Tuesday, 18 January 2000

Michael Frayn: The Tin Men (1965)

Edition: Fontana, 1971
Review number: 422

Michael Frayn's first novel is like the comic novels of J.B. Priestley, especially Sir Michael and Sir George, rather than those of Evelyn Waugh, with whom the quoted reviews on the cover compare him. Waugh's melancholy side is absent from The Tin Men, and it is more directly satirical, though the novel is as funny as the comparison suggests.

The satire is about mechanisation and depersonalisation, the latter a theme to which Frayn returned several times as a novelist. Preparations are under way for the opening of a new wing at the William Morris Institute for Automation Research, and as increasingly detailed arrangements are made for the Queen's informal visit, the stress tells on the eccentric characters working to replace as much of human life as possible by computers, freeing people to do "the really important things".

The automatic versions of everyday life are, of course, where the satire comes in - meaningless headlines written by newspaper machines are a typical example. I rather liked the experimental ethics department robots, programmed to throw themselves off a capsizing raft to save a being more complex than themselves, engaging in fights to the death when two are placed on the raft. In most cases, the targets are fairly easy to hit but the satire is still funny. The Tin Men is amusing, but Frayn has gone on to write far more subtle novels.

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