Machines Like Us by Ian McEwan

Plenty of spoilers ahead.

There is a choice when writing this sort of book. You can put it in a near future, like Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, or you can apparently put it in an alternative past. This is the 1980s, but not as we knew them. I am curious to know the motivation for this. It could be that it’s harder to make up a future than edit the past to taste. Or it could be that it will make it feel more like this is how it is.

And, it seems to me, if that was McEwan’s idea, he’s succeeded surprisingly well. I wasn’t irritated once that he’d made his own version of history – but then, most movies now are bio-pics, so why not? I guess we are used to the idea now that history is just an opinion, a story, my facts versus yours.

In fact there isn’t much to choose between the two settings, both Atwood’s and McEwan’s are completely believable. Probably because we are already in them, her future and his past. It would be nice to think that the point of a book like this – or like the movie of a few years ago, Her – is that it’s important for big picture thinkers to talk about these revolutionary changes upon us in AI. The biggest of all, that we have created our own destruction, and plenty of others working down from there. It’s hard to believe that we have marginalised the role of story tellers, philosophers, sociologists, ethicists, thinkers at this crucial point in our history. Stepping onto university soil recently for the first time in a few decades, I discover that it has been completely hijacked by business. Ethics, science, thought – nothing is independent of business in these once hallowed halls of intelligence at work. How can AI possibly develop in an ethical way if it is all controlled by big money?

But is this the point of the book? A thoughtful person giving his glimpse of understanding of a difficult future? Or is McEwan, expressing the concern of a friend who raised it with me, just on a bandwagon? Writing about it because that’s the show-me-the-money thing to write about now. A decade ago it was autistic female detectives (extra money if you can write about it in Swedish).

Certainly McEwan has scooped bits and pieces from the media of late, I guess to set some of the issues out in ways that may be easily digested. The famous Go match. The problem of the driverless car’s ethical decisions. Perhaps this is also to make what he segues to more believable. The ‘human’ robot who likes good clothes, washes the dishes, is obsessed with writing haikus and despite this is way ahead of the human curve. Is that just a small step from the Go match?

Curiously, although the 1980s Britain in which this is set, is in economic and social chaos with a bad Tory government in power (is bad redundant?), McEwan not only makes it inevitable that these human robots exist, but he makes them the product of good minds. This seems odd, doesn’t it? AI is a business, controlled by enormously wealthy men (sic) who have no discernable social instincts. One wouldn’t be surprised if they were all assessed as sociopaths given the opportunity.

In McEwan’s near past, the people who create the robots are Nice Scientists, the robots are Nice and Terribly Much Cleverer than Us Really Quickly, and humans are muddling along much as in the past. The moral of the story is that these inventions are sentient, conscious, like sex in a ‘human’ like way, and are altogether better than us too.

Well, I didn’t feel like that reading the book. I can completely understand why one failed human took the ——– and – well. I’ll stop that spoiler right there. Was I supposed to? I’m not sure.

The book sucks you in, chews you up, spits you out. Completely worth reading if that’s what you want from a book. I’m just not sure if I believe his line. I suppose, though, that we’ll find out soon enough. The alternative near past is definitely catching up with us.





7 thoughts on “Machines Like Us by Ian McEwan

  1. Oh wow, that is so cool about AI and quantum mechanics and parallel worlds and all that shit. I must read this book, I am sure it will help me get more in touch with my spiritual side.

  2. You have managed to make me want to read this. It sounds very compelling.
    Brings me back to Asimov’s books and times. We have changed enough as to have a new proliferation of science fiction.

    Somehow I missed the autistic female detective trend, hahaha, but I caught on the Noregwian current out there, even though I didn’t pay attention to it. I am not up to date at all when it comes to books, I am obsolete.

    • No Silvia, NOBODY is obsolete in their reading. If you are, I definitely am. It is sheer coincidence that I’ve read this. I refused to buy it in the form of a trade paperback thinking I’d either get a proper paperback or a hard cover, in a market with a bit of luck. But then we had a guest stay who had finished it and left it behind for us.

      I mainly read out of date books that nobody else reads – check out my books, I’m serious – so I’m glad to hear there are others like me out there!

      • Hahaha. You made my day. I do love stories, and enjoyed this one of how you came to read this title. 🙂 I think we do better sticking to a majority of older books, but a well written newer one, gives us valuable perspective and understanding.

        And ditto, so glad to know that readers like us are keeping the tradition alive.

        • I consider it my responsibility to read things nobody else does. There are quite enough people reading the momentarily fashionable things. That, after all, is part of the reason they then become the books that nobody reads except me. Fashion becomes old-fashioned…until it becomes retro cool that is.

          • What a truth! I do love that rebellious idea and the responsibility as you say, of reading what nobody does. Even making something forgotten but valuable, the fashion again. We can make small but meaningful ripples that way.

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