Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan is an awkward book to review. Some elements jarred and dragged me off the page but curiosity drove me on to the end. When I finished it I realised I felt let down because I’d been waiting for a twist that didn’t come. Ultimately this book is out of the same drawer as Nutshell, a single clever premise which promises more.
Charlie works from home, living in a rented flat, making money by dealing money online. From a distance, he loves his upstairs neighbour Miranda. They are brought together by Charlie’s purchase of a robot; synthetically human, the male robot is one of the very first batch commercially available. Miranda agrees to ‘share’ him. Once Adam is plugged in and charging, his personality can be selected online. Charlie and Miranda share this equally, neither knowing what features the other selected. Adam is part child, part flatmate, soon co-worker and asker of awkward questions. He also becomes an inconvenient love rival. As Charlie and Miranda share the ownership of Adam, in parallel they also become involved in the life of a neglected human child, Mark, first encountered in a local playground.
The setting is an alternative world. It is the 1980s. Britain lost the Falklands War, Alan Turing lives on, the internet exists and everyone has mobile phones. I admit to finding the alternative world rather jarring and kept pausing to take in the random turns of history. I’m not convinced this added to the plot about artificial intelligence and its impact on humans – would the book be stronger if it was set today?
Written in the first person, we are limited to Charlie’s take on the world. I would like to have heard the voices of Miranda and Adam too. The first 50 pages are a slow read as the alternative world is established. Then as the story progresses, I was waiting for the twist; the cover blurb promises that Miranda lives with a terrible secret. But when the secret is revealed – by Adam, who does his detective work at night by searching online databases – it was not what I expected. I had been harbouring suspicions that Miranda was really a female version of Adam, an Eve.
Ultimately it is a story of truth and lies, and where the line of loyalty begins and ends. Ultimately it is the robot which asks difficult questions the humans cannot live up to. His is a straightforward right/wrong approach to moral questions with no space of white lies or unspoken truths. Towards the end Charlie says, ‘I was responsible for bringing this ambulant into our lives. To hate it was to hate myself.’ But the machine had already stepped across the line from ‘it’ to ‘him’.
A thought-provoking, flawed read.
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