Alan Turing’s life-instead-of-death in 1954 sparks great advancements in artificial intelligence, and thirty years on, serial idler Charlie Friend purchases Adam, one of the world’s first synthetic humans. Together, Charlie and his beautiful neighbour Miranda design Adam’s personality, but the maybe-person that comes of their joint venture is something far more than either of their expectations.
The main thing that held this book back for me was its setting. Alternative history seems like such a specific and deliberate choice for an author to make, that it feels very strange for the setting to have no real bearing on the story. The political drama of the era only effected the characters insofar as giving them something to argue about, and while the portrayal of Alan Turing as playing a(n even more) key role in the development of artificial intelligence obviously necessitates a world in which he didn’t commit suicide, his direct role in the book was actually very small, and could have been taken on by any scientific genius, real or imagined.
I can’t say that the setting detracted from the story, exactly, but it was distracting, and for no apparent reason; I frequently found myself in the middle of lengthy passages of alternative-history-backstory, wondering if this particular (often not all that interesting) bit of information was going to matter at all, and spoiler: the answer was always no.
But disregarding this – admittedly small – issue, there’s a lot to like about Machines Like Me: I didn’t always like Charlie and Miranda, and was never entirely convinced that they were as in love with each other as they believed, but their relationship was very interesting regardless; the way that it changed throughout the book felt very organic, and Adam’s integration into (and interruption of) their relationship was also well-done – though to call it a love triangle would, I think, be somewhat misleading.
I found Miranda’s backstory incredibly powerful, too; we find out early on that she’s keeping a big secret from Charlie, and both the secret itself and the way in which it’s eventually revealed provide a huge amount of dramatic tension, as well as doing a lot to flesh out her character.
Finally, the idea of sentient AI, and the ethical dilemma it presents, is something that’s always fascinated me, and McEwan’s exploration of Adam’s personhood-or-lack-thereof portrays that dilemma perfectly; do Adam’s words and actions indicate feelings or programming? And how much does it matter, if we can’t even tell the difference? Naturally, you won’t find any answers here, but you will find a compelling human drama, and plenty of food for thought.