Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

Ahhh Ian McEwan!
My love affair with McEwan and his books is such a seesaw of anticipation, hope, expectation and oh so often disappointment. Atonement is the only book that has lasted the distance for me, although I’m willing to give Chesil Beach another shot, as in hindsight, I read it for the first time at completely the wrong time in my life to appreciate it properly. 
Machines Like Me sounded very promising and I’m probably one of the few people that didn’t get totally creeped out by the front cover. Alternate histories, artificial intelligence (aka science run-amok) and profound moral dilemma’s are all my literary cups of tea.
I’ve been holding off writing this review as I waited for Mr Books to finish it too. I wanted to discuss it with him and combine our thoughts for this post. Because, love it or hate it, Machines Like Us is the perfect book group book – oozing with thought provoking ideas and many points to mull over and debate.
The trouble for me in the end, was that I didn’t buy the moral dilemma and was frustrated by the alternate history storyline that felt unresolved and unexplained – a gimmick rather than a fully fleshed discussion point. Which isn’t to say that Mr Books and I didn’t have a healthy discussion about consciousness, mind versus brain, emotional nuances, black and white thinking and how we develop shades of grey thinking. We did. But neither of us ever believe that robot Adam was anything more than a robot. 
He and the other 20-odd Adam and Eve robots were unable to cope with the ‘real’ world of human chaos and complexity. Their logically processes and programmed responses were not enough. Perhaps if they had been created as children and allowed to learn gradually the responses appropriate for the society they were living in about how to exist in this particular world of adults before moving on to older bodies, they may have not have freaked out so much.
What makes us human? Is it our brains, our feelings, our sense of consciousness? Is it soul or spirit or some other undefined, unseen element that makes us, dare I say, unique?
Mr Books threw the 1999 Robin Williams movie, Bicentennial Man into the mix. It had similar themes – robots as household help/slaves and where, exactly, is the line between human and non-human. 
The human characters were less than impressive – flawed, messy, chaotic individuals. They were insipid, jealous, vengeful, judgemental and lacking in dignity with imperfect moral compasses. No wonder the Adams and Eves struggled to fit in.
In this version of 1980’s England, Alan Turing is still alive an inventing.
I was fascinated by how one person’s life (or death) could change the course of history and wanted more of this. Turing, alive and well and fully embracing his sexuality changed the course of the Falklands War for example in McEwan’s world. Turing’s insistence on open source for all his inventions, meant that everyone had the ability to create technology, including, or more to the point, especially military equipment, which allowed Argentina to acquire the capacity to blow England out of the water in 1982.
But he didn’t explain how or why JFK survived that shooting incident in Dallas – it was just a mention in passing. Maybe the advanced technology allowed for better surveillance and faster response times, so that there was no second bullet. Or maybe bullet-proof cars were invented by then in this alternate universe. We don’t know. It is all pure speculation. Or as McEwan said,  “What might have happened was lost to us.”

Favourite Character: none

Favourite Quote:

The present is the frailest of improbable constructs. It could have been different. Any part of it, or all of it, could be otherwise.

Favourite or Forget: It’s not easy to forget a McEwan read. They usually make for a good book group discussion with their contentious issues, moral ambiguity and loose ends. But this one is not a favourite of mine.

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2 thoughts on “Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

  1. I've not read this one but am curious to see what he does with the subject matter. Agree completely about McEwan's suitability for book club discussions: always room to disagree. And he doesn't go halfway on anything!

    Like

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