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review 2019-07-15 15:54
To Create or Relate? Questions of Human Currency
Machines Like Me - Ian McEwan

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…

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2019-03-10 04:14
The Children Act
The Children Act - Ian McEwan,Lindsay Duncan

THIS, FIONA DECIDED as her taxi halted in heavy traffic on Waterloo Bridge, was either about a woman on the edge of a crack-up making a sentimental error of professional judgement, or it was about a boy delivered from or into the beliefs of his sect by the intimate intervention of the secular court. She didn’t think it could be both. The question was suspended as she looked to her left, downstream towards St Paul’s. The tide was running out fast. Wordsworth, on a nearby bridge, was right, either direction, best urban prospect in the world. Even in steady rain.

Well, this was interesting. At least the first half of the book was. The second half of the book confirmed to me why I can't read McEwan - his writing either bores me stiff or enrages me. With this book, we have a case of the latter.

 

I only picked this book because I wanted to know the story before watching the film and because the audiobook was narrated by the fabulous Lindsay Duncan. (She's still fab even tho the book was disappointing.)

 

The Children Act is about Fiona, a High Court judge, who struggles to balance the demands of her work at the Family Division with her personal life. 

On the night that her husband tells her that he is going to have an affair, Fiona is asked to preside over a case where a minor (he's 17), who is a Jehova's Witness, is supposed to receive a life-saving blood transfusion. 

 

So far so good. We get a good picture of the characters and a potentially gripping plot, with some hopefully interesting exploration of the legal, social and moral issues connected with the case. We also get a relatively interesting relationship drama. 

 

Unfortunately, the court drama is over and done with within a chapter or so, and the rest of the story takes a nose-dive from there. 

 

Well, actually, some parts of the story had taken a bad turn a bit earlier. One of the first things that made me cringe is McEwan's description of the people who aren't of white middle-class or professional backgrounds. There is a distinct separation of lives between the main characters environment, mostly judges and academics, and ... anyone else. 

 

For example, when Fiona takes the controversial decision to visit the 17-year-old at the heart of the transfusion case in hospital to find out more about his decision to refuse a transfusion, the judge is met by two nurses who somehow seem to never have seen a court room drama or understand the legal process behind the non-treatment requests,  which just seems silly as I am pretty sure that this part of the mandatory training for nurses (at least in the NHS).

 

So, instead we get this: 

Finally she [Fiona, the HC Judge] said, ‘What about this transfusion business?’

All humour vanished.

The Caribbean nurse said, ‘I pray for him every day. I say to Adam, “God don’t need you to do this, darlin’. He loves you anyway. God wants you to live.”’

Her friend said sadly, ‘He’s made up his mind. You got to admire him. Living for his principles, is it.’

‘Dying you mean! He knows nothing. This is one confused little puppy.’

   Fiona said, ‘What does he say when you tell him that God wants him to live?’

‘Nothing. He’s like, Why should I listen to her?’

Just then, Marina opened the door, raised a hand and went back inside.

Fiona said, ‘Well, thank you.’

In response to a buzzer, the Filipina nurse was hurrying towards another door.

‘You go in there, ma’m,’ her friend said, ‘and please turn him around. He’s a lovely boy.’

So many questions! Starting with why do we need that the nurses are of Caribbean and Filipino origin?

Do nurses really bring in their religious views to persuade patients to change their minds? It doesn't sound very professional... Why did McEwan write this in this way?

 

A few minutes after the meeting, we get the next cringe-worthy scene when the 17-year-old boy who apparently only has days to live  falls in love with Fiona (59). This happens instantly. 

The boy can hardly breathe. 

It just makes no sense.

 

After Fiona's judgment, the boy has the transfusion and recovers so well that he starts to stalk Fiona, sends her letters, and even manages to follow her on a circuit session to Newcastle. 

 

Now, again this make no sense whatsoever. 

 

Never mind that the boy has the mental capacity of a 12-year-old child, has very little knowledge of the world outside of his own closed community, or that it is relatively unlikely that he would find out Fiona's schedule, but we are asked to believe that a High Court Judge would not have some sort of security detail when travelling on Circuit business. 

 

And yet, the boy somehow manages to track Fiona down to a remote manor somewhere outside of Newcastle - a long way from London - without a car.

What sort of Special Ops teen are we supposed to believe the boy to be? Seriously,...

 

Anyway, they meet and discuss what happened after the boy received the transfusion. This discussion is supposed to enlighten us as to the boy's infatuation with Fiona, but I came away from this scene just shaking my head. 

 

We get a description of what sounded me like the author inserting himself. Alas, the comments are either arrogant or stupid: 

‘Sounds like your anorexic friend managed it.’

‘Yeah, well, actually, anorexia’s a bit like religion.’

When she looked sceptical he improvised.

‘Oh, you know, wanting to suffer, loving the pain and sacrifice, thinking that everyone’s watching and caring and that the whole universe is all about you. And your weight!’

[...]

It was like a grown-up had come into a room full of kids who are making each other miserable and said, Come on, stop all the nonsense, it’s teatime! You were the grown-up. You knew all along but you didn’t say. You just asked questions and listened. All of life and love that lie ahead of him – that’s what you wrote. That was your “thing”. And my revelation.

Come again? Anorexia is a bit like religion? Last time I checked, anorexia was an illness. And the people arguing the religious reasons for refusing the transfusion were behaving like children?

 

As with many other throw-away statements in this book, we don't get a fuller explanation here, but I can only assume that the comment was meant to be another dig - there have been several - at why people may choose to do or not do something for religious reasons. Even if I disagree with the religious point of view, the line of argument in this book is preposterous. What is even more disappointing is that for a book that intends to focus on a court case as the main event of the story, there is very little discussion of the issue, the legal aspects, the law, the consequences, ... nearly nothing. There are a few cases  etc. being mentioned, but they do not seem relevant at all. From a court room drama perspective, this has been such a disappointing read. 

 

And when we look at the second storyline, the relationship between Fiona and Jack, her husband (the one who wants to have an affair), the story gets even worse. 

 

Let's recap - Jack wants to have an affair because Fiona has neglected him in favour of her work. He confronts her with it and rather than giving her a chance to respond, he leaves on the same evening. Is that believable? For a character who says he wants to save his marriage, Jack sounds like an ass. 

 

So, he goes off on a jolly (and has his affair). Fiona changes the locks, sees a solicitor,  and tries to come to terms with her failings, such as not giving Jack children. 

 

Now, let's remember that they are 59 and 60. 

 

I am going to assume that the question of children should have come up before. Why does it feel like this is the first time it is mentioned? And why do they not discuss things? 

 

Oh, yes, that's right... Jack ran off to shag one of his  younger colleagues.

 

Somehow, tho, McEwan turns this all around to make it look like it was Fiona's failings that caused the marriage to break down, and when she's finally confronting her own anger, we're supposed to dislike her:  

The work of the Family Division went on. It was an accident of the listings that so much marital conflict came Fiona’s way. Pure coincidence that she was in conflict herself. It was not usual in this line of work to be sending people to prison, but all the same, she thought in idle moments that she could send down all those parties wanting, at the expense of their children, a younger wife, a richer or less boring husband, a different suburb, fresh sex, fresh love, a new world view, a nice new start before it was too late. Mere pursuit of pleasure. Moral kitsch. Her own childlessness and the situation with Jack shaped these daydreams and, of course, she was not serious. Still, she buried deep in a private mental domain, but never let it affect her decisions, a puritan contempt for the men and women who pulled their families apart and persuaded themselves they were acting selflessly for the best. In this thought experiment, she wouldn’t have spared the childless, or at least, not Jack. A cleansing spell in the Scrubs for contaminating their marriage in the cause of novelty? Why not?

 

It's preposterous.

 

Then we get to the point where the story completely looses the plot:

When Fiona and Adam, the boy (he's 18 by then), meet in Newcastle (where he followed her to), Fiona sends him away - quite sharply and rightly so. She arranges for her assistant to accompany him to a train station. 

‘You must go.’ Lightly, she took the lapel of his thin jacket between her fingers and drew him towards her. Her intention was to kiss him on the cheek, but as she reached up and he stooped a little and their faces came close, he turned his head and their lips met. She could have drawn back, she could have stepped right away from him. Instead, she lingered, defenceless before the moment. The sensation of skin on skin obliterated any possibility of choice. If it was possible to kiss chastely full on the lips, this was what she did. A fleeting contact, but more than the idea of a kiss, more than a mother might give her grown-up son. Over in two seconds, perhaps three. Time enough to feel in the softness of his lips that overlay their suppleness, all the years, all the life, that separated her from him. As they withdrew, a slight adhesion of skin might have drawn them back together. But there were approaching footsteps on the gravel and on the stone steps outside. She let go of his lapel and said again, ‘You must go.’

Not only was this a weird scene, but it tried to sexualise a relationship that was never sexual.

Also, McEwan uses the same word (in a different scene) to describe Adam and Fiona playing music and singing on their first encounter at the hospital and when describing Fiona's and Jack's lovemaking after they first met. Those are the only two times that McEwan uses the word "din". I'm calling the literary BS card here. 

 

And when Fiona finally tells Jack about the scene with Adam (after Jack returned to her from his affair), Jack immediately jumps to the conclusion that she's having an affair with the boy. We've already established that Jack is an ass but I also could not help feeling that McEwan might be an ass, too. 

 

He seems to recognise the double standards that are play here, but the second half of the book to me seriously read as if we're supposed to believe that Jack is trying to make amends and Fiona is the one who causes the rifts in their relationship. 

Jack Maye had come of age in the 1970s among all its currents of thought. He had taught in a university his entire adult life. He knew all about the illogic of double standards, but knowing could not protect him. She saw the anger in his face, tightening the muscles along his jaw, hardening his eyes.

None of this crap even made sense.

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text 2019-03-09 16:20
Reading progress update: I've read 79%.
The Children Act - Ian McEwan,Lindsay Duncan

What the actual ... ?!?!?

 

This has taken another totally inconceivable turn ... for the worse.

 

 

This is definitely the last time I pick up a McEwan.

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text 2019-03-09 15:58
Reading progress update: I've read 73%.
The Children Act - Ian McEwan,Lindsay Duncan

*sighs*

 

What even are the chances

of an inept 18-year-old managing to follow a high court judge half-way across the country to a secluded manor somewhere in the countryside near Newcastle in a thunderstorm without a car or having any possibility of knowing where she was going

(spoiler show)

?

 

Gaaaah... 

 

I've just found another reason why I don't read McEwan.

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text 2019-03-09 15:10
Reading progress update: I've read 60%.
The Children Act - Ian McEwan,Lindsay Duncan

So, just over half-way and one of the main issues seems resolved, even if I anticipate there will be a fall-out. Please let there be a fall-out. 

 

I really don't want to read McEwan's thoughts on another late-50s middle-class couple's marriage falling apart for what is just under half of the book.

 

Oh, but what are the chances if the next chapter starts with:

"IT WAS HER impression, though the facts did not bear it out, that in the late summer of 2012, marital or partner breakdown and distress in Great Britain swelled like a freak spring tide, sweeping away entire households, scattering possessions and hopeful dreams, drowning those without a powerful instinct for survival."

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