Machines Like Me and People Like You by Ian McEwan

machines-like-me-coverWriting my reading journal, I’ve found out that it’s far easier to write about bad books, including those I stopped reading early into them, than it is to write about the brilliant ones – because I hardly know where to begin and how to capture the effect they had on me in a way that does them justice. One of these is McEwan’s brand new novel Machines Like Me. On the title pages, you can see a longer title, Machines Like Me and People Like You, which I like better, but understand that it’s impractical.

In the evening of 17th April, I was checking whether my favorite authors have published anything new since I last checked and I was excited to find out that a new novel by McEwan was due to come out the following day! I immediately decided that this was the next book I was going to read, partly because the description got me really interested, but also because I had hardly ever experienced a fan’s excitement about a new release, let alone a book, and I wanted to savor it. My attempts to obtain a DRM-free e-book on the first day weren’t successful, so on the second day I went to a bookstore, bought a printed copy and started reading that afternoon.

If you don’t know the basics of the story yet, go and read the publisher’s description or any Goodreads review, I won’t repeat the same facts here.

One of the things I love most about McEwan is his atheism. Through his characters, he’s looking for ethical principles that are valuable for their own sake, not as something imposed or wished for and rewarded by a god. In Machines Like Me, he explores the essence of consciousness by contrasting two human protagonists with their new possession – a robot with artificial intelligence and something that seems very much like consciousness. McEwan presents us with a materialist philosophy that isn’t degrading to living beings. On the contrary, it appreciates the unmodelable complexity of the human brain and the mysteries of mind.

Before I started reading the book, I hadn’t understood what purpose the “alternative history” setting was supposed to serve. The only alternative history novel I can remember reading is Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and, even though I loved it, to this day I’m not sure I’ve gotten what the changes to Britain’s Middle Ages in that book were about. But once I started reading Machines Like Me, the benefits became apparent. Firstly – as McEwan said himself in an interview I listened to – the novel loses a predictive quality. If he had set the book let’s say twenty years from now, once that time came, his ideas about the state of technology etc. might seem ridiculous and the comparison of his mistaken predictions with reality might distract from the philosophical content of the novel. Having decided to change history instead, he could let his imagination run free without the fear of being seen as making daring predictions about the future.

Secondly, and more importantly, this concept allows McEwan to criticize both historical events (e.g. the Falklands War) and current affairs (e.g. Brexit) in a subtle and amusing way. McEwan’s version of events is neither dystopian nor utopian – some things are better while others worse. The undoubtedly best thing in this alternative history is the long and productive life of Alan Turing, who is the real hero of the novel (the two human protagonists are definitely no heroes) and delivers the best quotes – several pages long.

The only potential downside is that the author sometimes seems to have gotten carried away when he was imagining what could have been. Readers who are impatient to know what happens next in the story might get bored by lengthy factual accounts of (fictional) developments in politics, economy etc.

My personal disappointment with the novel is that it had a “vegan” potential that was left unfulfilled. For me as a vegan, certain passages in the text were necessarily heading towards important conclusions about animal rights, but the author always stopped short of mentioning animals at all (except for one rather lame mention of pet dogs). McEwan seems much more interested and invested in the rights of machines than those of fellow living beings. I’m all for protecting individuals with artifical sentience (after all, I’m a sentientist!), but why should they get protection while so many individuals with biological sentience do not?

Despite this objection, I count the novel among those I want to come back to, again and again. I couldn’t help wondering which I liked better – Machines Like Me or The Children Act, my favorite McEwan novel until now and one of my favorite novels in general. Machines Like Me was perhaps wider in its scope of themes, but as my husband pointed out, The Children Act had great characters. I don’t think a book should be judged by the likeability of its characters, but the fact is, no matter how clever and moving a book might be, readers are going to have a hard time loving it when the characters are bland. Of the three protagonists in Machines Like Me, I liked only the robot. Which was probably McEwan’s intention.

The best books I read / listened to in 2018 and in previous years

Out of the forty books I started reading in 2018,

  • I finished twenty-six

  • I gave up on seven

  • I intend to finish seven some other year

And these are the top six:

1-the-lessons1. Naomi Alderman: The Lessons (2010)

I expected this novel to be an entertaining, casual read. I definitely didn’t expect to include it among my favorite books, but I have to. There was so much I could relate to that reading it felt like therapy. The narrator, James, starts his studies at Oxford University, but contrary to what he expects, it doesn’t turn out to be the time of his life. He feels lonely and inadequate. I love the way James’s disillusionment with the institution is portrayed, especially when he dwells on how its beauty deceives. It reminds me of the disastrous time I started studying general linguistics at Universität Leipzig – the beauty of the building and its surroundings had played a larger role in my decision-making than it should have. I quit after the first semester and have never regretted it. Unlike me, James perseveres. After the first term, he is rescued from the depths of depression by a girl who introduces him to new friends. But even then, the narrative doesn’t turn into an idealized picture of college life. I kept expecting the novel to start boring me (especially after the characters leave university) and it kept me enthralled until the very end. I never got tired of or alienated from James and was astonished how many different themes the author managed to pack into one novel and yet explore them all so insightfully. I am looking forward to reading the novel again, this time marking all the passages I loved most, because during my first reading, I didn’t have time for it – I was dying to know what would happen next. On top of everything else, there were many hilarious moments that made me laugh out loud.

It makes me angry that nearly every reviewer compares The Lessons to other books, these comparisons often illustrating its supposed unoriginality. I haven’t read all of the books that I’ve heard The Lessons compared to, but in those that I have read I can perceive only the most superficial of similarities. I suspect that, by this name-dropping in their reviews, the reviewers just want to show off how well-read they are.

A comment from the author: “I was a bit pissed off that so many novels about Oxford talk about the beauty and the glamour and the glittering prizes, but not about the vast amount of work and how everyone seems to be having breakdowns all the time.”

If I had time, I would translate this novel into Czech.

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2-middlemarch2. George Eliot: Middlemarch (1871)

A wonderful portrayal of intricate relationships in a provincial English town in the 19th century, with great psychological insights into various characters’ thinking and feeling. This novel might look daunting because of its great length and great number of characters, and I was rather discouraged myself at first, but the effort invested into orienting oneself in it definitely pays off. All of the characters’ individual stories were so compelling that while listening to the continuation of one, I was impatient to hear the continuation of another, but when the focus did switch, I was sorry that the one I just listened to wasn’t continued further! As is typical in 19th century fiction, all the stories are neatly intertwined, with no loose ends, but it is truly amazing how the author managed to weave this huge bundle together and still make sure it made perfect sense.

Because of the endless supply of public domain audiobooks on LibriVox, I have listened to a great deal of 19th century English fiction and this is one of the best novels that there are. For any Austen-haters out there, I’d like to point out that this book isn’t just about romantic relationships and marriages, but also about self-realization in one’s profession (and many other things as well). The story of Doctor Lydgate is especially interesting.

My favorite quote, which makes me feel less guilty about feeling happy when so much in this world is wrong:

[Dorothea:] “I should like to make life beautiful—I mean everybody’s life. And then all this immense expense of art, that seems somehow to lie outside life and make it no better for the world, pains one. It spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think that most people are shut out from it.”

[Will:] “I call that the fanaticism of sympathy. You might say the same of landscape, of poetry, of all refinement. If you carried it out you ought to be miserable in your own goodness, and turn evil that you might have no advantage over others. The best piety is to enjoy—when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates. It is of no use to try and take care of all the world; that is being taken care of when you feel delight—in art or in anything else. Would you turn all the youth of the world into a tragic chorus, wailing and moralizing over misery? I suspect that you have some false belief in the virtues of misery, and want to make your life a martyrdom.”

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3-the-bug3. Ellen Ullman: The Bug (2003)

My husband was looking for a novel about programming that wouldn’t be just a crappy sci-fi and he found this one. We both loved it. He, as a programmer, says that it captures perfectly what being a programmer means. I, as a non-programmer, had no trouble understanding the technological storyline, as all the tech bits were well explained (at times to unnecessary length, I found, so even someone with very basic knowledge of computers should get it). There was also a storyline about relationships which my husband wasn’t that excited about but which I found entertaining and refreshing, despite its predictability (I am aware that our reactions are also rather predictable, considering our respective genders). It was, in any case, necessary to anchor the story in reality (no man is an island, ha ha).

As the title suggests, the novel tells the story of a programmer, Ethan, who encounters a bug in the program he’s working on (the story takes place in the 1980s). Ethan doesn’t take the bug at all seriously at first, but as time passes, deadlines loom ahead of him and he is still no nearer finding the bug, let alone solving it, the bug assumes sinister, symbolical significance. Ethan begins to question his own abilities and his life in general.

My favorite quote, which reminds me that I should be less self-centered: “Failure? You feel like a failure? Look, kid. It’s not about you. Who the hell really cares about you? The failure is in the system, and the fear should be not for your ego but for the people who’ll use the system. Think about them. Be afraid for them. Forget about yourself for a while and then you’ll find it, then you’ll fix your bug. Not because you’re ashamed, but because people might be in danger and you have to.”

If I had time, I would translate this novel into Czech.

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4-the-age-of-innocence4. Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence (1920)

I have to admit that when I started listening to this one, it seemed to be yet another comedy of manners and I just wasn’t in the mood for one. So after the first few tracks, I took a break. I continued eleven weeks later, luckily from the very point where the story starts to be interesting. It turned out to be different from the other comedies of manners I’ve read, and ended quite sadly. The protagonist, Newland Archer, is engaged to a girl who embodies old New York society (the titular age of innocence), but he falls in love with her cousin, who represents Europe and the changes that are coming over American society at that time (the 1870s). Newland’s conflicting feelings are well portrayed: his reverence for old traditions and values on the one hand, his yearning for freedom and change on the other.

My favorite quote: [W]hen she enquired how he meant to spend his afternoon, he had answered paradoxically: “Oh, I think for a change I’ll just save it instead of spending it—”

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5-purple-hibiscus5. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Purple Hibiscus (2003)

My husband has taken to borrowing my iPod and listening to audiobooks I’ve had stored there for years without listening to them. I feel irrationally jealous of these inanimate, digital objects (I discovered them!) and feel the urge to listen to everything he listens to. But at least I finally get to listening to all these things I downloaded ages ago. Purple Hibiscus is one of them. It tells the story of a fifteen-year-old Nigerian girl, Kambili, whose father is a devoted Catholic, determined to instil the principles of his faith into his children whatever it costs, drawing inspiration from practices he himself experienced as a child brought up by white missionaries. Kambili and her brother are used to their lives, but when they spend some time in their aunt’s family, the contrast is so striking that they start to question their father’s authority. Nigeria’s unstable political situation serves as a background to the story and provides the author with intriguing paradoxes: Can a tyrant receive a human rights award?

My husband, after finishing the novel, declared that it had the most epic ending he’s ever read (or, as in this case, heard).

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6-a-good-school6. Richard Yates: A Good School (1978)

Stories of boys attending a prep school and their teachers, with no central story (although one of the characters – obviously modeled on the author himself – serves as a kind of main protagonist). The relationships among the male characters and the feelings they experience (often irrational and out of proportion) are normally associated with girls – the stereotype is that friendships between boys are uncomplicated. So it was satisfying to read a book written by a man about boys who behave and feel “like girls”.

What shocked and disgusted me at first, but later intrigued me, was scenes where sexuality was abused in bullying: a group of boys ganged up on an outsider and one of them perfomed a hand job on the victim, trying to make him come. What a sophisticated way to humiliate someone! I had no idea such things happened, but am pretty sure the author drew on experience.

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And then there were some books I enjoyed immensely but am reluctant to include in my best-of list: The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, Lethal White by J. K. Rowling alias Robert Galbraith, and The Secret History by Donna Tartt. The entertainment–depth ratio was rather unbalanced. The chief effect they had on me was that they caught my attention at the time – they were so suspenseful I couldn’t stop listening to them – but I don’t think they gave me something really meaningful. I know that they were supposed to send some message(s) as well – especially the last one, The Secret History. But I probably didn’t get it. I listened to The Secret History because so many reviewers on Goodreads compared The Lessons to it, but the connection eludes me. It read more like a crime novel than a realistic story I could relate to. Perhaps I need some distance – I finished it only the day before yesterday.

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I regret I didn’t compile such a best-of at the end of each year! Here’s a poor attempt to put together my favorites from previous years (in alphabetical order according to author), but as I go further back ín time, it’s more and more difficult to remember how individual books affected me at the time.

2017

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah
  • Ted Chiang: Stories of Your Life and OthersWhat’s Expected of Us and Others (short story collections)
  • Dave Eggers: The Circle (another reminder that you shouldn’t judge a book by its film adaptation!)
  • Tony Kushner: Angels in America (though I didn’t read this one – I saw the amazing performance by National Theatre Live broadcast from Lyttelton Theatre, London)

2016

  • Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant
  • Ian McEwan: The Children Act
  • Colm Tóibín: Brooklyn

2012–2015

  • Frances Burney: Cecilia
  • J. M. Coetzee: Disgrace
  • Zoë Heller: Notes on a Scandal
  • Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day
  • Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea
  • Richard Yates: Revolutionary Road

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Full list of books read 2012–2018

Green is for books read whole; red is for books I didn’t read whole (either unfinished or skimmed through). I started keeping this list shortly after I started studying literature at university, so a lot of the stuff I read between 2012 and 2015 was compulsory reading for classes. Apart from books, there’s also individual short stories and theater performances. There’s no indication of whether I liked a book or not and, frankly, there are some items in that list I can’t remember anything about. That’s why I want to keep a proper reading journal from now on (probably a combination of digital and analog).