Machines Like Me – Ian McEwan

Published by: Anchor Books
Pages: 333
Date released: 03/03/2020
Date read: 06/06/2021

Set in 1980’s London, the story revolves around Charlie: young and reckless, and in love with his upstairs neighbour, the enchanting Miranda whose hidden, murky past hangs between them. He has spent his inheritance on the acquisition of one of twenty-four highly developed robotic humans – named Adam or Eve – developed by Alan Turing after his success on the Enigma codebreaking machine, central to the Allies WWII victory. As London is consumed by the huge protests over England and Argentina’s Falkland’s War and Margaret Thatcher’s jingoistic ambitions, Charlie courts Miranda, and his Adam finds himself central to their affair. McEwan pulls us into the question of what it means to love, what it means to be human in our fast-changing times, and how precarious a construct is the world we live in and think we know.

I own about half a dozen of Ian McEwan’s books, but apart from Atonement, I’ve struggled to get into any of them, finding them deserving of proper concentration as opposed to a book you can sink into one afternoon. Until I read Machines Like Me. It’s hard to read and touches on some difficult topics and it asks some troublesome questions, yet I found it impossible to put down.

Reviews seem to be a bit up and down for this book. Like I said, I haven’t read many of his other books, so I haven’t got anything to compare it to. The general consensus seems to be that this is one of his less successful novels. So I’m intrigued to start reading his other books as I found this one quite compelling. There were a few subplots that seemed out of place; weaving it through the Falkland’s War and Margaret Thatcher’s reign of power seem superfluous to the real plot, but they don’t detract an enormous amount.  

With the introduction of self-serving machines, till-less shops, and Siri on smartphones, robots are becoming more and more integrated in our daily lives. I agree that for some jobs you don’t need people. But I think we run a very real risk of going the other way. If I go into my local bank branch, where there was once a large bank of desk with half a dozen tellers, there now only lies one desk, with one teller, and instead, half a dozen self-service machines. Yet inevitably, they will all play up at once and the one poor member of staff will have to sort them all out. This is the same in our local supermarket. Half of the manned tills have been replaced with about 20 self-service tills with just one member of staff manning them. I agree this would cut down staff expenses hugely, but when half a dozen machines need human attention at the same time, they run the risk of angering customers who will start shopping elsewhere. Humans need humans. We need that interaction. The events of the past year have shown that we crave human interaction, and it’s not good for our mental health to go without for long periods of time.

And yet I believe it’s only a matter of time before these lone workers are replaced by machines. No salary, no sick pay, no holiday pay – you can program them, so they are efficient in their role, never break down, and provide the perfect customer service. But is that what we really want?

It leaves a sour taste in your mouth and a lot to think about.

One thought on “Machines Like Me – Ian McEwan

  1. I meant to read this book too. I like his writing. At the moment I’m still reading On Chesil Beach. I started it a while ago, and it’s good, but I have this tendency to read several books at the same time and then forget about some of them. But anyway, thanks for the review!:)

    Liked by 1 person

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