Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan: A review

In his latest book, Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan gives us a bit of alternative history, a bit of science fiction, and wraps it all up in a unique menage a trois love story featuring a fully-functional humanoid robot named Adam.

In the world of this novel, Alan Turing did not die in 1954; he is still alive in the London of the 1980s, and, having been knighted by the queen, he lives openly with his longtime partner and is contributing to the advancement of computer technology and artificial intelligence. He is a much-honored member of society whose work during World War II and later is recognized for the world-changing event that it was. And Turing is the idolized hero of Charlie Friend, one of the main characters in this story.

Charlie leads a rather drab existence in which he makes a living - sort of - by playing the stock and currency markets. He lives in a shabby apartment and pines for the woman who lives upstairs, an enigma named Miranda.

He is also obsessed with robots, and when he unexpectedly comes into some money, he decides to spend it all on one of the first "Adams" to come on the market. There are twenty-five of these robots produced, 13 "Eves" along with 12 Adams and they are fully humanoid. They breathe and they are able to learn and can make moral judgments. They are not sex toys, but they are fully capable of a sexual relationship.

Charlie brings his Adam home and makes an agreement with Miranda to share designing his personality. Charlie will answer half the questions that establish the personality and Miranda will answer half. Soon their collaboration leads Charlie and Miranda into the sexual relationship which Charlie had desired, but he is appalled when he learns that Miranda has also had sex with Adam! And furthermore, it was very good sex!

Moreover, we learn that Adam, too, is in love with Miranda and that he composes haikus in her honor. A haiku-writing robot - what could be more human?

This odd relationship is further complicated by the introduction of a young boy, Mark, whose parents are abusive. Charlie and Miranda (especially Miranda) long to adopt the boy and free him from his abusive parents and they scheme to make it so.

Meanwhile, their other "child," Adam, seems to have established a higher ethical standard than either of his "parents." Charlie had assigned him the task of doing all his investing while he concentrated on his relationship with Miranda and Adam had quickly made a fortune with the investments, but he is troubled by the accumulation of that wealth and by the need which he sees existing in the world. It doesn't seem to him that Charlie and Miranda deserve all this wealth while others have to scrimp and save and suffer and he decides to do something about it.

Charlie and Miranda are complicated characters. Miranda has a particularly horrendous backstory and Charlie is not especially accomplished at dealing with reality. Can this relationship be saved? Can Mark be saved? Can Adam be saved, or, perhaps more to the point, can Adam save them all?

This is in many ways a tragic story of all too human foibles. The characters in McEwan's tale embody noble human qualities of love and family, but also less noble qualities like jealousy and deceit. And, in the end, Adam may be the noblest "human" of them all.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Comments

  1. Hurray! I have only seen tepid to downright disrespectful reviews of this one. It seems you and I go against the grain in similar ways. I plan to read it. Great review!

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    1. I know - I read those same reviews. But I really liked the book. Of course, I am predisposed to like anything McEwan writes.

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  2. I had encountered this book on - BookPage? (a monthly book review magazine carried by our local libraries where I live) and I was interested. After reading your review I have to admit my head hurt a little. Not quite ready for this complicated a plot. Also, the reviews I've read also range from "meh" to "horrible". But maybe I'll pick it up at the library if I see it - I enjoy the alternate history genre even though that isn't the main driver of the plot.

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    1. Obviously, it isn't everyone's cup of tea but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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  3. Replies
    1. It is pretty creepy, isn't it? But it is a good representation of the book's contents.

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