Center for Cognitive Science and spends a lot of time thinking about topics such as artificial intelligence, or AI, as it is known in the profession. He and his graduate students are all involved in projects that attempt to duplicate in robots or computers the workings of human consciousness. This includes something called “affective modeling,” which is computer simulation of the way emotions affect human behavior.
Messenger is an argumentative fellow, not given to self-doubt. He is confident that his way of seeing the world is the correct one, and he has little patience with views that run counter to his own. He recognizes the validity only of things that can be objectively measured. He does not believe in such abstractions as the soul or spirit, which for him are simply ways of speaking of certain kinds of brain activity. In his view, when the brain ceases to function, consciousness ceases also. He has no time for what cognitive scientists call “pan psychism,” the idea that consciousness is the fundamental component of the universe, which he associates with a vague transcendentalism or oriental religion. He believes that everything that processes information (including a human being), is a machine, and can be explained in purely physical terms.
When Messenger is not thinking about issues surrounding the study of consciousness, he is thinking about sex (or perhaps it should be the other way round). He has had many extramarital affairs, and has developed an unspoken agreement with his American wife Carrie that he can continue to do this just as long as his affairs take place well away from their own neighborhood. For the...
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