The Heavens and Machines Like Me

The Heavens by Sandra Newman, published by Granta

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan, published by Vintage (Penguin)

The Guardian’s ‘Not the Booker Prize’ prize is in its second decade, making this the eleventh year that readers are encouraged to nominate their books of the year that have eluded the prestigious Booker Prize longlist. The books eligible for nomination are those eligible for the Booker Prize, and these two fan favourites have made the long list. Two books very different in tone and pace but notably tied by their common themes, in this age of uncertainty it’s not hard to see why they’ve left a lasting impression on readers discerning enough to cry out for their recognition.

It’s becoming far easier to consider the possibility that you’ve somehow drifted into an alternative, parallel timeline where nothing makes sense, logic and reasoning seeming to have vanished from the minds of the leaders of the free world. Would anyone have thought that a reality TV star known for being a sexist oaf would con himself into the White House or that a former mayor of London with a deceptively clownish public persona would weasel his way in to No. 10 Downing Street? That a growing number of right wing racists are finding their voice through the web to spout hatred encourage the subjugation of those they don’t understand and don’t want to tolerate? It all seems a bit wrong, considering the progress that has also been made in making the world a more welcoming place for minorities.

Alternative histories are considered in both The Heavens and Machines Like Me. In The Heavens a young woman living in New York strikes up a relationship with a like-minded young man. They are both predictably liberal New Yorkers, she living between a nice flat she shares with roommates and her friend’s uncle’s apartment that is filled with artists, activists and refugees, he content and up-and-coming in his field but beguiled by this eccentric new woman in his life. She has these dreams, you see, vivid dreams since childhood in which she is a lady in a strange land that bears some resemblance to her own world but has more differences than similarities. As he gets to know her the more unstable she appears to become, believing that significant decisions she makes in her dreams alter her reality. Where once there was a female President now there is not. In the place of a café run successfully by people with disabilities there’s now a faceless chain coffee shop. Subtle changes make for more significant repercussions and her growing despair threatens all she holds dear.

Machines Like Me is set in London, 1982, but not as we know it. Alan Turing has been celebrated rather than criminalised and has gone on to have an illustrious career to rival and surpass Bill Gates’ and Steve Jobs’. In this 1982 Tony Benn is about to be Prime Minister, the internet is already rampant and human-like androids have just come on the general market. Charlie has decided to procure an Adam, and with the help of his upstairs neighbour and love interest Miranda invest in Adam’s future as a robot with a consciousness. Adam, predictably enough, is more than he first appears and a philosophically charged love triangle is formed, moulded by such themes as consent, reason and what it is to be human.

Although very different, a common theme hinges on these two books; what would the present look like if something was to change in the past? Where The Heavens veers into fantasy Machines Like Me relies on a more standard approach, treating its reality as if it were already known to the reader. Indeed, a knowledge of recent British history is a bonus, particularly the scuffle in the Faro Islands, as the long diversions into current affairs will have you reaching for Wikipedia to make sure you’re following, which can become a distraction from the main storyline. Shakespeare rears his head in The Heavens, in the dream world of our heroine Kate, in passages that progress the story but aren’t quite as interesting as the changing world of her ‘real’ reality.

Both books are worth your time, different in tone and narrative but strikingly similar in context. A line from Machines Like Me sums it up; “The present is the frailest of improbable constructs. It could have been different.”

  • First published in The Tuam Herald on August 14th 2019

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