This week’s post in our The Novel of Now series features Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan, a novel set in an alternate 1980s London, which interrogates the morality of artificial intelligence. Check out what Brandon’s class thought of this new novel from the British writer.
In the Spring quarter of 2019, I taught a class called The Novel of Now in our Creative Writing undergraduate major at the University of California, Riverside. It was a course aimed at graduating seniors, preparing them for the transition from the role of students into, hopefully, the writing world.
As part of this class, we read nine just-published books, each of which had been released within a couple weeks of our discussion (most of them the week before we convened in class). These were books that caught our attention because of buzz built before publication, but no books were chosen for the lessons I expected them to teach; instead, the class itself, and each student individually, would decide what value these books presented (or failed to present). All we had to go on were the blurbs on the back, the book jacket copy, the text itself, and our own opinions. The goal was to let the students start to build their own canon, to begin to define their own aesthetic. At least from my perspective, the course went incredibly well—we had complicated, nuanced discussions, and I watched each student work on the process of creating their own definition of story.
After the quarter was finished, I emailed the class and asked them to write micro-reviews of any books about which they felt they had something valuable to say. After all, they had built well-formulated opinions, and they had tested those opinions in lengthy class discussions. Ten students took me up on that email (as a point of clarification that matters to no one but me, most likely: a few of them were not officially in the class, but were simply reading along). Some reviewed every book, some just a few. We will present them over the next eight weeks, with some light editing for clarity, grammar, and spoilers.
Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan
Quick Synopsis: In alternate 1980s London, Charlie buys an early version of a brand-new synthetic human being and finds himself embroiled in a love triangle of his own devising.
The characters in Machines Like Me hold very little nuances to be considered unique enough in the world they find themselves in. This is particularly true of the protagonist, Charlie, whose character seems to embody an old, outdated way of thinking while trying to embody the youth of today’s culture. The contrasting characteristics that Charlie embodies make his character feel unreal and unrelatable in any way. Though perhaps it is intended, Charlie is an unreliable narrator, and as a result many of his actions seem to follow no coherent logic. Additionally, unlike many other characters in the novel Charlie’s beliefs remain stagnant and unchanged. This results in a character that is otherwise flat and that cannot fathom any reasonable train of thought to perceive the dangers he might be facing at times despite how clear those dangers might be.
In terms of other characters, such as Adam and Miranda, they themselves embody a sort of immature way of thought about what humanity is. As is repeatedly shown in Miranda’s case, it would seem that women are incapable of any other goals other than sex and parenthood, which is completely problematic. As she exists, she is also at times portrayed in a rather melodramatic way, which again is a problematic way to portray women in novels. Much of what happens to her is forced upon her by other characters such as Charlie and Adam which, in combination with her portrayal, results in a character with little agency and rational thought, therefore making her very basic as a character overall. In regards to Adam, his development as a character is limited because of his simple way of thinking about human nature. While this is understandable because he is a robot, it becomes an issue when he degenerates into a singular identity: the synth in love with Miranda. It is particularly problematic when the only reason Adam loves Miranda is because of the sex he had with her and not any other meaningful connection This in turn reinforces Miranda’s position, thus making both her and Adam as supportive characters just as flat as Charlie.
Though the characters lack any depth, the setting certainly does not. Unlike in the lives of the characters, the surrounding world has clear stakes and faces considerable losses that challenge the established order, particularly as they relate to political issues revolving around military and social issues. While the characters fail to interact with one another in a meaningful way, the existence of this world allows a more meaningful, but nonetheless still limited, interaction between the characters and the world.
Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan follows Charlie and is set in an alternative reality of London in the eighties. McEwan tends to go off on rants that stretch across pages about the history of the town they’re in or other seemingly unimportant details which pushes the main narrative to the sidelines often. The world is described extremely vividly, which most readers can appreciate. However, when the book jacket boasts the likenesses of two artificial humans, the reader expects a story about artificial humans. Now this isn’t to say that isn’t what this story is, it just takes McEwan a little while to actually get there. However, when the reader finally gets some details about Adam the story begins to pick up pace.
McEwan is an amazing writer; he challenges the way things are usually said in original and unique language that draws readers in. His imagery and description of setting really pulls the reader’s attention to the page and forces them to have a mental movie. However, this novel falls short in the way McEwan chooses to let the story unfold. There will be moments that further the plot (Charlie begins inputting personality traits for example) that are then followed by paragraphs, sometimes even pages, of what seems to be world building. This is extremely distracting from the main plot line and seems to be a bit unnecessary considering the fact that the only difference between this world and the actual world is they are far more advanced technologically, but the rules of the universe seem to be the same. The novel would have really flourished without the unneeded mini novels of minute details and side tangents scattered throughout the larger plot, and the plot that the reader mostly wants to read.
There also seems to be a lack of trust in the reader on McEwan’s part. He doesn’t hesitate in overexplaining, and like stated earlier, going on tangents when the reader could have gathered these facts from scene or not even needed it at all. The lovely voice and great imagery got clouded and diluted with word vomit.
In this alternate reality where artificial intelligences have been created in the late 20th century, Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan has reused the common trope of artificial intelligence. In this installment, a self-centered man named Charlie has bought an artificial intelligence, and finds himself at odds against this superior intelligence, Adam, who can do everything better than Charlie could ever. Going into this book, I thought it would somehow be weird, seeing as how the cover is of Adam, who is shirtless in the cover, but as horrendous as the book cover may be, the book itself was pretty decent. In a way, the story was weird through Charlie’s perspective.
The plot is simple: human versus artificial intelligence. For whatever reason, Charlie likes Miranda, and Adam likes her, too, but Miranda isn’t anyone special of the sort. If anything, she’s probably the least fleshed out in the book, and exists solely for the purpose of Charlie’s love interest, and perhaps, for Adam’s strong sense of justice. Charlie and Adam are foil characters, each one representing the good and evil of humanity. I think the beef and wits between Charlie and Adam are entertaining, due to Charlie having arguments he could never win against Adam.
Collected and Curated by Brandon Williams