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Machines Like Me Hardcover – 18 Apr 2019
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"Machines Like Me reminds us that McEwan is once-in-a-generation talent, offering readerly pleasure, cerebral incisiveness and an enticing imagination." (Lara Feigel Spectator)
"[Machines Like Me] is right up there with his very best [novels]. Machines Like Me manages to combine the dark acidity of McEwan’s great early stories with the crowd-pleasing readability of his more recent work. A novel this smart oughtn’t to be such fun, but it is." (Alex Preston Observer)
"Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me is a dazzling account of our interaction with technology… He marries a gripping plot, handled with rarefied skill and dexterity, to a deep excavation of the narrowing gap between the canny and the uncanny, leaving the reader pleasurably dizzied, and marvelling at human existence." (Philip Womack Independent)
"Compelling… unforgettably strange… there are many pleasures and many moments of profound disquiet in this book, which reminds you of its author’s mastery of the underrated craft of storytelling… [Machines Like Me] is morally complex and very disturbing, animated by a spirit of sinister and intelligent mischief that feels unique to its author." (Marcel Theroux Guardian)
"[McEwan's] fierce intelligence [crackles] like a Jumping Jack on Bonfire Night… Arguably the finest English writer of his generation, the ideas he explores are important, now more that ever." (Richard Dismore Daily Express)
"[McEwan is] as mordant a chronicler of the age as we have… Machines Like Me offers as good a primer on the multifarious anxieties that should afflict us all as anything catalogued as “non-fiction”." (Bill Prince GQ)
"Machines like Me displays… impressive richness. Excited by ideas and perceptive about emotions, encompassing cutting-edge science, philosophical speculation and lively social observation, it is funny, thought-provoking and politically acute… In this bravura performance, literary flair and cerebral sizzle winningly combine." (Peter Kemp Sunday Times)
"McEwan knows all the novelistic rules… [and his] restlessness when it comes to subject matter, even as he enters his seventies, is stunning… [Machines Like Me] shimmer[s] with relevance." (Janan Ganesh Financial Times)
"[Machines Like Me] traverses the muddled morality of Artificial Intelligence... This is new and exciting ground for McEwan, one of Britain's most consistently brilliant writers." (Olivia Ovenden Harper's Bazaar, *The Books We Can't Wait To Read In 2019*)
"In this sublimely playful novel… there isn’t a page that fails to make you think, or make you smile." (Craig Brown Mail on Sunday)
About the Author
Ian McEwan is the critically acclaimed author of seventeen books. His first published work, a collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites, won the Somerset Maugham Award. His novels include The Child in Time, which won the 1987 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award; The Cement Garden; Enduring Love; Amsterdam, which won the 1998 Booker Prize; Atonement; Saturday; On Chesil Beach; Solar; Sweet Tooth; The Children Act; and Nutshell, which was a Number One bestseller. Atonement, Enduring Love, The Children Act and On Chesil Beach have all been adapted for the big screen.
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I am reluctant to give many details of the book. This is partly because I do not want to spoil an interesting story that has a number of surprises and a truly shocking, provocative finale but also because the book is noteworthy as much for the way McEwan tells it as for the story itself. It is a thoughtful, philosophical book whose characters encounter some significant ethical problems. The interactions with Adam lead naturally to many questions: What defines a human? What does it mean to have a “self”? What is the nature of right and wrong? Is revenge ever justified? Will humans be replaced by artificial life? My electronic review copy is full of highlighted passages of excellent insights beautifully expressed. Charlie says at one point, “Adam had told me he was in love….Love wasn’t possible without a self, and nor was thinking.” Adam himself observes, “From a certain point of view, the only solution to suffering would be the complete extinction of humankind.” My first reaction to Adam’s comment was that it is an intriguing insight; my second reaction was, “Oh, my gosh! Do we want to create entities who might possibly think that way?”
Yes, this is a deep book, but it is not a difficult one. McEwan, for all his thoughtfulness and impressively broad knowledge, serves up a novel, not a philosophical treatise, and I cared about Charlie, Miranda, and yes, Adam as people and wished happiness for them all. And not all of my highlights were made because of their insights; McEwan is also quite witty. When Charlie discovers he is able to tailor Adam’s personality, he observes, “God had once delivered a fully formed companion for the benefit of the original Adam. I had to devise one for myself.”
What kind of reader will enjoy Machines Like Me? I am in a science-fiction book group, a philosophy book group, and a lunch group of rabid bibliophiles who call ourselves The Bookladies, and I plan to recommend it to all three groups, although I will warn The Bookladies that the story, but not the thoughtfulness, is rather different from most of McEwan’s other work. But then, most of McEwan’s work is rather different from his other work; one thing they all share is their originality.
I highly recommend Machines Like Me, but I must accompany my recommendation with a word of warning. This is not a book to close, put aside, and forget. It is a book that provokes the reader to think about the issues it raises, a book that you will want to talk about to friends. I guarantee it will be a good discussion!
(I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher and NetGalley.)
“We learned a lot about the brain, trying to imitate it. But so far, science has had nothing but trouble understanding the mind. Singly, or minds en masse. The mind in science has been little more than a fashion parade. Freud, behaviourism, cognitive psychology. Scraps of insight. Nothing deep or predictive that could give psychoanalysis or economics a good name.”
Machines Like Me is the seventeenth novel by award/prize-winning British author, Ian McEwan. It’s England in 1982, but a very different 1982 from the one with which most readers are familiar. Alan Turing alive and celebrated, and (probably consequently) technology is as far advanced as that known in the second decade of the twenty-first century. The Falklands war lost to the Argentines, with Maggie Thatcher (for a while) somehow holding onto power; grumblings about Poll Tax and rumblings about leaving the European Union; the Beatles re-formed; and AIDS a short-lived, well-treated, illness.
And this is Charlie Friend’s Britain. He's thirty-two, unemployed and living in a damp and dingy flat in Clapham. He’s good at losing money and self-delusion. He’s infatuated with his upstairs neighbour, a twenty-two-year-old student named Miranda. He staves off poverty by online share and currency trading. And he's just spent his inheritance, £86,000, on an artificial human.
Adam is one of twenty-five (Adams and Eves): “the first truly viable manufactured human with plausible intelligence and looks, believable motion and shifts of expression.” When Adam is all charged up and turned on for the first time, still on his factory settings, as it were, he begins to warn Charlie about trusting Miranda, but is interrupted. Charlie doesn’t want to hear it, because his plan is for Miranda to share setting up the personal preferences of Adam’s parameters, effectively making Adam their “child”, and he hopes this will bring them closer.
By the time Charlie does want to hear, it's too late. Charlie and Miranda have set those parameters and Adam is reticent, conflicted. It’s an interesting experiment, and Charlie soon realises that “…an artificial human had to get down among us, imperfect, fallen us, and rub along.” As their lives carry on with a degree of unpredictability, Adam’s behaviour sometimes surprises, sometimes delights but also dismays them both.
McEwan gives the reader plenty to think about, to mull over and discuss, as he manipulates the challenges they face from their own experiences and interactions, and adds the wrinkle of political upheavals. For example, he has his characters arguing about the Falklands War from a very different perspective.
Topics that have likely been discussed ad infinitum in artificial intelligence circles, like: When can a machine be regarded as a human? and the concept of robot ethics, in this tale come from another angle: Is it possible to be unfaithful with a machine? Jealous of a machine? Can a machine feel love? Can a machine lie?
As Alan Turing’s life and achievements are quite integral to the story, it helps to be acquainted with these (quickly rectified on Wikipedia for the unenlightened), and while an in-depth knowledge of Britain’s political figures in the 1980s is not essential, it would no doubt enhance the reading experience. The Brighton Bombing, Thatcher, Healey and Benn are there (or close approximations of them) even if McEwan alters their fates to suit his story.
McEwan’s characters are quite believable and there’s even a bit of subtle humour in a tale that looks at what might have been, and what perhaps could be in the very near future. This is a fascinating read, highly topical and incredibly thought-provoking.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Jonathan Cape/Penguin Random House.