Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan sure does have the corner on the middle-class-white-men-having-existential-crises market, doesn’t he?

In Machines Like Me, McEwan conjures a world not quite like the one we know. It’s the eighties in Britain – the Falklands War has been lost, Margaret Thatcher battles Tony Benn for power and Alan Turing achieves a breakthrough in artificial intelligence.

Charlie, drifting through life and dodging full-time employment, is in love with Miranda, the bright post-grad who lives in the flat next door. Charlie also has a new toy – Adam, one of the first batch of synthetic humans. With Miranda’s assistance, he co-designs Adam’s personality. This near-perfect human is beautiful, strong and clever and a love triangle soon forms. At the same time, a secret from Miranda’s past surfaces, and both Charlie and Adam become implicated.

As always, McEwan delivers an excellent moral-thriller. There are a number of surprising twists and sub-plots; clever and intriguing details in McEwan’s alternative version of London (Alan Turing is alive!); and a thoroughly imagined world of artificial intelligence.

By the early seventies, digital communication had discarded its air of convenience and become a daily chore. Likewise, the 250 mph trains – crowded and dirty. Speech-recognition software, a fifties’ miracle, had long turned to drudge, with entire populations sacrificing hours each day to lonely soliloquising. Brain–machine interfacing, wild fruit of sixties optimism, could barely arouse the interest of a child. What people queued the entire weekend for became, six months later, as interesting as the socks on their feet. What happened to the cognition-enhancing helmets, the speaking fridges with a sense of smell? Gone the way of the mouse pad, the Filofax, the electric carving knife, the fondue set. The future kept arriving. Our bright new toys began to rust before we could get them home, and life went on much as before.

There are some big themes in this book, focused around the question of what makes us ‘human’. Although Adam and his blossoming ‘personality’ is at the centre, McEwan also introduces a child, Mark, who is removed from his abusive home – Mark allows the reader to speculate the age-old ‘nature versus nurture’ question, and alongside the development of Adam, it gives the story deeper context.

McEwan demonstrates Adam’s intelligence, programmed to mirror and respond to humans, with amusing details, such as his ability to put on socks (because ‘any three year-old knows that challenge’), and to knowing the importance of letting meat rest after cooking. However, it’s when Adam begins to make morally-based decisions, that the book becomes gripping.

Reah wrote a long poem about his and Turing’s life together, published in the TLS and then in book form. The poet and critic Ian Hamilton said in a review, ‘Here is a physicist who can imagine as well as scan. Now bring me the poet who can explain quantum gravity.’ When Adam appeared in my life, I believed that only a poet, not a machine, could tell me if Miranda would ever love me, or lie to me.

If you’re like me and you like your sci-fi to be not very sci-fi at all (think The Beautiful Bureaucrat or The Heart Goes Last), this is the ideal book – there’s enough that’s familiar to make it possible, but it is also undoubtedly futuristic, making it thought-provoking.

3.5/5 Memorable (and probably a four if I didn’t compare all of McEwan’s work to Atonement).

The evening of the tarragon chicken had been a success.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (June 16): Belfast 9°-16° and Melbourne, also 9°-16°.


8 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. I’m more cautious with McEwan than I used to be. When he’s on form, he’s superb (ie Atonement) but sometimes he gets a bit carried away with that middle class white male angst. I loathed Saturday…..

    • Then you might like “The Code. If your AI loses its mind, can it take meds.” by Peter McAllister. It explores some similar issues around the taking of a robot life to save humans, but weaves in the theme of slavery of sentient AI (without getting too techy). More stars on Goodreads than “Machines like me” too.

  3. I love my SciFi and am (slowly) formulating the theory that since WWII it has been the crucible of literary invention. SF has had some great literary writers – Dick, Le Guin, Lessing, Ballard, Gibson – so it’s good to see ‘literature’ returning the compliment with some good SF.

  4. I find that IM’s books are particularly good in audio format – I don’t think I would have enjoyed Nutshell as much as I did without the menacing narration! So I will look forward to an audio version of this one making its way to the library, hopefully soon.

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