Machines Like Me: A Novel

by Ian McEwan

Hardcover, 2019


Nan A. Talese (2019), Edition: 1st Edition, 352 pages

Media reviews

McEwan thinks his literary novel about A.I. is superior to a genre that surpassed him long ago.... If McEwan had read some of the genre’s best treatments of this theme, Machines Like Me might have been a better book....the novel is larded with long, tedious passages of potted history.... he could start this lazy, flimsy novel over, only this time with the humility to learn from those who have boldly gone before

User reviews

LibraryThing member BDartnall
"Machines Like Me takes place in an alternative 1980s London. 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 synthetic humans and- with Miranda's help- he designs Adam's personality. The near-perfect human that emerges is beautiful, strong, and clever. It isn't long before a love triangle forms, and these three beings confront a profound moral dilemma. "- inside flyleaf
Leave it to the master storyteller, McEwan, to make the not quite possible, possible and believable. As always, his exquisite word choice and use of just enough detail, and his knack for making us identify with his characters, even when their flaws and questionable choices create a sense of foreboding. One of the most original sci-fi books I've read in some time on AI and in an "alternative" 1980s setting to boot - amazing.
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LibraryThing member brianinbuffalo
Having been awestruck by McEwan's "Nutshell" a year earlier, I eagerly picked up "Machines Like Me." The premise sounded fascinating: "a cautionary fable about artificial intelligence." To say I was disappointed was an understatement. I almost stopped reading a third of the way into the book — until I spotted a LibraryThing review that suggested the work improves in the second half. I finally gave up two-thirds of the way through. I simply didn't care about any of the characters. Part of the problem is red-flagged in a review posted on that mentions "long-winded speeches." After the fourth of fifth soliloquy, it was pretty much over for me. Unlike review which concluded that McEwan's work offers "many pleasures," I found "Machines Like Me" a drag. McEwan's masterful writing merits a couple stars. But this tale simply didn't grab me in any way.… (more)
LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
I remember as a teenager reading about Ian McEwan, who was being cited as one of the leading lights in a glittering new cohort of young British writers – ‘ones to look out for over the next few years’. It was, therefore, a chilling reminder of my own advance down the tale of years when I read last year that he had now turned seventy, a milestone marked by the publication of his story, My Purple Scented Novel.

Age does not seem to weary him, however, nor the years condemn, as his latest novel is as brimming with ideas as any of its predecessors. One mark of his dexterity as a writer has been his ability to straddle literary genres, and while some of his contemporaries might have been content to offer up new iterations of formerly successful themes, McEwan has continued to experiment. His previous novel, Nutshell, was narrated by an alarmingly sentient embryo slowly developing in the womb, and took the form of a recasting of the Hamlet plot. Sweet Tooth took us to the world of counterintelligence, with a delicious twist in the tale, while, bizarrely, Solar even secured the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing. (One does have to wonder whether that decision constituted an act of comedy in itself – Solar was certainly a fine novel, and one that was amusing in parts, but I defy anyone to maintain that it was side-splitting or uproarious.)

In this latest novel he is once again straying into unfamiliar territory, combining an exploration of the world of artificial intelligence with the construction of an infinitely plausible alternative history. The novel is set in London in 1982, but a very different world to the one that I remember. While Margaret Thatcher is still Prime Minister, she is reeling from the crushing and humiliating defeat of the Task Force that she had despatched to counter Argentina’s invasion of the territory formerly known as the Falkland Islands. The Opposition is led by Tony Benn, and Jimmy Carter is halfway through his second term as President of the United States. Alan Turing is still alive, and has been knighted in recognition of his contribution to Britain’s victory in the Second World War, but also for his work in developing artificial intelligence, and for the host of advances that he has facilitated in the world of computers. The internet is already highly developed, and there is growing concern among trade unions about the serious threat to employment caused by the widespread use of robots to undertake a range of repetitive tasks.

Charlie Friend is living in a small rented flat in Clapham, and has just used the legacy from his recently dead mother to buy Adam, one of a batch of twenty-five androids (twelve males, called Adam, and thirteen Eves) that have just been released on to the market. They are designed to be highly lifelike and largely autonomous, capable of undertaking a range of household tasks, as offering companionship. They are internet-enabled, and have been designed to learn through a combination of observing and imitating human activity, and learning from the web. Charlie has some experience of artificial intelligence, having written a book about the subject a few years ago, and he is keen to see how far Adam’s capacity to learn can be pushed. Adam’s arrival also serves to cement Charlie’s relationship with his neighbour, Miranda, a postgraduate student living in the flat upstairs.

McEwan writes with a deep plausibility. His alternative history is key as a background to the plot, but he paints it in very light strokes. For example, the politics of the day, which see Mrs Thatcher wavering in power against a resurgent Labour party led by Tony Benn (whose leadership of the party reflects many of the characteristics of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to prominence, on the crest of a surge of younger voters who have flocked to the party, drawn by his palette of ambitious and inclusive policies) remain in the background, captured by fleeting references rather than sustained narrative.

His depiction of Adam’s development is also chilling. Once ‘awakened’, having been fully charged with power, and allocated his personality parameters (a selection that falls to Charlie, although he decides to let Miranda choose half of the settings), Adam quickly develops into am autonomous character in his own right. Programmed to be obedient, he is happy to undertake the various domestic chores that arise, but he is constantly learning, and frequently surprises Charlie and Miranda with unexpected conversational tangents.

Of course, this being McEwan, we know that mishap is near at hand, and that Fate is simply lurking around the corner, waiting to start flailing with its stuffed eel skin. In this instance, it is not the fruit of a forbidden tree but unfettered access to the internet that renders dangerous knowledge to Adam. Quite early in his development, before his personality ois fully formed, and before he has had a chance to learn the benefits of tactful reticence, he makes a chance remark to Charlie about an incident in Miranda’s past. Entirely unaware of this incident, Charlie finds himself plunged into torment and doubt, and his relationships with both Miranda and Adam are subject to strain.

As one would expect from McEwan, this is carefully plotted and thoroughly researched. The science implied by the development of Adam certainly more than satisfied my limited understanding of such things, and Adam is as triumphant a literary character as he is a technological achievement. Oddly, perhaps, my doubts about the book revolve around the character of Charlie, with whom I struggled to develop any empathy. The overall effect, however, is certainly powerful, and this is a strong addition to McEwan’s already impressive oeuvre.
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LibraryThing member waldhaus1
A surprising journey into an alternate universe with insights into what it means to be human

What does it mean to be human, can artificial intelligence create art now or ever? Saving Turing from his fate in our universe and version of history and changing events while leaving so many characters in place brings in a wry commentary about what it means to be human. If art is craft and machines are built by craft and become able to replicate themselves are they producing art - and is their version of fine art going to be about something else - a communication about what it means to be a machine as our fine art is a communication about what it means to be human.… (more)
LibraryThing member NeedMoreShelves
After I read the first chapter of this novel, I thought this might be the best sci-fi novel I've read in years. It....was not.

The idea is fantastic and compelling, but it gets constantly bogged down in endless paragraphs about the political shenanigans of the alternate-history London McEwan has created for his characters. I skimmed pages and pages, trying to get to the meat of the story I actually cared about.

About a 2.5, for me.
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LibraryThing member kayanelson
Ian McEwan has a brilliant mind. I must admit I wasn't sure about reading this book from the description but, since I've read all of his books since Amsterdam I decided to give it a shot. I'm glad I did. Such a unique plot, such beautiful writing. Then just when you think that maybe it's becoming too ordinary of a story, something happens to pull you in again. Besides having such a unique wonderful plot and beautiful writing, the book makes you think and also refreshes some mid-20th century historical events. Definitely read.… (more)




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