Book Review: Machines Like Me

Having never read an Ian McEwan book before (I know!) I wasn't sure what to expect. I was surprised to see that he'd written a book in the sci-fi genre - alternate history/androids - but intrigued. I'm also obsessed with anything robotic so definitely had to grab this!

Full disclaimer: As a Science-Fiction author I was a little offended to read that Ian McEwan had asked not to be referred to as one and that he didn't like the genre. Mind you, I did also read this on Facebook over a morning coffee. Besides the obvious joys to the Sci-Fi genre I tend to think that it's a great tool for exploring the human condition and testing our own boundaries. Still, the lure of androids was bigger than my offence and soon I had a copy in my hot little hands.

Having read it, I see why he wasn't keen to refer to himself as a Sci-Fi author. Although technically it is in the genre, being an alternative history, it almost doesn't feel like one. Although it contains a new cybernetic discovery in the form of Adam, the android (which happens to be exactly the same name I've chosen for my android in ARCHANGEL ONE!) it doesn't feel like one.  It's an interesting exploration of what would happen if Alan Turing had chosen to do time rather than be chemically castrated and of Charlie Friend, his protagonist, a somewhat feckless dreamer fighting against the shackles of adulthood.

McEwan creates an alternate history in which Turing chose the path of doing time then capturing the world with his inventions. Thatcher is still PM and the Falkands are still a main focus. Like Deighton's novel SS-GB and Dick's Man In The High Castle it is interesting to see whispers of the true history trying to assert itself. Turing's genius has led to the creation of Adams and Eves - androids who are capable of self-awareness with programmable personalities and multiple functions.

Charlie is a feckless kind of wanderer who is currently stock trading, though not doing very well at it. He finds himself with an inheritance and promptly spends it on an Adam. He lives in the same apartment building as the woman he loves, with their relationship developing throughout the book. He wants a change but seems at least for the first part to be ambivalent about it. His girlfriend Miranda is intriguing, with secrets that lie deep beneath the surface. Charlie appears to be alternatively annoyed and intrigued himself by these secrets.

Enter Adam, an android whose personality is half keyed in by Charlie and half by Miranda. At first Charlie thinks that Miranda has created the perfect one to love her and it certainly seems so when Adam develops a love for her. It turns into a love triangle between Adam, Miranda and Charlie if you can imagine a lovesick android. It poses some interesting questions about self awareness and whether machines do have the capacity to love. Due to Miranda's hidden secrets Adam's love for her is tested and ultimately brought against his infallible belief in justice and truth. This has some unexpected consequences for Charlie and Miranda which leads to the breakdown of the love triangle.

Adding in meetings with Alan Turing is a nice touch and it's interesting to imagine how the man would have taken on cybernetics and an alternate 80s history. I loved his last speech to Charlie and how Charlie reacts to this - all through the novel people have been indulgent with Charlie but Turing pulls him up straight.

Adam himself is a clever character, demonstrating something more than android awareness right from the beginning and developing a deep sense of himself as we go through. There's a sub-plot regarding the Adam and Eve's sinking into deep dismay and in some cases suiciding. I wish this was further explored throughout the novel rather than it ending with the androids being recalled. It would have been great to delve into what they had imagined human life to be like and why it resulted in so many completing suicide in robotic ways. I feel like this was a missed chance here.

MACHINES LIKE ME introduced me to Ian McEwan's work, which I'll definitely read more of. I can see now why he doesn't want to be included in the sci-fi genre and I wouldn't classify it as one either, though he does include elements. It's an effortless prose that hooks you but if you're looking for a cybernetic exploration, you might be left a little wanting.

What did you think to it?