I generally like books by Ian McEwan, so far I read a few, you can find links to reviews at the bottom of this post (yes, I am trying to convince you to keep reading). I’ve had some mixed thoughts on some fo them, but I think this one annoyed me the most so far.
We find ourselves in an alternative reality, somewhere in the 1980’s Britain, led by Margaret Thatcher. Alan Turing’s alive and well, the Beatles keep making new music and the Falklands conflict is just about to happen. Also, Hiroshima never happened, but we are now able to make machines that are very much like people. Our main character, Charlie, spends his entire inheritance to acquire one like it. He hopes it will help him get closer to his upstairs neighbor, Miranda, whom he meets as friends, but would like the relationship to develop.
Together they bring Adam to Charlie’s house and they decide to divide programming his personality between themselves, with Charlie answering half of the questions immediately and Miranda taking her time with hers. Once set up Adam indeed seems to be conscious. He walks and talks, gradually learns to behave in order to fit in. He requires a nightly charging and is happy to perform housework. As the relationship between Miranda and Charlie progresses they decide at one point to turn Adam off. Apparently, he did not like it at all. Gradually the situation gets more and more complex, as Miranda’s past comes to haunt her and Adam starts making money and considering his consciousness from a philosophical and moral standpoint.
The book is full to the brim of thoughts on machines vs people. On morality, on new world order, on what does it mean to be human. On whether once we create something we own it, or have a right to kill it. Yet, all of this rings hollow. The topics are important, but what McEwan has to say about them falls flat for me. There is also a lot of showing off, McEwan alludes to his own books and to others, he feels the need for excessive name-dropping. It all feels a bit like a self-aggrandizing exercise, rather than a real exploration of what it may mean to be a conscious machine. Somehow it never reaches the level of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.
The plot also takes a while to develop, really kicking off only at around 1/3rd of the book. It is hardly believable and often feels disjointed. I guess by now it is pretty clear I did not like the book too much. It took me a while to finish because of the uneven pace, and I really did not sympathize with any of the characters. All of them rendered small, petty and meaningless. Yet all of them thinking themselves to be all so special.
There is better out there if you want to ponder machine vs human problem. Just reach for the sci-fi classics. That coming from me (always more of a fantasy person than sci-fi), should tell you how bad this book is. I definitely enjoyed McEwan’s earlier books more.
Did you read it? What did you think? Do you sometimes eye your Alexa suspiciously? Would you ever buy one?