Talkin' bots with Ian McEwan

Last week, the Page Society took a field trip to the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio, to listen to Ian McEwan discuss his new novel in conversation with Carol Off.

Machines Like Me, released by Knopf Canada in late April, is a finely tuned work, shifting from quiet introspection to passion and comic relief in the span of a page. His navel-gazing protagonist, Charlie, is a wonderfully rendered character, a pathetic man-child who buys a replicant human in the waning days of an alternate-universe Thatcherite London. In this world, Alan Turing is alive, and technology has advanced at a rapid-fire pace – yet despite the electric vehicles and twittering computer-verse recognizable to a modern audience, you can still see the grime of austerity Britain at work.

Adam, Charlie’s robot companion, is one of the first of his kind – for Charlie, Adam is a fateful purchase that allows him to develop a closer relationship with upstairs neighbour and love interest, Miranda. Adam is a thought experiment – an eye-wateringly expensive impulse buy and a distraction for a man clinically incapable, it seems, of holding on to money.

Over the course of the novel, McEwan expands the tightly-focused world of Charlie, Adam and Miranda to explore the philosophical and moral quandries commensurate with the idea of artificial intelligence. Is humanity built, earned – or something else? Can artificial consciousness transcend its human creators – or is human consciousness itself an artificial creation? Is Adam, at his core, a conscious being? Or is he the world’s most sophisticated, neuroses-inducing computer game?

As in his wonderfully experimental novel Nutshell, McEwan takes an idea that’s been done before (Hamlet, robots) and dives deep.

Ian McEwan in conversation is exactly as you’d imagine. He’s erudite and quick, disarmingly witty when sparring with audience members on issues of religion, technology, and human nature – not only in relation to his characters, but to himself as well. I don’t know of another person alive who could so deeply dive into a character study as to spend two years shadowing neurosurgeons at a London hospital, but McEwan’s done it (successfully enough to convince two neurosurgery residents to call him “doctor”!) If you get the chance, come listen to him speak the next time he’s in Toronto – well worth the price of admission – but in any case, pick up a copy of Machines Like Me.

Spring Releases

At the risk of jinxing it, I think it’s safe to say that spring has almost (almost!) sprung in Toronto. We’re seeing the signs of the seasons: robins and birdsong, daffodils ascending… but the most exciting indication that we’re well on our way to t-shirt weather is that publishing houses have started to put out their lists of Spring Reads!

There are plenty of great new releases coming out in the next few months, and you can be sure we are avidly haunting our local bookstores in the hopes of being among the first to get our hands on the latest and greatest. Here are some of the new releases that we’re watching for:

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NORMAL PEOPLE, SALLY ROONEY

Sally Rooney’s CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS was an instant classic, and if the advance praise is anything to go by, NORMAL PEOPLE is going to be even better.  Set against the backdrop of Trinity College Dublin, NORMAL PEOPLE is about being young, and being in love – what better way to welcome the warm weather?

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MACHINES LIKE ME, IAN MCEWAN

Ian McEwan is at the top of his game – not that he’s ever truly off his game. With his gorgeous, subtle prose and complete refusal to pigeonhole himself into a single genre, McEwan puts his unique spin on a classic sci-fi scenario in MACHINES LIKE ME: Can artificial intelligence understand the complexities of the human heart?

We look forward to reading more, and learning more, when Ian McEwan comes to Toronto on May 13. Hope to see you there!

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THE FARM, JOANNE RAMOS

This dystopian novel depicts a future where poor women make money by becoming surrogates for rich women. While it may sound a bit “Handmaidy” on the face of it, the women in Ramos’s novel – like Jane, an immigrant in search of a better life – choose their fate as Hosts… but the cost of their decision might not be what they expect.   

 Which new releases are you looking forward to? Share your Spring Reads on Facebook, Twitter or Insta!