Ian McEwan, ‘Machines Like Me’ Review

I raced through Machines Like Me. The narrative was gripping and enriched by a sense of foreboding. It always felt as though something dark might be around the corner (and their often was), but the novel never quite descended into the dystopian ‘machine gone wrong’ tale that I had expected. Having never read anything by McEwan before, the suspenseful and evolving plot was a real highlight.

Set in a counter-factual London of 1982 – one in which technology is anachronistically advanced, the Falklands War has been lost, and Alan Turing is alive and celebrated as the patriarch of AI – the novel charts a love-triangle between two humans and a humanoid robot named Adam. The narrator, Charlie Friend, is a thirty-something technology enthusiast who avoids full-time employment by making incremental profits on the stock market. Unable to inhibit his curiosity, he spends his inheritance on a cutting-edge robot named Adam. Deeply in love with Miranda, a social history student living above his North Clapham flat, Charlie envisages that co-parenthood of their proto-child will bring the two closer together, but Adam is soon romantically drawn towards Miranda, and vice versa. 

“As Schopenhauer said about free will, you can choose whatever you desire, but you’re not free to choose your desires”.

McEwan tackles a multitude of themes (consciousness, political factionalism, historic recurrence, the complexity of human relationships) but his deliberations on morality are central. Although Adam is meticulously programmed to behave as if human, he struggles to comprehend man’s flawed ethic, and this leads to his demise. Openly in love with Miranda, he is compelled to indict her at the conclusion of the novel, confident that the sense of justice will liberate her. In contrast, human characters repeatedly allow emotions (love, rage, revenge) to overpower ethical considerations. Adam is not alone in suffering from a realisation that humanness equates with imperfection. He is one of thirteen ‘Adams’ and twelve ‘Eves’ who are sold to the public, and we read how a handful of the androids effectively self-implode when they fail to reconcile humanity’s failings. One is compelled to sympathise with the cyborgs. 

The ethical dilemmas don’t stop with Adam. Miranda tells how her childhood best friend, Mariam, was raped by a boy named Gorringe at their school. She pledges Miranda to secrecy and then later commits suicide. In response, Miranda keeps the secret but later orchestrates an elaborate plot to get Gorringe convicted on a false rape charge. Where does this position the novel’s heroine? The tragic story of Mark, a child placed into care who Miranda and Charlie plan on adopting, is another interesting sub-plot, and allows McEwan to take aim at the endless bureaucracy and general inadequacy of social services.

In spite of the sections on AI and some of Adam’s philosophical meanderings, the prose is generally limpid and transparent. Characters are well-constructed and complex. Charlie is a technology whizz and devout lover, but he is also avaricious, self-indulgent and uninspiring; Miranda is compassionate – a dedicated student, daughter and friend, but also harbours a dark secret. Their relationship mutates over the course of the novel, and it is never quite clear if Adam’s love is fully reciprocated.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Salman Rushdie, ‘Quichotte’ Review

Salman Rushdie’s post-modern take on Miguel de Cervantes’ 16th century classic, Don Quixote, is comic, calculated and poignant in equal measures. It nods to the original but paradoxically remains distinctively modern, with the issues affecting contemporary US society taking centre stage: the opioid crisis, consumerism, pharmaceutical corruption and racism.

It is also a tour-de-force of pop culture, literary allusions and genre. Cultural references adorn nearly every page: from Alice in Wonderland to Oprah, American Idol and Madonna, Sonny Liston and Elvis. Through the main character Quichotte – a fictional creation of failed spy thriller writer, Sam Duchamp – Rushdie satirises America’s infatuation with junk culture and laments its damaging effect on the public psyche. A travelling salesman, Quichotte – formerly Ismail Smile – spends long hours watching reality TV in cheap hotels, falls in love with chat-show host, Salma R, and sets out on a long road-trip quest to purify himself before uniting with his ‘beloved’. Along the way, he dreams up an imaginary son, Sancho, battles mastodons, experiences small-town xenophobia and confronts his forgotten past. 

As aforementioned, Quichotte is a story within a story; a few chapters in the reader is introduced to Sam, who, disillusioned with his literary output, is attempting to write his magnus opus. Yet we are also given the perspective of Sancho, Salma R and Sam’s sister, just to confuse things further. While the layered structure appears quite disjointed in the first half of the novel, the second seems to work considerably better. The clear demarcation between author-character becomes increasingly distorted, and we begin to question what is fact and what is fiction: arguably one of meta-fiction key aims. As Rushdie settles in to his groove the connections between Sam and Quichotte’s worlds appear ever closer. 

“AS I PLAN MY QUEST,” Quichotte said, drinking from a can of ginger ale, “I ponder the contemporary period as well as the classical. And by the contemporary I mean, of course, The Bachelorette”.

For me, the text deliberated effectively on the connection between author and their output, and recalled memories of studying Roland Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ theory in university. Rushdie’s interest in how myth permeates society and the boundary between fiction/non-fiction makes Quichotte a topical work in the post-truth world. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.