Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan: Book Review


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I’m a lifelong McEwan fan, but he has been infuriating me in the last decade with his inconsistency.

I have previously reviewed and lamented Sweet Tooth and Solar – both stinkers, but sandwiched between them was The Children Act, a book of great beauty and provocation.

I’m glad to say that Machines Like Me finds McEwan right back at the top of his game and it’s clear to me that what is making him write his best work these days is moral ambiguity and his adeptness at turning that ambiguity into superb storytelling.  It’s at the heart of  what makes this book, and The Children Act, so great.

The moral conundrum here is truth.

Humanity allows us to decide the difference between ‘white lies’ and despicable self- serving perjury.  But can Artificial Intelligence be expected to compete?

This novel works on many levels.  It’s essentially a sci0fi book about Artificial Intelligence yet it’s set in the past.

A fake past.

1982 to be precise.

A 1982, in which Thatcher has just lost the Falklands War, Alan Turing is alive and kicking, Britain is contemplating a form of Brexit, the poll tax disputes are raging and many of today’s political challenges are being reframed as 1982’s.  Most notably the rise of an elderly Labour leader (Tony Benn) has swept to power on the back of an adoring youth.

It’s playful and brilliant.

McEwan plays with the value of things like money.  Everything seem so cheap: cheaper than the reality of 1982 prices. (The effect of a global recalibration of worth?  It’s unexplained.)

Into a 32 year old dropout’s life (Charlie) arrive, almost simultaneously, a stunningly beautiful but enigmatic 21 year old neighbour (Miranda) and a ‘robot’ of almost perfect physical attributes (Adam – one of 25 AI humanoids – 13 male, 12 female).

Charlie’s bought Adam thanks to an inheritance from his mother and the book explores the relationship between the three main protagonists, but throws in a secondary moral dilemma in the form of a four year old abused boy, Mark, who inveigles himself into their lives.

In Miranda’s past an event of monumental emotional significance has consumed her and the repercussions of this form a significant strand of the moral backbone of the story.

So we have fun (made up history) sci-fi (lite but fascinating in the form of a humanoid robot, whom it turns out is capable of great knowledge – Google, before Google existed- but also a form of moral judgement) relationships (tangled) and simply brilliant storytelling.

The science is interesting, the philosophy just light enough to engage dullards like me and the story so compelling as to turn pages lightning fast.

The whole premise throws up so many genuinely interesting questions that it’s like manna to McEwan who feasts on the riches that his great invention feeds him.

I adored this book.  One of McEwan’s best ever and leaves only Nutshell, out of his 17 novels, for me to read.  It’s a noughties write, so who knows.

 

 

Mouthpiece: at The Traverse by Kieran Hurley


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The tricky disclaimer

I have to first declare my physical challenge with this night in the theatre, one of my favourites, and not previously the purveyor of spasming pain in my right knee.  However, tonight the cramped legroom of Traverse 1 caused me such physical discomfort that I was counting the minutes till the end.

It was probably me, but the seating didn’t help.

The common gripe

This is the second Kieran Hurley show I’ve seen. Square Go by Paines Plough, like this, started brilliantly but seemed to run out of steam.  This less so, but it was a game of two halves for me.  The first pain-free, the secondly most certainly not.

The difficult narrator issue.

Narrated plays when the performers talk about what they are up to as they do it is not my cuppa, I’m afraid.

The describing of structure as the structure unfolds in episodic real time.

See above.

The holding of mirrors up to middle class audiences technique.

Herein lies my real problem with this production.

The performances by Shauna Macdonald and Angus Taylor are both very good and the story is engaging, but it’s about working class (underclass) strife meeting middle class privilege – a bit Pygmalianesque, but trying very, very hard not to be.

This whole ‘theatre-holding-a-mirror-up-to-its audience’ schtick, as we look in on how others live (it happens a lot in black theatre, queer theatre and class theatre) is starting to tire me out.

In this, Hurley intermingles the fortunes of a deprived teenager with a failed but privileged early-middle-aged writer, but in such a way that life starts to imitate art, become art, debunk art and eventually question art to such an extent that I started to run out of emotional connection.

Hurley does his best to take the whole ‘Rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain’ cliche and subvert it, so that Mrs Higgins rapidly descends from hero to villain and Master Doolittle morphs from victim to hero to victim to hero so much that I began to wonder if I was really all that bothered any more.  Or maybe it was the knee.

The site-specific thing

If you haven’t seen it you won’t get this reference.,  But it is very clever.  I liked that.

The Martin Creed references.

You know what, I’m moaning a bit here.  This was a good production.  I’m just a grippy bastard sometimes and it had too many flaws for me.

But, at the end of the day…Everything’s going to be all right.

 

 

 

Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of) at The Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh and on tour: Review


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Nope, I’ve never read P&P.

I’ve never seen any of the movies or the TV adaptations – the nearest I ever got to it was Bridget Jones.

I wouldn’t know my Heathcliffe from my Jimmy Cliff.

And I’ve never read any Jane Austen in my puff – in fact I don’t even know who the bloke is.

But I read the Wikipedia synopsis (a good tip before seeing any period drama IMHO) on the way to the theatre.

I needn’t have bothered, because the storytelling in this truly wonderful production is first rate. I could have gone in colder than a monkey in a Walls factory and still emerged off pat with the storyline.

The cast of many characters (and referenced participants) is significant, and yet you’ll not miss a beat in this rip-roaring triumph of comedy theatre.

The six actors, all female, play 21 different characters plus, let’s call it five, assorted house maids, a total of 26 roles, making an average of 4.33 characters per actor.

That’s a new character for every 5 minutes 45 seconds of run time.  And yet at no point do we lose track of who is who and what is what in this runaway train of a tale.

It’s bawdy, it’s musical, it’s completely hilarious.

The crowd cheered, booed, clapped and rose as one in adulation as the curtain fell at just before 10.30 pm tonight.

The reason for this?  Tori Burgess, Felixe Forde, Christina Gordon and in particular Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Isobel McArthur (the writer) and Meghan Tyler (also a writer – of Fringe First winning Crocodile Fever).

The directing, by Paul Brotherston is miraculous.

We’re treated to Londoners, Scots, Yorkshiremen and women and full-on Northern Oirish characters in a melange of Babelic proportions.

And yet, it all holds together, melds and synergistically builds into a thing so beautifully nuanced, so gut-wrenchingly funny that you wonder how it ever came about.  And still the story remains true and comes through.

Lovers of P&P will have no issue with this translation.

The all-female cast not only allows us a bit of fun with cross-dressing and assumed voices, but also a bit of cheeky girl meets girl, girl is smitten by girl innuendo.

The laugh out loud moments in this are countless.  Five in the first minute alone thanks to Hannah Jarrett-Scott’s complete ownership of her four main characters and her role as narrator in chief.

It’s brilliant.  Just brilliant.  See it.

 

Upright. New TV series by Tim Minchin.


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I’ll start by confessing that Tim Minchin has done nothing.  NOTHING for me in his fairly long and, largely, highly succesful career, so when it was suggested I watch this I doubted I’d get past episode one.

How wrong could I have been?

By the end of episode eight, binged in two days, the tears rolled down my cheeks.

It’s bawdy, ballsy, rude, ridiculous, hilarious, breathtaking, touching, sincere and is based on a largely unpredictable storyline that twists and turns like a Tasmanian Devil.

It also features a stand out, frankly equal footing, performance by 19 year old Australian actress, Milly Alcock, remember that name, she’s the next Margot Robbie.

A truly excellent TV series, right up there with Succession, Fleabag and Chernobyl as my favourites of 2019.