Saturday 15 June 2019

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan     {Reviewed by STELLA}
With his inheritance, self-professed geek Charlie Friend buys himself an Adam — just one of 25 Adam or Eve models of AI humanoids. Charlie would have preferred an Eve, but, no surprise, these have sold out quickly. Living in a dingy flat in Clapham, playing the stock market (none too successfully) and being obsessed with his upstairs neighbour Miranda are the central facets of our protagonist's life. Adam arrives on a stretcher and is unwrapped. Sitting at the kitchen table he is charging while Charlie studies the manual and decides that Miranda can share in Adam’s programming (there are some personality traits/preferences that owners can add). And hence a trio is born: Charlie sees Adam as someone that they have created and, while Adam does his bidding — he is a helpful machine — you, as the reader, from the beginning of this smart and intriguing contrivance, get the feeling that Adam, with his superior knowledge (access to knowledge — he’s always wired in) and his machine learning abilities, is not at all subservient. Both Miranda and Charlie have blemishes on their human  record: Charlie, once a tax lawyer, just escaped a custodial sentence for fraud, and Miranda has a deep secret, which Adam quickly uncovers with a little research. You may get the sense that Adam is malign, but this far from the truth. He is highly likeable — generally amenable and curious about the world and human arts and culture. He is a wonderful friend to Charlie, and has the added bonus of earning him quite a stack of money thanks to his prowess in numbers, playing the stock exchange. And he has fallen in love with Miranda, but promises Charlie to restrict his affections to writing haiku love poems. Surprisingly, I found myself suspicious of my fellow humans — their selfish and sometimes shallow desires and their often contradictory behaviour. As the plot heats up, Charlie and Miranda’s relationship develops and the trio fall into a companionable and successful pattern. Life is on the up for the young couple as wealth comes their way and emotionally they mature into what we might say are better humans, and this in the face of a faltering Britain — a counterfactual 1980s that is. McEwan has cleverly devised this story of technological advances in the past, a past where Alan Turing is still alive, Britain has lost the war in the Falklands, and Thatcher has left government in tears. One can be forgiven for thinking that McEwan is having a sly dig at the political shenanigans of today’s Britain. It’s intelligent and funny, with little twists that will rise a wry smile. But, as Adam discovers Shakespeare, the reader will come to see that all is not fair in love nor war. Miranda’s secret will lead to a denouement that reveals the complexities and contradictions of human behaviour, the ethics of machines, and our own morality. It will make you wonder whether the world is ready for the coming robots — and are the robots going to be pleased to be here with us? 

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