Book Review: “Machines Like Me” by Ian McEwan

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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.

Matthew’s Monday Movie: “Blade Runner”

Director Ridley Scott has a long history of making epic and awe-inspiring films and Blade Runner has got to be at the top of that list. Its affect on the science fiction genre as a whole cannot be overstated. It has also heavily influenced both video games and anime for its style and futuristic prospects of what the world may evolve into in time.

The film is set in 2019 Los Angeles in a dark and dreary dystopia, where mankind has adapted to become a technocracy influenced by powerful corporations. Man has mastered interstellar flight and colonies are forming in space. The key to this success has been through the use of androids called “Replicants” who have become so life-like and self-aware that they are nearly indistinguishable from humans and as a result banned from Earth. If a Replicant manages to smuggle themselves to Earth, the police hire a “Blade Runner” to track down the android and kill it.

This brings us to our protagonist, Rick Deckard, a disillusioned former cop who was famous for his ability to eliminate Replicants. Deckard is played by Harrison Ford, who was just coming off the success of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Deckard is tasked to hunt down four Replicants who have committed several murders and illegally entered the city. They are led by Roy Batty, played by Rutger Hauer. Batty is a combat synthetic soldier with advanced tactical training and genius levels of intelligence.

Deckard travels to meet Eldon Tyrell of the Tyrell corporation, who is responsible for creation of the Replicants. While there, he learns there is a psychological test designed to trigger an emotional response in Replicants in order to distinguish them from humans. He also meets Dr. Tyrell’s daughter, Rachael (Sean Young), and soon becomes infatuated with her.

The next phase of the plot involves Deckard hunting the Replicants down one by one while also pursuing a relationship with Rachael.  The Replicant leader Roy Batty soon learns that he and the other Replicants have a built in half-life of a little more than three years. Realizing this, he seeks to meet his maker and acquire more time to live. In the final phase of the film we see Deckard battling the Replicants in a life and death struggle.

The themes expressed in this film are as numerous as they are profound.  In the end we are left questioning the very nature of humanity as the Replicants struggle to survive. They have hopes, dreams, memories, and the fear that all self-aware beings share: the fear of death.

Actor Rutger Hauer unfortunately passed away on July 19th of this year.  During filming, Hauer rewrote his character’s final lines in the film, and they have been praised ever since as one of the most moving speeches of all time in the sci-fi genre. In memory of the late great Rutger Hauer I’ll shall share it here:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Blade Runner has left quite a mark on pop culture and cinema and I do believe we will continue to see its influence in novels and films for years to come.

Blade Runner is available at the Union University Library.

* Please note it is rated R for violence, brief nudity, and some language.*

 

 

 

 

Featured Book: “Ai Weiwei”

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I think if I am an artist I will find my way in my language to deal with my problem.

  • Ai Weiwei

 

Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei was once so controversial in his home country that his name was removed from Chinese art books. Ai creates highly political art that emphasizes the importance of free speech, human rights, and artistic modernism. Multiple art forms can be found among Ai’s creations: architectural projects, installations, paintings, social media, photography, and even arrangements of Chinese artifacts (including stone tools dating back to the Shang Dynasty).

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The book Ai Weiwei, produced by the Royal Academy of Arts, showcases interviews with Ai as well as stunning photographs of his best work. Other artists reflect on Ai’s influence in featured essays. For example, Adrian Locke provides a chronology of important events in Ai’s life. Several of the dates Locke mentions are for Chinese government changes, which affects how Ai and his family are treated (as artists or dissidents, or both).

 

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In spite of imprisonment and government surveillance, Ai continues to make statements about his beliefs through art. While Ai lived in the U.S. for some time, much of his art reflects Chinese culture and problems.

Cui Cancan reflects in Ai Weiwei:

Ai has been a non-existent person in Chinese society. Facing omnipresent censorship and constraints, he nevertheless perseveres in his quest to ask the fundamental questions that China faces, attempting to draw attention to and improve individual people’s circumstances.

 

 

To learn more about this artist or to view his work, check out Ai Weiwei from the Oversize books section.