To Create or Relate? Questions of Human Currency

3:54 PM 15 JULY 2019

One of the current topics causing some hand wringing in our angst-ridden western society is the spectre of artificial intelligence (AI). The potential of AI seems universally acknowledged, but its development, ethics and governance appear more contentious. Moreover, once the genie is released from the corporate bottle, in the long run, is humanity rendering our species (in its current state of evolution) obsolete?


There are few writers with the gravitas to step meaningfully into this contemporary debate, let alone encapsulate and conceptualise some of the attendant issues through the medium of a novel. Yet, Ian McEwan has done so with his usual aplomb. The social adjustment for the introduction of such advanced tech’ might be expected to be profound. In ‘Machines Like Me’, the arrival on the market of human-like machines (twelve ‘male’, thirteen ‘female’) distributed around the globe, are a focus of curiosity and concern in equal measure. But, not in our world. In an interesting diversion, the author has set the plot in a different dimension, a world familiar to our own, but where Margaret Thatcher’s task force is defeated in The Falklands, Tony Benn becomes Prime Minister and an ageing Alan Turing is revered as one of the greatest minds of the time. The ploy enables the implied technological advance to be explained (it remains work in progress for us) and cunningly maintains a sense of looking into a fishbowl at the consequences for two ordinary Londoners.


Charlie, a thirty-something disbarred lawyer and author of a minor book on electronics and anthropology is broke and living hand-to-mouth trading shares on the internet. And yet, on receipt of a bequest from his late mother, he indulges his passion for robots, androids and replicates by purchasing an ‘Adam’ (it is rumoured Alan Turing has bought the same model). The new arrival also enables Charlie to forge a relationship with his upstairs neighbour, Miranda, a doctoral scholar of social history, ten years his junior.

Notwithstanding Adam’s need to recharge periodically, he is remarkably human-like and develops his responses and information systems, such that he is convinced that he also has feelings of love for Miranda. However, the strange triangle that ensues lacks the threat born of deceit, as Adam is consistently honest about his emotions and bound by his promise to Charlie not to actively submit to them. Yet, it is the inflexibility of Adam’s abilities, an inability to be humanly inconsistent, which will provoke an inevitable tension. Bound by an immutable logic, constrained by an immaculate adherence to the rule of law, Adam represents the perfect citizen, but ultimately is unable to contend with the messiness of the human experience, or collude with his friends to their unfair advantage. Loyalty, it transpires, cannot set aside responsibility to the wider good of society, or bend its rules.


In the moral maze explored by McEwan, the reader is invited to think about the status of such AI sentient beings, destined to be superior to their human ‘creators’ and the unintended consequences, such as obligations conferred on the society hosting them. Can it be that such machines can truly be described as possessing a ‘self’, what in the book Turing calls, “a conscious existence”? The ‘test’ often mooted is the ability of AI to create authentic art, but since Adam is able to fashion Haiku poems, suddenly the temptation is to refine the criteria of art. In any event, the creativity attributed to humans lies, we are told, in thinking ‘outside the box’.


I thoroughly enjoyed this book and wrestling with the underlying tenets. Moreover, as I write this review the announcement that the late Alan Turing is to appear on the new £50 note signals the conclusion of his official rehabilitation and further endorses his pioneering contribution to the early development of computers. Clearly we are living in complex and fascinating times, but this book dares the reader to recall the past, glimpse the future and wonder…

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Life, Death, Love and Trust…

1:41 AM 25 AUGUST 2018

This is the fourth book by Ian McEwan that I’ve reviewed and is the furthest back in his catalogue (1997). Still, the latest read has reaffirmed my belief that McEwan is extraordinarily gifted and a colossus among contemporary British writers. In particular, he has a knack for unpacking a short period, even a moment, in such exquisitely interesting detail that for the reader it can be like savouring a fine wine, with all the complex flavours and tannins schmoozing the palate.


It is not only the description of the situation (beguiling enough), or the intricate meshing of fascinating characters drawn together around a “pinprick on the time map”, but the delicate craftsmanship of the storytelling, the wondrous use of language and turns of phrase, which at times appear almost poetic.


“A beginning is an artifice, and what recommends one over another is how much sense it makes of what follows.” Certainly, in ‘Enduring Love’ the start-point was crucial, an immediate, dramatic incident involving an out-of-control hot air balloon and the individuals arbitrarily drawn together in the aftermath. Indeed, rather like completing a jigsaw, having first assembled the fragments of this centrepiece, the author carefully positions the subsequent pieces, until finally the reader can stand back and view the whole picture. And what a delightful puzzle it was.


Part psychological thriller, the tension was masterfully managed and yet at times the moving descriptions of loss (an attendant theme) were poignant and the realization of life’s susceptibility to the vagaries of random events gave the book a philosophical undertone.


Key couple, Joe and Clarissa, are intelligent but different and their relationship built up over seven years is tested in the present, along with the foundations laid in the past. Can the bond linking them together survive the strain placed on each partner and the doubts buffeting their belief and trust in each other?


“Now it came out in a torrent, a post-mortem, a re-living, a de-briefing, the rehearsal of grief, and the exorcism of terror.”


The third character in an unusual love triangle is Jed Parry. Compulsive and unpredictably obsessive, he is also a victim of circumstance, but with an unnerving capacity to wreak emotional havoc, including with the reader!


Again this book is quite short, but don’t let that fool you, the journey is intense and breathless and my overall impression was of a nugget of a novel, which will nestle comfortably on my shelf of favourites. A cleverly titled, thoroughly absorbing read.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

When the Honeymoon is Over…

7:37 PM 16 JUNE 2017

I have been an admirer of Ian McEwan’s writing style since my introduction to ‘Atonement’ (see earlier review) and when The Times listed him among “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945”, I can plainly see why. By comparison, I was less enamoured by ‘Solar’ (also previously reviewed), but my latest dip into the McEwan listings, the novella, ‘On Chesil Beach’, is in many ways a quite remarkable piece of writing. 

Firstly, the book, comprising just 166 pages, split into five parts, is exquisitely crafted. The author’s use of language is concise, but sumptuous and though short, the book packs a complex emotional punch, which the reader shares with newly weds Edward and Florence. From undiluted joy to excruciating despair, the couple’s developing insights are naive and poignant in equal measure and McEwan tackles head-on the nature of intimacy and passion as they nudge towards the consummation of their marriage.

For the bulk of the book, the author succeeds in slowing time, launching back from the wedding day in successive reflections that map the couple’s respective journeys. Each from very different backgrounds, Edward and Florence have managed to rise above the shortcomings of their parentage and by some quirk of serendipity, to find each other, which is of itself heart-warming. Yet, the book exposes potential flaws in the superficial 1960’s courtship ritual and the brittle, untested facade, which they have contrived to create. There is little doubt that they love one another, but is it enough and can they fashion a workable compromise, on which to build a life together?

Perhaps some matches are made in heaven, but to succeed they have to be made to work at the human level. In this frank and at times crude exploration of ‘need’, it seems clear that we can be a fickle bunch, and even among the well-educated, sometimes held hostage to irrational base instincts. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.