Forgotten authors No.51: Dr Christopher Evans
Sunday 04 April 2010
The more we behave like machines, the more they behave like us. Dr Christopher Evans was fascinated by this idea. Not to be confused with the British sci-fi writer of the same name, Evans was a British computer scientist, experimental psychologist and writer – but to my mind his greatest claim to fame lies in two astonishing anthologies he constructed with a highly unlikely assembly of authors.
Evans was born in Wales in 1931. He joined the National Physical Laboratory while in his twenties and wrote a book about a coming computer revolution, in which he predicted that microchips would transform world communications. The book, Micro: The Impact of the Computer Revolution, was turned into a six-part TV series, but sadly Evans died before its transmission, in 1979.
The enemy of pseudoscience, Evans was also fascinated by the ways in which the human brain and its electronic equivalent might interact. Could computers replicate consciousness, and eventually learn to dream? In 1969, these ideas coalesced into the anthology Mind at Bay, in which he suggested that the phantoms inhabiting our minds were about to take a new electronic form. The book gathers together 11 pieces, complete with essays concerning our deepest hopes and fears. The stories are remarkable, covering everything from loneliness, going mad and the fear of cancer to the possibilities of the future and the likelihood of seeing an escalation of war in our lifetime. It comes as no surprise to find JG Ballard in the collection, writing about paranoia.
The book was a hit and spawned a sequel, Mind in Chains. This time, Evans explored an even more cerebral frontier, providing a virtual survival manual for the world to come. This time he balanced several classic pieces by established authors and juxtaposed them with extreme experimental writing.
Two electrifying pieces stand out. In "The Dreams of the Computer" Evans sets out to confuse and disorientate a computer by deliberately misprogramming it. The computer eventually suffers a nervous breakdown and hallucinates. In "Anxietal Register B", John Sladek challenges the reader by providing a sinister form which must be filled in. The questions become increasingly intrusive, offensive and disturbing, and the form proves virtually impossible to complete. These touchstone volumes became unlikely bestsellers. They have never been reprinted.
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