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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

Machines Like Me

by
Ian McEwan


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Machines Like Me



Title: Machines Like Me
Author: Ian McEwan
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018
Length: 228 pages
Availability: Machines Like Me - US
Machines Like Me - UK
Machines Like Me - Canada
Maschinen wie ich - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B : quick, (over-)packed, and quite entertaining read

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 20/4/2019 .
Evening Standard . 11/4/2019 Nick Curtis
Financial Times . 3/4/2019 Janan Ganesh
The Guardian B 11/4/2019 Marcel Theroux
The Independent . 19/4/2019 Philip Womack
Irish Times . 20/4/2019 Rabeea Saleem
Literary Review . 4/2019 Jonathan Barnes
The New Yorker . 22/4/2019 Julian Lucas
The Spectator B 13/4/2019 Lara Feigel
Sunday Times . 7/4/2019 Peter Kemp
The Telegraph . 13/4/2019 Nakul Krishna
The Times . 10/4/2019 Johanna Thomas-Corr
Wall St. Journal . 11/4/2019 Elizabeth Winkler
The Washington Post . 17/4/2019 Ron Charles


  From the Reviews:
  • "As subplots multiply in Machines Like Me, the fun occasionally loses its purpose. (...) Machines Like Me is ultimately about the age-old question of what makes people human. The reader is left baffled and beguiled." - The Economist

  • "To underline that this is also a thoughtful, moral tale, there are subplots involving the nature of violation and revenge, and what it means to be a parent. And a soupçon of juvenile gender-fluidity too. Even for someone of McEwan’s fluency, that’s a lot to pack in. (...) The science on AI in the book feels plausible, and McEwan seems to have done extensive research into the philosophical side too (.....) All this would be fine if the rest of it felt more credible. But nagging questions hover. (...) (A) clever, densely worked but sporadically irritating read, throughout which you hear McEwan whispering in your ear. All the various themes are duly brought together in a way that is perhaps too neat but which is also satisfying." - Nick Curtis, Evening Standard

  • "Such is his command of the plumbing and architecture of fiction, you forgive the occasional bloodlessness. The central characters in Machines Like Me become emotional -- including the android -- but never as emotional as the circumstances seem to demand. There are lapses into prim, Famous Five-ish dialogue when things get heated. (...) As so often in McEwan’s recent work, the reader is spoilt by his technical mastery, if never quite moved by it." - Janan Ganesh, Financial Times

  • "Machines Like Me belongs to the genre of speculative fiction, but in its narrow focus on morally ambiguous characters in a bleak cityscape it also owes a debt to film noir, sharing noir’s conviction that nothing is more human than moral inconsistency. (...) McEwan’s narrator, who explicitly sets out his world, overexplains the historical context and never turns down a chance to offer an essayistic digression. (...) With these caveats, there are many pleasures and many moments of profound disquiet in this book, which reminds you of its author’s mastery of the underrated craft of storytelling. The narrative is propulsive, thanks to our uncertainties about the characters’ motives, the turning points that suddenly reconfigure our understanding of the plot, and the figure of Adam" - Marcel Theroux, The Guardian

  • "While there is plenty of humour, such as Adam’s terrible haikus (...), McEwan also explores the potentially terrifying aspects of having an intelligent walking laptop in your house. (...) The major complications are intensely moral, based on the most ancient literary form there is (the act of revenge). (...) In Machines Like Me, McEwan is grappling, still, with the novel qua novel. He marries a gripping plot, handled with rarefied skill and dexterity, to a deep excavation of the narrowing gap between the canny and the uncanny, leaving the reader pleasurably dizzied, and marvelling at human existence." - Philip Womack, The Independent

  • "One detail the book gets right is the ways in which androids, no matter how advanced or finely tuned, are bereft of moral sophistication. (...) The intricacies of artificial intelligence are also shrewdly touched upon. (...) The story takes a few unnecessary detours, resulting in a baggy and jumbled narrative. (...) There is a sense that the themes of morality and AI that McEwan delves in have been addressed before in much more stimulating ways in recent literary fiction (.....) However, the novel still asks a few provocative questions regarding the future of AI, and consequently, of humanity." - Rabeea Saleem, Irish Times

  • "Buyer’s remorse is a recurring theme in Ian McEwan’s witty and humane new novel, Machines Like Me, a retrofuturist family drama that doubles as a cautionary fable about artificial intelligence, consent, and justice. " - Julian Lucas, The New Yorker

  • "Machines Like Me is an enjoyable, even addictive, read but it’s ultimately disappointing in the way that all Ian McEwan’s novels have been since Atonement. (...) But as with so many of McEwan’s books, it all feels too neat. (...) Part of the problem is that the book is too dextrous, too pleased with its own brilliance in multiplying moral dilemmas so swiftly." - Lara Feigel, The Spectator

  • "McEwan knows just how to explore the most complex issues in the confines of the most ridiculous situations. (...) McEwan is incapable of writing a dull line, but his AI conundrums feel as fresh as a game of Pong. (...) McEwan’s special contribution is not to articulate the challenge of robots but to cleverly embed that challenge in the lives of two people trying to find a way to exist with purpose. That human drama makes Machines Like Me strikingly relevant even though it’s set in a world that never happened almost 40 years ago." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Machines Like Me begins in a 1982 that is much like the actual one -- notably with Margaret Thatcher setting out on a war over the Falkland Islands -- but while history has progressed much as it did in real life (with small differences, such as Jimmy Carter having beaten Ronald Reagan and now serving his second term as American president -- and the British then being humiliated by dictatorial Argentina in that war over those Malvinas), technology advanced much more quickly. Alan Turing is still alive and well, and was responsible for some of the advances since the Second World War; the internet -- and email -- are ubiquitous and self-driving cars widespread. Advances in Artifical Intelligence are also presented as having occurred much earlier than they did, including computers who beat humans at chess and go. And it's in this 1982 that:

The first truly viable manufactured human with plausible intelligence and looks, believable motion and shifts of expression went on sale
       Narrator Charlie Friend is 32 and decides to blow his inheritance on a first edition -- one of the twenty-five automata that made up the first production-run; Alan Turing is among the others to get their hands on one, while several went to Saudi Arabia: Charlie hoped for an Eve, but had to settle for an Adam (more than half of those Eves apparently wound up in Riyadh, with one sheikh adding four to his harem). It sets him back £86,000 (that price apparently including VAT). Still, it's:
the ultimate plaything, the dream of ages, the triumph of humanism -- or its angel of death. Exciting beyond measure, but frustrating too.
       Charlie basically gets by as a daytrader -- currency and stocks --, working from home, the latest in the sometimes dubious schemes he's had a go at. He's not particularly good at it, but makes enough to usually cover his very basic needs. He's not really satisfied with this life, but doesn't seem to be able to think of anything better; the splurge on a robot -- a way of shaking things up, one would imagine -- isn't exactly out of character, but typically, too, he doesn't immediately try to make the most out of this thing he has acquired.
       Charlie is also quite friendly with his upstairs neighbor, Miranda, who is ten years his junior and working towards her degree; he hopes to get closer to her -- and uses Adam as part of this ploy: owners are meant to program their automaton's 'personality' by answering a questionnaire with their preferences, and Charlie wants to share that imprinting task with Miranda: he answers half the questions, and she the other half:
We would be partners, and Adam would be our joint concern, our creation. We would be a family.
       This seems like a pretty desperate pick-up (and make(-instant)-family) ploy, but McEwan repeatedly surprises with how his characters react to situations, and so also here: Miranda doesn't hightail it out of there and try to escape her creepy downstairs neighbor for once and all, but rather signs up and hops in bed with him. Miranda has her own issues -- a writer-father struggling with ill health, as well as a menace that might be rearing its ugly head soon (whose nature is only revealed by turns -- changing shape along the way). Still, neither Charlie not Adam seem ideal family-building-blocks.
       Adam is a sensational thing, but Charlie seems oddly ambivalent about it when he first gets it. He doesn't really warm to it for quite a while. There's the fortune he spent on it, of course, but it's only partly buyer's remorse that bothers him. And so, for a long time, he doesn't really take advantage of Adam, and play with its capabilities, nearly as much as one would imagine he might. (Miranda, on the other hand, is soon willing to experiment very intimately -- to Charlie's chagrin.)
       Adam is a quick learner, even left to its own device(s) -- including deciding (emphatically) that no one is getting near its kill-switch, the handy button that lets it be powered down (something that the other machines in circulation seem also to have picked up quickly -- a pretty serious design/programming flaw, one would think). The android's ever-increasing abilities have their useful side -- it proves more adept at daytrading than Charlie could ever hope to be, and begins amassing quite the little fortune --, but there's also the disturbing fact that it has access to all forms of information, including about Miranda's darkish secret. And its program also manages unexpected things: awkwardly, it falls in love with Miranda, and while it's willing to accept that things have to remain platonic, its romantic streak is hard to keep down, manifesting itself in things like its taking up composing haikus (by the thousands ...).
       As Turing explains to Charlie (yes, Charlie gets an audience with the master):
The overpowering drive in these machines is to draw inferences of their own and shape themselves accordingly. They rapidly understand, as we should, that consciousness is the highest value.
       It's a fascinating but problematic learning curve that the automata embark on -- but one that isn't entirely successful. A significant number commit, in one way or another, suicide -- while Charlie and Miranda's Adam proves independent-minded (and hence uncontrollable) in awkward ways, specifically in its very rational thinking. So, it informs them, in taking actions with far-reaching consequences:
There are principles that are more important than you or anyone's particular needs at a given time.
       Charlie and Miranda beg to differ, and since the two sides prove irreconcilable ... well, the trio does not remain a happy pseudo-family unit. It's Turing in whose mouth McEwan puts his summing up, of how:
They couldn't understand us, because we couldn't understand ourselves. Their learning programs couldn't accommodate us. If we didn't know our own minds, how could we design theirs and expect them to be happy alongside us ? But that's just my hypothesis.
       (Yes, he speaks in the past tense: the experiment was a failure, all the androids recalled -- though Charlie and Miranda's Adam's fate is a bit more complex.)
       McEwan adds some twists to the story that make for yet more moral complexity. For one, there's what happened to Miranda -- and, as it turned out, what she did, a twist on getting justice that isn't without its own problems (as their Adam correctly insists). Then there's a young boy, Mark, whom Charlie seeks to protect from his abusive parents at one point and who then becomes another not quite fully formed outside being that has the potential of becoming part of Charlie and Miranda's 'family' -- with Adam a complicating factor here, not only because of its possibly being jealous, but because it is also rational (and legalistic) in its thinking. Doing what is right proves complicated -- with Adam's notions of 'right' diverging from the couples'.
       McEwan lays it on a bit thick -- and relies (yet again in one of his novels) quite a great deal on law and legalisms (beginning with Miranda seeking protection from a potential danger that the British system appears not to be well-equipped to handle), though oddly there's essentially no discussion of the interesting question of the legal position or rights of the automata. It all has a bit of the thought-experiment feel to it, the structure of the story a bit too carefully planned out (and Turing used too obviously as the convenient explainer-in-chief). Oddly, too, there seems to be no public discussion (indeed, barely even a mention) -- in the media, for example -- of the introduction of these incredible machines into society. But the novel has its qualities too, and forced though some of the situations may be, McEwan shows his writing chops and impresses with some of these twists and scenes. There's also some humor -- perhaps even too broad in places, such as when Miranda's father is introduced to his future son-in-law (and Adam).
       Charlie's behavior, especially when he first gets his Adam, can be a bit frustrating, and there's simply too little character development -- disappointingly (though perhaps predictably), it's the android that is the most fully-formed of all the characters -- but Machines Like Me is a decent quick but packed read. The early-1980s setting is a bit odd, but actually works reasonably well, McEwan working well with a sense of nostalgia (contagious, apparently, as even the Adam reaches a point where it says: "'I'm feeling, well ...' His mouth opened as he searched for the word. 'Nostalgic.'").
       Machines Like Me doesn't really address the big questions particularly well, but at least McEwan heaps a lot of them in and on, and it certainly makes for a discussable work -- an ideal book-club selection.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 April 2019

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Links:

Machines Like Me: Reviews: Ian McEwan: Other books by Ian McEwan under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Ian McEwan is the author of many fine novels. He won the Booker Prize for Amsterdam in 1998.

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© 2019 the complete review

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