Don Juan in the Machine: Amanda Prantera’s Conversations with Lord Byron

I don’t think any reviewer of Amanda Prantera’s third novel, first published in 1987, could resist the chance to marvel at its full title: Conversations with Lord Byron on Perversion, 163 Years after His Lordship’s Death. It’s a mouthful, it’s hard to remember, it takes up half the cover real estate and three-quarters of the book’s slim spine, and it’s absolutely perfect.

I’d guess that most readers have encountered neither that incredible title nor the author’s name. Very few science fiction or fantasy fans have heard of Amanda Prantera, and it’s not difficult to see why. Many of her books, most of which are currently unavailable in the United States, have no fantastical elements, and those that do will still end up shelved in general fiction. She’ll follow a mildly satirical conspiracy story with a pseudonymous vampire novel, and then publish a book about a British family in China. Prantera, it seems to me, is like Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, or David Mitchell: a writer equally happy and adept at using domestic realism, hallucinatory fantasy, or technological speculation to share her unique vision.

Before I move on to Conversations, I need to say a few words about Byron himself.

During his lifetime, George Gordon, 6th Baron Byron, was widely read and universally discussed; today he is little read and only intermittently discussed, yet he refuses to go away. If Byron cannot vanish from the popular culture, neither can he vanish from genre fiction, which is just as well, since he may have been present at science fiction’s birth. Brian Aldiss (among others) has alleged that Frankenstein is the first science fiction novel; Mary Shelley’s story began as her entry in a storytelling contest held with Byron and Percy Shelley at Lake Geneva. Then, of course, there’s the matter of his daughter Ada, a brilliant mathematician whose work with Charles Babbage was one of the first steps in the development of the computer.

SFF writers, keenly aware of their field’s history, have never neglected Byron, who is a major figure in the Bruce Sterling and William Gibson collaboration The Difference Engine, where he becomes prime minister, and a minor one in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, where he runs afoul of a fairy. In Tim Powers’s The Stress of Her Regard he’s properly mad, bad, and dangerous to know, though far less so than the monster preying on that book’s Romantic poets. John Crowley’s Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land purports to be a manuscript by Byron that delved so deeply into the author’s ambivalent feelings about his daughter Ada that the author had it suppressed.

Conversations with Lord Byron differs from all these books in one essential way: the true Byron may not actually appear. No medium summons up Byron’s ghost to a séance, nor does cheap time travel bring the poet to us “163 Years after His Lordship’s Death.” Rather, the conversations are between a researcher, Anna, and a Byron AI (known as “LB”) housed in the dull grey confines of a 1980s computer. Several unnamed and unpleasant computer scientists have plugged all of Byron’s writing, as well as all the biographical information available on him, and created what we’d today call a neural network. Real life experiments in creating “learning” AI have ended poorly—witness Microsoft’s racist chatbot disaster of 2016— but Prantera’s scientists are luckier. Their Byron—once they’ve adjusted the odd emotional parameter and tweaked its syntax output—actually sounds like a Romantic poet. The researchers even hope that the machine, once it’s properly up, running, and optimized, might eventually produce a few lines of original poetry.

Anna, an expert in Romantic poetry, is the only named character in the contemporary section of the novel: most of the story comes to us in the AI’s voice. Anna, as a diligent scholar, is trying to determine the identity of the lost beloved Byron called “Thyrza” in his poems. Anna, like many real-world scholars, believes that “Thyrza” was in fact John Edleston, a choirboy contemporary of Byron’s at Cambridge, and that Byron hid the object of his “perverse” love behind a woman’s name. Unbeknownst to Anna and her colleagues, the Byron program has become self-aware and has begun to remember a great secret. As Anna types leading questions into the terminal, we glimpse Byron’s electronic memories, almost none of which he shares with his interlocutor.

“LB” has a compelling story of a pivotal hidden episode in Byron’s life, but an implicit question hangs over his testimony: how much of the untold story he doesn’t tell is the truth? Has the true soul of Byron somehow taken up residence in the silicon and plastic? Or have the clever programming, the reams of biographical and literary data, and the constant tinkering with the AI’s parameters revived Lord Byron or created a deluded fabulist? LB’s revelations are so deliberately implausible—duels fought offstage, rumors of a team of assassins, unlikely charades, and improbable unmaskings— that I think we’re supposed to suspect the latter, but the story we’re told is entertaining enough that we relish suspending our disbelief. We’re the lucky ones: we get to hear the tale.

Readers looking for a swashbuckling historical tale, a nugget of hard science fiction, or plausible speculation about Byron might be disappointed with Prantera’s novel, but thirty years on, this funny, thought-provoking, well-written, and gloriously titled novel continues to perplex, enthrall, and astound. Conversations with Lord Byron on Perversion, 163 Years after His Lordship’s Death is not just a good name: it’s a good book, too.

Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies; he is helped in the former by his day job in the publishing industry. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.

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