As many English majors, I too, read works by Ian McEwan during my studies and personally have enjoyed his writing style, topics and most notably his morally gray but for the most part realistic characters. To this day, I remember his ‘Amsterdam’ as one of the books that sparked the most discussion during my Contemporary English Novel course, about morality of choices the characters made and whether they had the right to do actions they did. To be completely honest, I do not remember too much of the actual plot, but I think that any work that can prompt such a discussion must have some value. The case with ‘Machines Like Me’ was somewhat similar in terms of healthy discussion about AI during the book club meeting, but unfortunately I did not enjoy the book at all. If you are interested in works by McEwan, I would recommend starting with some literally any other book and if you decide to read this one, do not judge the whole of his work by it.
The blurb at the end of the book explained that ‘Machines Like Me’ is set in alternative UK, one in which during Thatcher’s time as a Prime Minister the UK lost Falkland Islands to Argentina. During this time, human like AIs are available for purchase and our protagonists, Charlie Friend, buys one of them. Charlie is in love with his much younger neighbor, Miranda and very soon they begin a relationship. In fact, they actually develop a king of ménage à trois between three of them as Miranda designed Adam so that he eventually falls in love with her, just like Charlie. Her reasoning for doing that is never fully resolved, but the consequences of his inflation with her did have some serious consequences towards the end of the novel.
One of the aspects of the novel I was the most excited about in this novel was the setting. I am a big fan of alternative history setting, especially those that show how one event can alter the course of history. In this novel, two major events were changed-the UK lost Falkland Islands and Alan Turing was still alive. Unfortunately, I did not feel like they really worked in the narrative of the novel. The consequences, such as rising rates of unemployment and crime in the country, inflation and overall unrest are not truly relevant to the main plot of the novel. In fact, with the arrival of Alan Turing as a character, I started thinking that the whole displacement to this alternative history happened so that McEwan could shoe horn Turing into the plot. Turing’s role in the novel was to explain the science between AI and to be honest, it felt almost disrespectful to lower such as genius man who suffered so much to a walking physics textbook and morality source. Additionally, his description of prison time as a gay man as inspiring and wonderful left me a sour taste in my mouth. It is not only highly unrealistic that Turing’s time in prison on the charges of homosexuality would be anything but torturous, but it diminishes the suffering he certainly went through. I found it quite ironic that McEwan would go through such lengths to include Turing in the novel only to leave him a shadow of what the real person was.
On the other hand, I have read that McEwan was criticized for his female characters, as they fall flat and are more used as plot devices than actual people. While I can usually agree with that, in this case, Miranda is somewhat more developed that Charlie and has somewhat of a backstory that also influenced the present in the novel. Charlie is in one word-loser. He is living a shabby flat, gambling on the stock market, and at first, without much ambition for anything more. Throughout the novel, he is insecure and without any major defining characteristics or qualities. Instead, he is so annoyingly passive that Adam, who is a logical being to a fault is more engaging than him. Speaking of Adam, I found myself engaging more with him than any other human characters. Yes, I am aware that he is not a real human, but he is given more depth and motivation than any other character in the novel. His vast knowledge and access to all the possible information he may need, combined with his innate logic and love for Miranda, makes him quite unpredictable, unlike others. In this context, his actions, no matter how inhumane they may seem at first, actually made complete sense to me. Without spoiling too much, the way he ended in the novel made me feel really sad. This was especially effective as he is one of the rare of his kind that did not try to commit suicide like the others.
When it comes to Miranda, I actually found her way more interesting. Her backstory and the crime that she arguably committed introduced another moral dilemma of how bad was it and what is the appropriate punishment. In fact, I found that discussion way more interesting than any of Charlie’s philosophical musings and Turing’s monologues about his thinking about AI. The introduction of her plot, though, completely shifted the focus of the novel in a really unnatural and sharp way. That being said, I did not find her desire to adopt little Mark. As a 22-year-old student with no real prospects or plan for the future, it did not seem realistic that she would be able to adopt a child or even want to do that. It was even more unrealistic that anyone would allow someone with a criminal record to adopt a child, regardless of what the record was for. Overall, her motivation for many things she did during the novel left me quite confused and to the end, I could not relate to her or even understand her. I think it says something about the characters when most of my book club was more concerned with the fate of AIs than actual human characters.
Somebody at the book club discussion said that McEwan is too smart for his own work’s good and I can really agree with it. A novel like this, especially when it is quite out of writer’s usual range of themes, definitely required a lot of research into various branches of science and that is not something to frown on. However, it seemed like McEwan wanted to make sure that his readers are aware of it and in this approach, presented incredibly intriguing discussions in an unbearably dull way at times. Overall, I was left more confused than actually understanding any of the AI technology and the implications of it being further developed.
At the end, I must say I was quite disappointed with ‘Machines Like Me’. I expected an intriguing and insightful account of the morality of AI technology in the UK’s alternative history. Instead, what I read was a dull story filled with half-baked plots and characters with no depth, full of inconsistencies. Until the end, I was not convinced that beside a few witty remarks by Charlie, there was any need to change the setting of the novel and reinvent the wheel. I might read other works by McEwan, but I will not be re-reading ‘Machines Like Me’ any time soon.