Books Read in 2021 – 13. Machines Like Me – Ian McEwan (Contains spoilers)

Genre: Alternative History, Literary Fiction

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Published: 2019

Rating: 2/5

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Charlie Friend lives in an alternative 1982 where Britain lost the Falkland War, Tony Benn is leader of the Labour party and Alan Turing is still alive. He has just purchased an Adam, one of the first batches of Adams and Eves to be produced, artificial humans made thanks to Turing’s work. He enlists the help of Miranda, his younger neighbour, who he is in love with. Together they decide on Adam’s personality and begin to introduce him to the world.

Time on Shelf: Not very long. Maybe six months.

Before I start this review, I feel I ought to confess that I have mixed feelings about Ian McEwan. I wrote a chapter of my MPhil on McEwan and Martin Amis and so had to read a lot of his novels in close succession. I have really liked some of his novels – The Child in Time, Atonement, The Cement Garden, for example – and really hated some of them – Solar, Amsterdam, Enduring Love, to name but three. In fact, after Solar I vowed I’d never read McEwan again. However, Machines Like Me sounded interesting so I relented. I wish I hadn’t bothered.

First of all, the alternative 1982 is irrelevant. The main plotline of Charlie and Miranda falling in love and adopting a poorly treated working class boy could have happened at any point in time. Charlie informs us of events in large and tedious pages of exposition but these events don’t actually touch the characters or affect their daily lives. It’s hard to see what point McEwan was trying to make. When Britain loses the Falkland War, Margaret Thatcher loses the next election and Tony Benn’s Labour party sweep to power. This seems like a nice little bit of wish fulfilment until it is revealed that he wishes to take Britain out of the European Union. Not that he gets to do that. Because he is now prime minister, he is killed in the IRA bomb that Thatcher survived. I’m not quite sure what point McEwan was trying to make with this. Maybe to make people consider their reactions to Thatcher’s near miss. Denis Healey is then made acting prime minister and the country quickly slides into chaos. Again, I wasn’t sure what to make of this. Normally when you read an alternative history it is to make you think of what might have happened. For example, the pinch point of JFK being shot is examined in 11/22/ 63 by Stephen King and the future if he is not shot is worse so we understand that events had to happen the way they did. Is this what McEwan is trying to do? Are we to be grateful this didn’t happen and we had Maggie instead? It made me a little uncomfortable to read it. A lot of the small details seem to be merely for Mcewan’s amusement such as John Lennon not being shot and The Beatles reforming. It serves no purpose except to make you think well, that might have been nice.

Of course, McEwan needs things to be slightly different so he can introduce his human machines. He needs technology to be in a different place than it actually was in 1982. (Although this begs the question, why not set just it in the future.) He also needs Alan Turing to still be alive. All the way through I was thinking, how is Turing alive. What is the detail of this world that differs from ours that means he didn’t feel the need to kill himself in 1954? I thought it might not be explained but in the last chapter, we are finally told. What it comes down to is Turing decides to take jail time rather than probation on the condition that he is chemically castrated. That it comes down to an individual’s decision suggests that McEwan merely needed to save Turing for the purposes of his narrative and felt no need to suggest something that might have improved life for all gay men. That was disappointing.

Charlie Friend is an annoying narrator given to spewing large amounts of detail about society and history into his narration. At one point, Miranda’s father mistakes him for the robot and I wasn’t surprised. He was tedious. He and Miranda got to choose Adam’s personality and although it is not clearly stated, it seems that Charlie must have made him in his own image because he too has a tendency towards boring people to tears. Part of the problem is a problem that I always have with McEwan’s writing. There is always a smug, I’m so clever tone that I find particularly annoying and Charlie had that in spades. It made me cringe in places. For example, while in the bath, Charlie says, ‘My penis, capsized above its submerged reef of hair, winked encouragement with a cocky single eye. So it should.’ I honestly think this is one of the worst sentences I have ever read. There is genuinely no need for it.

The most interesting thing about this novel – the reason why I decided to read it – was the ideas about artificial intelligence. The Adams and Eves start to commit suicide in various interesting ways. They cannot deal with the imperfections of the human way of thinking and cannot fully understand the reliance on emotion. I would have happily had this as the sole focus of the book but instead we get Miranda and her story of revenge on her friend’s rapist and Charlie and Miranda’s middle class rescue of a poor working class boy. The revenge story is the more interesting. Morally, we should side with Miranda because she made sure her friend’s rapist served time. Legally, of course, she has broken the law and so should be punished. It is this dilemma that finally pushes Adam over the edge and he sends the information he has to the police knowing that Miranda will be punished. He cannot understand the emotions of the situation. It also leads Charlie to bash his head in with a hammer. An event Turing suggests should be seen as murder.

It has to be said that McEwan clearly knows little about science fiction. He may be very well read on machine learning and mathematics but that is not the same as being able to craft a plausible machine that seems both human enough and machine like. Adam really convinces as neither. Mind you, neither does Charlie.

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