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.

Day 22 – A plot device that annoyed you – Atonement and The Time Traveller’s Wife

I’ve changed the title of today’s blog a little as I couldn’t think of any plot devices that had annoyed me over and over. I don’t read many series or books that are really similar to each other so instead I have chosen to look at two plot devices that I found so annoying they really spoiled my enjoyment of the books.

I really did enjoy reading Atonement by Ian McEwan. From the opening of the novel in Cambridgeshire, to the scenes of fighting and the horrors of working as a nurse in the second world war, I was convinced by the characters and the way their lives interwove. I think it is the fact that I had been so taken with the novel and its supposed resolution that annoyed me so much when I finally got to the end.

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In the final section, it is revealed that the previous chapters were a novel written by Briony and in fact tragic lovers Robbie and Cecilia were not reunited in ‘real life’ but in a fiction within a fiction. Writing the novel was Briony’s atonement for the fact that she accused Robbie of rape and ruined any chances the pair might have had of actual romance. I admit that I felt a little cheated by this and I still feel it is akin to the sort of ending children write all the time, a more sophisticated version of ‘and then I woke up.’ The story is not the story you thought it was. Briony claimed that she did not want to give readers a hopeless ending but in actual fact the ending was much worse for giving hope and then saying that they could only have it within a fiction. Very disappointing.

My second choice is The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I found this book interesting and annoying in just about equal measure.

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The concept was exciting and Henry was a good romantic lead. The idea of the time travel wasn’t that hard to swallow once the story got going and I liked the muddled chronology of their romance.

However, what did annoy me was the way that despite the fact that Henry supposedly has no control over when he will travel and where to, he manages to get winning lottery numbers so that Clare will be able to carry on with her art without having to worry. I felt that this was a narrative cheat. Either Henry could control his travel or he couldn’t, but not control when it suited him and Niffenegger.

Incidentally, as this doesn’t directly fit with the title of today’s blog, it goes without saying that I found the end of this novel really irritating. The idea of a women waiting all those years because she knows she will have one more glimpse of the man she loved seems a little too like a fairy tale for my taste. It did not seem romantic, just out-moded and a little depressing. Most of the women I worked with at the time loved it so, hey, what do I know.

Day 9 – Most Overrated Book – David Nicholls and Ian McEwan

The words don’t get me started spring to mind. Narrowing this post down to just a few books was not easy, believe me. For this reason, I decided not to have another swing at 50 Shades of Grey when I have already blogged about it once. I don’t really feel that it is worthy of more of my blog space. So let’s just take it as a given that I think that 50 Shades, Twilight and their ilk are overrated and I’ll have a rant about some other books instead.

My first choice is One Day by David Nichols. This book went round my co-workers like a particularly virulent dose of the flu. Everybody loved it. Everybody thought it was tragic when… I was one of the last to succumb as I already knew it was probably not the sort of thing that I would like (due to my anti-romantic nature). Nevertheless, I gave in and bought a copy. Perhaps my expectations were too high.

It is quite a neat idea – the same day year after year but it quickly seemed that the days were not that different from each other, particularly at the beginning. Then there was the fact that both characters were unappealing but particularly Dexter. If the novel was building towards a romantic end

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for these two, I felt that it seemed more than a little unfair on Emma, who although annoying was nowhere near as obnoxious as Dexter. So the romance was already alluding me.

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t badly written and I have read another David Nicholls book which I did like better, I just thought it was a little forced and the characters seemed more like types than people. I wasn’t bothered really even though the events could be described as tragic. There was no emotional resonance. I felt like I should be saying please try harder.

My second choice is Solar by Ian McEwan but it could be any of his more recent novels. I used to quite like Ian McEwan and was happy studying him for my MPhil. I don’t know if my tastes have changed or if his writing

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style has become more pretentious but I find it harder and harder to read his work. It seems, more and more, that he writes like a man in love with his own prose. The sentences scream off the page ‘look at me, look at how clever I am’. This is more than a little off putting.

His characters are also becoming more and more obnoxious. Michael Beard, the protagonist of Solar is a womaniser, he steals another’s ideas and claims an enormous amount of fame and money afterwards. I’m quite fond of unreliable narrators who are difficult to like but there was little that was appealing or even worthy of empathy. Again, I was left not caring about his inevitable downfall. It is disappointing that McEwan seems to have almost become a parody of himself.