Saturday, October 11, 2014

Stanley Kubrick's A.I. by Ian Watson

For almost two decades Stanley Kubrick was obsessed intermittently by a project for a science fiction movie, featuring a robot child, originally known as Supertoys and subsequently called AI (for Artificial Intelligence). The inspiration was a brief story by British author Brian Aldiss entitled "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long," first published in a special issue of Harper's Bazaar in 1969, the year not only of the first Moon landing but also of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

Back in 1969 I myself was a young lecturer teaching literature at a couple of universities in Tokyo. Watching that movie from a cramped bucket of a seat in a Japanese cinema, how I admired the sheer spaciousness of Kubrick's Orbital Hilton and of the spaceship Discovery bound for Jupiter -- not to mention the breadth of his and Arthur Clarke's vision.
Seven years later I became a full-time writer of science fiction. Early in 1990, in my cottage in a little English village sixty miles north of London, the phone rang. Stanley Kubrick's assistant, Tony Frewin, introduced himself and said that Stanley wished to talk to me. Why me? It transpired that Tony had phoned various specialist SF book dealers to ask who they rated as a writer with lots of bright ideas, and several of my story collections, such as Slow Birds and Evil Water, were duly delivered to Stanley.

 Tony offered me a chauffeured ride to (and back from) the manor house just outside St Albans twenty miles north of London where Stanley had lived in enigmatic seclusion for years, very far from Hollywood. Coincidentally St Albans, the Roman town of Verulamium which Boadicea burned to the ground, was my birthplace, although I was raised in the north-east of England. In preparation for my visit I should read a story which would be sent to me promptly by motorbike courier. (As I was to discover, Stanley's interest in a project might lapse for years on end but as soon as it re-awakened things must happen instantly.) Unable to elicit any further clue as to what my visit would be about and feeling a certain frisson, of the entering-a-lion's-den variety, I opted to drive there in my own car. A few hours later the courier arrived and handed over a package containing nine sheets of flimsy fax paper bearing the text of "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long," faded as if retrieved from an ancient file. I was aware from magazine gossip that Northern Irish writer Bob Shaw had recently been working with Stanley on "a science fiction project," and this must be it. Bob was the inventor of fictional "slow glass," which allows owners to look out of their windows nostalgically upon sights from the past, and he had moved from strife-torn Ulster to the northwest of England, 150 miles by railway from St Albans.

The Aldiss story, which was either highly contradictory or ambiguous depending on one's point of view, proved to be set in an overpopulated future society. To control breeding, pregnancy is only allowed if you win a permit in the weekly lottery run by the Ministry of Population. For several years childless Monica has been yearning to win permission. As a stopgap child-substitute she has a synthetic toddler, David, together with a robot teddy bear. Pathetic puzzled David frets about whether he is real and whether Mummy loves him, while the simple-minded interactive teddy bear helps out with lame-brained advice.

Duly instructed on how to find the manor house, a few days later I turned off one of the main roads out of St Albans into a private parkland, harbouring a dainty mini-village of homes originally built for estate workers by the former owner of the spread, millionaire racehorse-owner Jim Joel. Stanley had bought the manor house of between fifty and a hundred rooms -- estimates vary - and the immediate grounds. I headed along a half-mile lane through paddocks and pastures till I reached a modest security gate. Pushing the button of an intercom on a post, I identified myself to Tony. The low gate duly unlocked and swung open. Past masking shrubbery I drove round a corner to a lodge-house, Tony's own bailiwick beside the gateway to a gravelled courtyard, across which a horseless stable block faced the front of the manor.

 Author of One Hundred Years of Science Fiction Illustration published in 1974, Tony had worked with Stanley on 2001 and later became his personal assistant. He proved to be a droll friendly chap of wide-ranging and recherché interests, with a detestation of Edith Sitwell (who happens to be buried in the village next to mine). 

My memory of that first meeting with Stanley fades into untold other meetings, but the impression which abides (since his appearance never changed) was of a quizzical scruffy figure, bespectacled eyelids hooded, receding hair and beard untidy, dressed in baggy trousers, a jacket with lots of pockets and pens, and tatty old jogging shoes - and with a quirky amiable dry humour and an intensity of focus which could flick disconcertingly from one topic to another far removed.

I never mastered the topography of even part of the ground floor of the house, but its labyrinthine grottos included a mini-movie theatre where Stanley could study the latest screen releases in darkness and privacy, a large sepulchral computer room where two cats who never saw the light of day glided like wraiths, a sub-title control room (as I thought of it - more of this anon), a billiard room minus billiard table devoted now to books and armchairs where Stanley and I were to sit brainstorming for untold hours, with occasional excursions to twin toilets along a gloomy corridor -- and the much cheerier huge kitchen, giving on to the patio and herb garden, where I was to share the first of many lunches with Stanley before we decamped to that billiard room.

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