MACHINES LIKE ME
by Ian McEwan (Cape £18.99, 320 pp)
MACHINES LIKE ME by Ian McEwan (Cape £18.99, 320 pp)
Ian McEwan has always been a generous writer to his readers, his novels bulging with big ideas and rich story-telling.
Here, though, he almost seems to be channelling the spirit of Mrs Doyle, the persistent housekeeper from Father Ted — constantly offering us more and more to chew on.
At the heart of the book is a love triangle between Charlie, a thirty-something Londoner, his girlfriend Miranda and the handsome, clever Adam. But this triangle is not as straight-forward as it sounds.
For one thing, the story takes place in an alternative version of the early Eighties, where (among much else) Britain loses the Falklands war, Mrs Thatcher falls from power, Tony Benn becomes prime minister and the Beatles reform. For another, Adam is a robot.
Not that you’d necessarily know it from meeting him — because, in another change from the world we’re familiar with, Alan Turing didn’t die in 1954. Instead, he lived on to become the ‘presiding genius of the digital age’, which, as a result, began much earlier. Now it’s allowed for the production of extremely humanoid robots endowed with what appears to be genuine consciousness.
Along the way, McEwan also gives Miranda a dark, possibly criminal past that gradually unravels. For no obvious reason we get the tale of an abandoned four-year-old boy, along with jokes about our own times.
Yet McEwan’s central interest is clearly with the implications of Artificial Intelligence for the future of mankind. Sometimes it leads to sections the non-scientific reader might struggle with, however enjoyably.
Mostly, it makes for a fascinating discussion, and dramatisation, of the whole business — especially once things, in the traditional way of robot fiction, start to go wrong.
After all, Adam is programmed to be unfailingly logical and principled and, seeing as real human beings are neither, his mission to act like one is ultimately doomed.
By the end of the book, you might feel — like one of Mrs Doyle’s guests — pretty stuffed. But you’ll also find it hard not to admire the sheer scale of McEwan’s ambition. Many literary novels claim to be exploring ‘what it is to be human’. Few carry out this exploration as thoroughly, or as literally, as this does.
LITTLE FAITH by Nickolas Butler (Faber £12.99, 336 pp)
by Nickolas Butler (Faber £12.99, 336 pp)
Little Faith is a defiantly unfashionable novel: kindly in tone, rooted in the idea that most people are essentially good and with a sympathetic interest in religious belief.
The setting is rural Wisconsin — where folks go contentedly about their business of working hard and being nice to one another. But, the book seems to be asking, for how much longer? Already, the younger generation is moving away, family shops have disappeared and the local church is far emptier than it used to be.
Meanwhile, 65-year-old Lyle Hovde is facing a more urgent crisis. His adopted daughter Shiloh has recently returned home from the big bad world, bringing with her a six-year-old son, whom Lyle adores.
Unfortunately, she’s also joined a cult-like urban church, whose charismatic pastor has singled out Lyle as a somewhat unlikely tool of Satan, and wants to keep him from seeing his beloved grandson.
As plots go, what happens next works perfectly well. But the novel’s considerable appeal lies mainly in Butler’s unashamed, touching and infectious fondness for Lyle and his vanishing way of life.