Review: Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan (Spoiler-Free)

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.

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Upcoming Releases: Spring 2019

While the winter months provided a veritable feast of books that I wanted very much to get my hands on, there weren’t many obvious choices for my spring list. On the other hand, there are quite a few books coming out in the next few months that bear looking out for, for one reason or another. So, here are my most anticipated releases of March, April & May:

[All dates are taken from Amazon UK unless stated otherwise, and are correct as of 24/2/2019.]

World Book Day books! (7th March)

World Book Day this year will be on 7th March, and, as usual, ten short stories will be released to coincide with it – though, from the website, it looks as though they’ll actually be available a little in advance, from 28th February. Check out the link above for an overview of all ten books, but the ones I’ll be picking up will be Percy Jackson and the Singer of Apollo by Rick Riordan, Everdark by Abi Elphinstone, Snap by Patrice Lawrence, and Nought Forever by Malorie Blackman. Excitement level: 6/10

The Near Witch by V.E. Schwab (12th March)

The story of a girl called Lexi, and a strange boy who comes to her town just as children begin to go missing in the night. This was actually Victoria Schwab’s debut novel, but it’s being re-released since it’s been out of print for quite a while (and undoubtedly due to the huge success of her more recent Villains and Shades of Magic series). It looks like it’s going to be a spooky, atmospheric read, so I may well try picking it up a little later in the year (perhaps around October! 😉). Excitement level: 6/10

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan (18th April)

I’ve been wanting to read something by Ian McEwan for a while now, but in a very remote, non-urgent way, and have always assumed that Atonement would be the one I’d gravitate towards… until I stumbled across this book, and realised that it would be focusing on (amongst other things, I’m sure) the question of what makes humans human and artificial intelligence not, which fascinates me. Story-wise, what I know is that it’s set in an alternative 1980s London, and tells the story of a couple that purchase one of the first synthetic humans and program his personality, leading to an ethically-questionable love triangle. Excitement level: 8/10

Honourable Mentions:

  • Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers (in paperback; 7th March) – the third book in the Wayfarers series*
  • Season of Storms by Andrzej Sapkowski (in English; 7th March) – a prequel to the Witcher series**
  • The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang (2nd May) – the sequel to The Poppy War
  • Queenslayer by Sebastien de Castell (2nd May) – the fifth book in the Spellslinger series

*I talked about Record of a Spaceborn Few in my Summer 2018 post, when it had its original hardback release.
**I also talked about Season of Storms in my Spring 2018 post, but it was either delayed, or I managed to misread the date… 😓