“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.

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