Book Review: “Machines Like Me” by Ian McEwan

machines

I read Atonement a few months ago (you can read the review here) and fell in love with how Ian McEwan writes. So when his new book about an AI man came out this year, I had to get my hands on it. Machines Like Me is about an impulsive man, Charlie, who buys an AI named Adam. Their interactions grow increasingly strange and morally compromising as they navigate dilemmas with their mutual love interest, Miranda. The setting is an alternative 1980s England.

Mild spoilers ahead.

What Machines Like Me gets right:  I loved reading about the philosophy and morality behind AI versus humans, and Adam was fascinating to me from the beginning. It was hard for me not to read ahead to see what he would do next. I mean, he figures out how to make haikus! And his version of morals- well, let’s just say it doesn’t mesh well with his human companions.

There was a weird tone throughout the book- one of both curiosity and dread- that kept me interested even through some of the less exciting scenes. Everyone who Adam comes into contact with is a test- what will he say to them? Will they recognize him as an AI? And why did Charlie buy him in the first place? Machines Like Me will keep you guessing until the end. And the ending, while a little unexpected, is mostly satisfying.

What Machines Like Me does wrong: As usual, Ian McEwan’s writing is superb, and I was hooked on the premise from the beginning. However, I couldn’t help but think there was a lot of unrecognized potential. AI is such a controversial topic, but McEwan’s story sizes it down to make it seem almost pedestrian. I thought Adam could be a true villain, but I think his potential was ultimately unrealized.

Charlie and Miranda were both boring/frustrating people, so they were hard to read about at times (especially because Charlie narrates the story). Charlie makes the weirdest, most random decisions, which is entertaining but so annoying. It’s like he doesn’t think about any consequences, ever- which is dangerous to do when dealing with AI.

Who should read Machines Like Me: Readers who are interested in AI, science fiction, and history. The alternative 1980s setting would be especially fun to read about for fans of Alan Turing.

Who shouldn’t read Machines Like Me: Readers who don’t care for science fiction or don’t know much about the history of AI. This book will be a little confusing if you are not familiar with certain historical events.

 

Machines Like Me is not currently available at the library, but you can request it through Interlibrary Loan.

Content note: brief suggestive scenes, brief language. There is also a subplot that involves a terrible crime.

Book Review: “The Testaments” by Margaret Atwood

the testaments

 

Have you ever read a book, gotten to the end, and then thought, “WHAT? What’s going to happen next?” The Handmaid’s Tale will make you do that.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is known as a modern classic. Written in 1985, this novel is about an alternate society, Gilead, that runs an oppressive regime against women. Women are forced into different social classes. Some of the main ones mentioned are:

  • Handmaids (essentially surrogate mothers for Wives who can’t naturally have children)
  • Marthas (serving women)
  • Aunts (ruling women who make sure the others are put in their place)
  • Wives (married and subordinate to husbands, who rule over Gilead)

Without giving too much away, The Handmaid’s Tale ends on an exciting cliffhanger. And for 34 years, there was nothing else written about it.

Until now: enter The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. I think it came as a surprise to most readers when Margaret Atwood announced that there was, at long last, another book in the Handmaid universe. At the time of my writing, The Testaments is currently the top bestselling book in the U.S. I couldn’t wait to read it, so I snatched it up as soon as the library’s copy came in (sorry).

*There are minor spoilers ahead, so be aware.

 

What The Testaments gets right: It’s downright chilling how the global problems in the book echo the ones in real life. I’m sure Atwood did that on purpose, but still. It’s always eerie when a fictional dystopia has a little too much in common with the real world.

The Testaments tells its story with three different narrators: Aunt Lydia, Daisy, and Agnes Jemima. Each woman has played a different part in the system of Gilead- one helped enforce it, one suffered from it, and one lived outside of it. Through their perspectives, we get a more complete picture of the political climate surrounding Gilead. For instance, the other countries don’t like Gilead. There are protests everywhere, the global climate is falling apart, and there’s an Underground Femaleroad that women can use to escape from Gilead- if they’re not caught and punished.

So much of what happens to these women is staggeringly upsetting. In fact, much of their suffering is unique to simply being a woman (such as purposefully being denied feminine products while in captivity), which is something I haven’t read much about in other dystopias. The Testaments is a great reminder to not take the little things in life for granted (or the big things either, like freedom of speech, freedom to own property, and the freedom to vote, which are denied these women).

Even though The Testaments was often hard to read because of the mistreatment of women, I loved this book. I read a review in The Guardian where a reader said that she felt like the book was talking directly to her, and that’s exactly how I felt, too. Margaret Atwood really knows how to pull you in and make you think with her writing. She might make you cry, too- I did.

 

What The Testaments does wrong: The Testaments is more heavy-handed and political than The Handmaid’s Tale, largely due to the different narrators and their positions in society. The narrators in the sequel are more self-aware and have years of perspective to look back on, while Offred from the original book lived more in the moment, which didn’t allow her to think about much more beyond her own strategies to stay alive and undetected. She often thought about her lost past, but it was less in political terms and more personal. We had access to her thoughts and suppressed feelings, and we as readers knew less about the wider scope of things that The Testaments gives us.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with The Testaments being more obvious in tone- in fact, many might say that this kind of tone is needed right now- but I missed the personal horror of The Handmaid’s Tale. The Handmaid’s Tale had so many subtle moments that made me double take and reread, as well as blatant anti-woman tactics. The Testaments stays fairly blatant throughout the whole book- which, again, could be due to the fact that we as readers already know all about about Gilead and its evil because of The Handmaid’s Tale. The Testaments doesn’t have to be subtle because, as the saying goes, The Handmaid’s Tale walked so The Testaments could run.

 

Who should read The Testaments: Older teenagers and adults, especially people who have read and enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale.

 

Who shouldn’t read The Testaments: Younger teenagers and children. It’s too mature in theme for them to fully understand.

 

Content note & mild spoilers: There are sad (but fairly brief) recollections of sexual and physical abuse in The Testaments, as well as some language. This is a heavy book.