Book review: Our verdict on Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

18th Apr 19 | Lifestyle

Ella Walker reads the latest novel from the author of Atonement and On Chesil Beach.

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Always promising a blockbuster of a book, Ian McEwan’s newest release is up there with his most intriguing…

What’s the book?

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

And who is Ian McEwan?

The Man Booker Prize-winner (for Amsterdam in 1998) is perhaps best known for Atonement (yes, Keira Knightley wore that amazing silk green dress in the film adaptation), The Children Act and On Chesil Beach, but he started his writing career penning dark, twisted tales that leave you quite alarmed (just try reading The Cement Garden).

On Chesil Beach Screening – London
Ian McEwan attending a special screening of On Chesil Beach at the Curzon Mayfair, London (Matt Crossick/PA Wire).

What’s Machines Like Me about?

Stock market gambler Charlie, 32, spends his inheritance on an artificial human, aptly named Adam, which he co-programmes with his upstairs neighbour Miranda, 22 – who of course, he’s in love with. This domestic triangle is set within our world, except it’s the Eighties, Thatcher is in power (although she’s lost the Falklands War) and technology is racing ahead, largely thanks to Alan Turing, who is still alive and well, living in Camden, London.

There’s much (amusing) awkwardness. Adam is constantly reciting haikus he’s formulated, he’s decided he’s in love with Miranda, and Charlie has a habit of putting his foot in it, either with eminent scientists or abusive parents in parks.

McEwan grapples with possibility and probability: When it’s possible to create machines that think and feel, what’s the probability that we get it right? And could we ever really understand what we’ve made?

Do you need to be up to speed on the latest developments in AI?

McEwan goes into depth about his own musings on AI. And admittedly, you’ll likely let some of this wash over you. As long as you know about robots and have a basic grasp of artificial intelligence, you’ll be fine.

I haven’t read any McEwan before – is that OK?

Of course, this is a standalone piece. Although, those who have read Enduring Love (1997) will recognise many threads and themes.

Out of 10?

8 – Machines Like Me is deeply intriguing, a little unnerving and quite captivating. The ordinariness of the trio, despite Miranda’s dark, secretive past, and how they just sort of jog along together in a little bubble, the three of them in their kitchen, alternating between red wine and sips of warm water (for Adam), is strangely endearing. And McEwan’s prose is, as to expected, nuanced, thoughtful and beguiling.

Not a lose-yourself-in-it page turner (McEwan’s page-long musings on AI and mathematical conundrums are interesting, but do temper the plot) Machines Like Me will instead leave you questioning, and imagining how your own not too distant future might look.

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan is published in hardback by Jonathan Cape, priced £18.99 (ebook £9.99). Available April 18.

© Press Association 2019

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