Artificial intelligence meets the questing of the human heart in an ambitious, accomplished debut.
Hutchins’ impressive if overlong first novel hinges on an ironic setup that delivers multiple layers of cherishable content. His hero, Neill Bassett Jr., is working on a computer program derived from the diaries of a “Samuel Pepys of the South,” helping to create the world’s first intelligent machine. These diaries were written by Neill’s father, so the many conversations between Neill and the computer offer rich opportunities for comedy and rueful reflection, as well as comparisons between Neill’s life to date—divorced, lonely, 30-something bachelor—and his father’s achievements as parent, homeowner and doctor, although while the computer program is able to figure out Neill is its “son,” what it doesn’t know is that Dr. Bassett Sr. committed suicide. Constant debate about and adjustments to the program lend a minor element of pace—the Turing prize is at stake—meanwhile, Neill muses on his father, relationships with various females and a cult called Pure Encounters. Suspicious that he’s really a beta-male, Neill journeys skeptically toward connection as Hutchins plays simultaneously with ideas and language, sex and psychology, capturing the angst and insularity of modern urban life.
Clever and extensive navel-gazing is modulated by tenderness, humor and charm. A writer to watch.