Book Review: Machines Like Me – Ian McEwan

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan, author of Atonement

About The Book

Charlie, drifting through life and dodging full-time employment, is in love with Miranda, a bright student who lives with a terrible secret.

When Charlie comes into money, he buys Adam, one of the first batch of synthetic humans. With Miranda’s assistance, he co-designs Adam’s personality.

This near-perfect human is beautiful, strong and clever – and soon a love triangle forms, which leads Charlie, Miranda and Adam to a profound moral dilemma. Can you design the perfect partner? What makes us human? Our outward deeds or our inner lives?

My Review

Machines Like Me, set in an alternate 1980s Britain, shows a country far more technologically advanced than we are, a country who loses the Falklands War and a Prime Minister (still Margaret Thatcher) not quite as impenetrable as the Iron Lady of our history. In this imagined 1980s, home computers and laptops have been around for a good 20 years or so, mobile phones are the norm and science has advanced to such a level that a number of synthetic humans, named Adam and Eve have been produced. They operate like, well humans, except their brains are filled with wires and microchips and they have access to the whole of the world wide web without even lifting a finger.

Our protagonist, Charlie Friend is, to put it in simple terms, a bit of a loser. He has a law degree but has squandered it, any money he comes into he causes “to disappear” making “a magic bonfire of it” and he lives in small, dilapidated flat in London. He is in love with Miranda, the woman a decade or so younger who lives in the flat upstairs and although they are friends, nothing romantic has happened between them. When he comes into a large inheritance, rather than writing off the debts he has acquired through unsuccessfully playing the stock market, he buys an Adam. Adam can be anything Charlie wants it to be with a few key strokes, the computer programme linked to his synthetic human allows him to create any personality he desires for him. Charlie decides to ask Miranda to help him create Adam’s personality, hoping that this joint responsibility will foster a closeness between them which may lead to more than just friendship. Of course, things don’t run that smoothly and whilst Miranda and Charlie do grow closer, the old adage of two’s company but three is a crowd is proven with the addition of Adam to their relationship.

This is an intriguing novel which throws up interesting ethical and social dilemmas, particularly around lies and morality. Miranda is being weighed down by a large secret which is uncovered by Adam and it is this secret which I found to be the most interesting part of the novel. It asks us to examine our own moral compass and debates the line between a truth and a lie. This particular plot point would make for a really interesting discussion in a book club and I am dying to talk to somebody about it. It really set my brain going and this, combined with the ethics surrounding the creation of the Adam and Eves made for really interesting reading.

For me though, there was a little too much “telling” and not enough “showing”. Although this isn’t what I would call a dystopian novel, it does examine an altered version of our past, and as such, there needs to be a fair bit of world building, particularly around the scientific advances. There are pages of descriptions to provide context and background which took me out of the narrative and I found some of the science almost impenetrable. Conversations with Alan Turing for example felt like a science lecture rather than a chat between two people. I was far more interested in the ethics of the creation of synthetic humans than I was in finding out how we got there. I also didn’t quite see the point in it being set in the 1980s as it didn’t seem to add anything to the book, but I would be interested in hearing what others thought about this.

Machines Like Me is quite a melancholy book in some ways. Despite the technological advancement things don’t seem to have become better, in fact in some ways they are worse. Is this book an allegory warning against our reliance on technology at the expense of the arts? It is definitely possible that this was the intention and it certainly made me question the use of social media and the impact upon attention spans for instance. Despite my questions over the plethora of information and the time setting, I did really enjoy this book. It is unusual and it made me think and days after finishing it I am still mulling over parts of the novel. It hasn’t quite found its way back onto my bookshelves or to the Barter Books bag and is still sitting on my bedside table. Perhaps a re-read is on the cards.

Where You Can Buy It

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan was published in paperback by Vintage in March 2020 and is also available as an ebook.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.