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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Cambridge Quintet

John L.Casti

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To purchase The Cambridge Quintet

Title: The Cambridge Quintet
Author: John L.Casti
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998
Length: 181 pages
Availability: The Cambridge Quintet - US
The Cambridge Quintet - UK
The Cambridge Quintet - Canada
Un savant dîner - France
Das Cambridge Quintett - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

C- : an interesting idea, but the weak writing is a lot for the book to overcome.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Scientist B+ 9-10/1998 Lisa Jardine
The Independent C 24/1/1999 .
New Scientist C 14/2/1998 Alan Rayner
Sciences B 7-8/1998 Laurence A. Marschall
Smithsonian A 5/1999 Paul Trachtman
Der Spiegel B+ 14/4/1998 Günther Fischer
Technology Review A- 5-6/1998 Wade Roush
TLS . 3/7/1998 J.Copeland/D.Proudfoot

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus. Some think it is clever, nicely done, and enlightening, others are considerably less impressed.

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Cambridge Quintet engages readers and holds our attention. It allows us to eavesdrop on clear explanations of the issues and to follow the interlocutors through carefully sign-posted stages in their disagreements. Casti also peppers the text with witticisms for the initiate (.....) As for verisimilitude, I am prepared to suspend my predictably British disbelief over one or two of Casti's fictional details." - Lisa Jardine, American Scientist

  • "As an exposition of scientific exchange, I suspect the book will be as off-putting to the majority as it may be inspiring to a few. As historical or social analysis, it appears prejudiced by the kind of discretist logic and hindsight used all too readily to identify exceptional hero-figures rather than social context as the causal agents of intellectual development. Moreover, I think the use of real historical personalities who may not have chosen the words put in their mouths undermines the unconstrained exploration of ideas which offers the most promising role for scientific fiction." - Alan Rayner, New Scientist

  • "John Casti's The Cambridge Quintet is a brilliant literary invention and intellectual feast." - Paul Trachtman, Smithsonian

  • "John L. Casti's lively and easy-to-read The Cambridge Quintet is in the long tradition of philosophical dialogues. (...) Casti nicely manages the difficult task of inserting the actual words of the protagonists (from both well-known and less accessible works) into the dinner-party conversation. (...) Casti's fiction distorts the philosophical differences between Turing and Wittgenstein." - Jack Copeland and Diane Proudfoot, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Subtitled A Work of Scientific Speculation Casti's book is "not a novel", but rather a work of "scientific fiction", presenting scientific issues in a fictional setting -- the emphasis being on the ideas, rather than the fiction, we suppose. In this book Casti brings together some prominent men -- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Erwin Schrödinger, Alan Turing, J.B.S.Haldane, and C.P.Snow -- at a dinner set in 1949 to discuss the possibility of a machine (a computer, basically) being able to think like a human being. In other words it is a book about Artificial Intelligence (AI), from the unusual point of view of a time when the question was almost purely theoretical. Divided into chapters corresponding to the stages of the meal (yes, really: "The Sherry", "The Soup", and so on) Casti discusses the main theoretical points at issue, using the historical characters as his mouthpieces.
       It is a book of ideas, and so perhaps the ideas are what count. Unfortunately, we also care for presentation and language. Casti's wooden prose and amateur writing-workshop descriptions are a deadly burden for his interesting ideas. Except for some of the dialogue, when he allows the characters to explain their philosophy, Casti's writing is pedestrian at best (and painfully bad at worst). His efforts at description (set in post-war Britain Casti tries to create some "atmosphere") are textbook bad, and the ongoing descriptions of the meal laughable. It is a very short book, but even so we found it difficult at times to proceed in the face of Casti's prose.
       Casti also does not entirely redeem himself with his ideas alone. AI is a fascinating subject, and Casti has taken an interesting approach here in going back to the theoretical beginnings. Wittgenstein and Turing make an interesting pair with their contrasting philosophies. The ideas -- and Casti's occasionally interesting embellishment -- do make the book worth quick perusal, but he does not do enough with his material.

       We regret that Casti was not more adventuresome in his invention. The artificial setting is as boring a one as he could choose, and indeed lends itself more to a dramatization than a novel. There is no reason why Casti could not have found a more interesting and exciting frame for his story. Our personal favourite -- an idea we kept hoping would crop up -- was that the whole dinner recreation was a computer recreation, a Turing test trying to fool the reader (or writer, or some audience inside the book itself). But no, Casti's artificial intelligence book remains entirely artificial. A helpful afterword does tie up the ideas with the development of AI up to the present day, though it would have been better if he could have integrated that into his fiction. As is we are baffled why he did not present his ideas in a straightforward non-fiction setting, as an essay or something of that sort, where his style would be more acceptable.

       We can recommend this only to those interested in AI, or those interested in English academia right after the war (though we think such readers will be disappointed by the weak writing). As a literary work it is a disappointing read, as a book of ideas it does offer some interesting ideas. Though it has a fine premise it is a failed book, and only a moderately interesting failure at that.

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The Cambridge Quintet: Reviews: John L. Casti: Books about Wittgenstein under review: Other books by John Casti under review:
  • Gödel (with Werner DePauli)
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       John L. Casti is an American science writer. He is on the faculty of the Santa Fe Institute and that of the Technical University, Vienna, and divides his time between these two institutions.

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