Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

McEwan’s latest has caused a stir of controversy as in a recent interview he seemed to say that he had basically invented a new type of science fiction – well, not so much. Controversy aside, Machines Like Me is a clever addition to McEwan’s shelf in my library. Charlie ‘invests’ the legacy he received from his mother by buying one of 25 AIs; 12 Adams and 13 Eves are launched onto the market in the mid-1980s. To some extent this is the parameters of McEwan’s venture into genre fiction. Great Britain has just lost the war against Argentina and Margaret Thatcher is offering to fall on her sword, Carter won a second term and JFK survived the attempt on his life in Dallas. Otherwise this is pretty typical of McEwan’s work: flawed characters whose influence on the narrative frustrates the reader. But that frustration does not detract from the big ideas that McEwan is asking his reader to interact with. These are the big questions of our time – is technology getting in the way of life; how divided is our society by politics; what is justice and should it be our purview to garb it of the courts cannot; what role does the state have in families’ lives. All quetions that we should be asking of ourselves, our communities and our politicians.

Narratively, the novel was slow to start. Reviewers, newspapers and bloggers, agree that when McEwan is great he’s phenomenal and when he’s not, he really isn’t. And at the start I was beginning to think that Machines Like Me was in the latter category. But then suddenly it wasn’t. Charlie and his love life didn’t really engage me in the beginning but as he and Miranda start to interact with Adam the story takes off. I love the questions that McEwan encourages the reader to engage with even as it becomes clear that Charlie, his narrator, really isn’t capable of engaging with them. Charlie needs a purpose and he tells the readers that his purchase of Adam is going to allow him to take his anthropology degree further and that his observations of Adam will be academic; but they aren’t. Charlie is bone-idle lazy and Adam is a tool for Charlie not an anthropological experiment. I struggled to really care about Charlie’s arc and his meeting at the end felt like probably every readers’ dream dialogue- no spoilers!

Is this as good as McEwan’s best – Atonement, Saturday, A Child in Time, The Children’s Act etc? No. I don’t think it is. But it’s still very good and worth reading. It’s thought provoking about what kind of society we might want. Interesting in this post-Brexit, post-Trump world to have a world in chaos in a novel set in an alternative mid-1980s. And it works. We perhaps wonder what might have been and McEwan does a bang-up job making it authentic and believable. After putting the book down, I thought a lot about the questions McEwan asked. Are we ready for the technological change that we are facing? Are we ready for the political divisiveness that we are clearly in the middle of? Do we want justice or revenge from our court systems?  I think McEwan’s answer is a firm ‘NO’ but it would seem we’re too late to get ready because clearly it’s here.

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