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Book DetailsISBN: 9781787331679
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Book Review: Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan - Reviewed by CloggieA (17 Apr 2019)
4.5?s “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.
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