In brief: In an alternate 1980s, the first human-like robots are now for sale. Charlie uses his inheritance to buy Adam and hopefully impress neighbour Miranda. Then it all starts getting rather strange…
The good: Really interesting idea.
The not-so-good: Sometimes I drifted away during the philosophical discussions of man vs machine.
Why I chose it: I work with a lot of machines and I hope they like me! Thanks to Penguin for the ARC.
Pages: 306 (ARC)
Publisher: Jonathan Cape (Penguin Random House)
Setting: Mainly London, England
Rating: 7 out of 10
Ian McEwan is an author I always mean to read more of. The books of his that I’ve read I’ve enjoyed and for the ones that I haven’t read, they certainly sound interesting. Machines Like Me is one of those that sound interesting – an alternate 1980s with exceptionally human like robots. It’s a solid read, though not without some issues.
The first thing you ought to know is not to judge Machines Like Me by its cover. While it is striking and representative of the robot main character Adam, it’s deceptively simple and a little off-putting if you don’t know that the book is about robots. (It’s not a poor render of a human, it’s meant to look too perfect). The story is about Charlie, who is rather an odd character. He’s decided to sink his inheritance into buying one of the very first realistic human robots. No matter than he lives in a small flat in London with an ancient computer and car, trying to make money on the markets online. He’s also not particularly likeable – frankly, he falls into the ‘tool’ category. Charlie is a drifter, anchorless and not particularly caring about anything much until he meets Miranda. She lives in the next flat and is a postgraduate student. Miranda actually means something to Charlie for the first time in a long time but she’s not easy to pin down. Charlie is hoping that Miranda will be dazzled by robot Adam and grateful for the chance to program half of Adam’s attributes. It doesn’t quite go to plan. Adam is more than Charlie bargained for as a robot and as a rival. Miranda has secrets of her own that are bigger than Charlie could have expected. Add to this that the Falklands War has been lost and that technology has moved along at a much faster rate than today and it’s a full-on story.
While the alternate 1980s is interesting, I don’t think I understood all of the references and switcharounds because I was only a baby when it really happened and I’ve never been big on that era of history. So I’m sure it is very clever, but all I understood I learned from Top Gear. The thoughts on the ethics of artificial intelligence, robots and automation of jobs is also interesting but I felt it repeated itself a bit too much. I preferred the robots’ take on their lack of memories and feelings and how to cope rather than Charlie thinking away to himself. And as for the solving of P versus NP musings…I think that would fly over the head of the majority of people. (Having Alan Turing present though is very cool. I loved his frankness when he spoke to Charlie because I agreed with him). Machines Like Me is clever and like Adam, sometimes too clever.
There is a lot packed into the story even before you add in a robot who writes romantic haikus to your girlfriend. The subplot of Miranda’s past is clunky at times with rape and sexual assault explored in a mechanical, unfeeling fashion. Possibly Miranda’s erratic father and the lost boy Mark are the best characters of all – spontaneous, unintentionally witty and not as self-centred as Charlie himself. Adam the robot was a constant fascination to me. How did he learn? How did he process great amounts of data and use it to work the world out? I would have liked more about Adam or even some of the story from his perspective.
I enjoyed the second half of the book more than the first, perhaps because Charlie was getting some comeuppances and Adam was exerting himself more. I’d like to read more about the world McEwan created and the robots, with less of the politics.