NewMusicMondays – 28 September 2020

David Mitchell spoke, in interviews surrounding the launch of Utopia Avenue, of how a novel has no loudspeaker; and of just how hard it was to write lyrics for non-existent songs that ‘Utopia Avenue’ might actually sing in which he was, as my review noted, only partially successful. For those wondering just how a band made up of guitar, bass, drums and keyboards might actually have sounded, at least in acoustic session and without Jasper’s frenetic fret work, Chris Small has an idea:

Small is a singer-songwriter from Perth, and a multi-instrumentalist specialising (not here) on the trombone. ‘Money Can’t Buy’ is a bluesy groove about love and loss and is a live lockdown track recorded in his backyard and part of an EP whose songs are being released in a regular series over the next few weeks. Chris, also a regular member of Perth Americana band Red Pine Timber Company, comments that the song ‘tries to encapsulate the raw power found on a lot of those late 60’s r’n’b/rock songs, where distortion was really starting to become the backbone of popular music’ – thus, fits very much within the ‘Utopia Avenue’ vein and era.

You can download ‘Money Can’t Buy’ – and the rest of the EP – via Chris’s bandcamp.

I’ve seen Chris at the Twa Tams in Perth with Red Pine Timber Company on a couple of occasions as part of Perth’s Southern Fried music festival which, before taking a break in 2019 and, indeed, 2020 had brought a range of terrific Americana artists to Perth since starting up in 2008. My second track this week is also one from a regular at Southern Fried, appearing in both 2014 and 2018 – the unclassifiable Steve Earle.

I’ve linked to a lot of artists’ bandcamps in this series of posts, but this is not to forget the contribution of independent record stores in keeping us sane in these times, such as 101 Collector’s Records in Farnham. Record Store Day 2 took place this weekend before a third drop next month, but Earle’s ‘Times Like This’ was released specifically for the first (major) RSD drop this year – and my copy came from a very early morning queue outside 101 (thank you, Tracy!). ‘Times Like This’ is a protest song with the singer seeking inspiration from the dynamics of liberation events in the past to revive sagging spirits in these times; but I’m going here with the ‘B’ side: ‘The Devil Put the Coal in the Ground’, a foot-stomping, driving howl of a song with Earle’s banjo providing a banshee scream of hellish protest:

The title is not a description of the climate change impact of burning fossil fuels, nor a reflection on the Polish government’s eventual, and problematic, agreement with the Polish coal unions to phase out production by 2049 (!). Taken from Earle’s current album Ghosts of West Virginia, released in June, it is a tribute to the coal miners of that state and inspired by the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010 that killed 29 workers. The album is essentially the soundtrack to Coal Country, a play written about the disaster and featuring Earle, himself a West Virginian, and explores the historical role of coal in mining communities seeking to generate an understanding of the ‘texture of their lives, the realities that provide significance to their days’ as a means of generating communication and dialogue with miners.

Thus the album fits in very well with the work of Pete Seeger, touched on earlier in this series, as well as with Dick Gaughan, whose 1984 album True and Bold, issued via the STUC to raise funds for striking miners, was probably my first contact with trade unions (yes – I still have my copy). Sadly, Gaughan remains unwell following a stroke in 2016. Must dig out my tapes from those Andy Kershaw sessions – I can recall one cracking session from Gaughan in particular (the 1991 one, I think) though I live in hope that someone at the BBC will, one day, do it for me.

NewMusicMondays – 21 September 2020

Still getting the hang of this new WordPress interface – I really didn’t know I’d written a 1,700-word book review until after I’d posted it…

Anyway, in slightly briefer form, the first track up today follows on somewhat from last week’s fusionists, Khruangbin, and also has something of a spiritual connection to David Mitchell’s work. Nemanja is a Croatian band mixing the ‘psychedelic sounds of cosmic disco cumbia’ written as a musical response to the ancient text Tibetan Book of the Dead‘. ‘Terra Magica’ is from the band’s album Cosmic Disco, recorded ‘in a room in Pua’ (which is at the southern tip of the Istria Peninsula) in May and April this year, and mostly under a lockdown that was earlier and stricter in Croatia than in most other European countries. This is a gorgeously shimmering track, packed with cosmic noises and truly responding to its purpose as ‘a celebration of life and all the beauty and joy we found and have yet to discover in the next life.’

Nemanja’s bandcamp, where you can hear and download ‘Terra Magica’ and the rest of Cosmic Disco, is worth a look.

The second new track is by Errol Linton, a Mississippi blues man who plays with a reggae-inspired sensibility. And is straight outta Brixton (a review which, by the way, scores double points for its nod to the sadly demised and still much missed Dobell’s on Charing Cross Road. (By the way, one thing I’ve just noticed is missing from Utopia Avenue: you don’t catch any of the members of the band, other than one late entry by chance, in a good record shop.)) Back to Errol, his new album No Entry came out in May, and the track I’ve picked is ‘Big Man’s Gone (I’m on My Way)’, the album closer, and overlays a rhythm section as tight as Sly and Robbie with Errol’s honey-sweet vocals and harp, making a whole that’s both warm and loose but which still belies the sadness of the vocal. I’m hoping he’s going nowhere. He’s also a great portrait painter, too, by the way.

No Entry, Errol’s sixth album, is out on Brassdog Records.

And, for a bit of a birthday bonus track, here’s La Misa Negra, a seven-piece from Oakland, California, blending ‘heavyweight cumbia and high-energy, Afro-Latin music’. I’m sold, already. This new version of ‘Pistola’, released at the back end of August, features Shae Fiol & Mireya Ramos from Flor de Toloache, New York’s all-woman mariachi group, and is a percussion-heavy slice of Latin heaven but still driven by that brass riff. Hot hot hot!

You can get hold of the remix at La Misa Negra’s bandcamp ridiculously cheaply – and do search out the band’s eponymous 2017 recording featuring the original version.

Book Review: Utopia Avenue

From very little on this blog about music to a surfeit of musical goodies all at once! Alternatively, in book-only terms, we proceed here from a review of a book about an automated human to a writer whose first novel, Cloud Atlas, also featured a created hero (and a female one, at that).

Utopia Avenue is David Mitchell‘s eighth book and whose title is the eponymous band – the ‘strangest British band you’ve never heard of’ – emerging out of the Soho scene in the late 1960s. A four-piece (keyboards, guitar, bass and drums, with vocal duties shared between the first three who also contribute most of the songs), featuring one woman and three men with disparate class backgrounds, Utopia Avenue mix elements of folk, jazz, psychedelia and blues into a successful, and chart-busting, brew. The band were deliberately put together – curated, in modern parlance – by a manager seeking a new project after the break-up of a previous band: but Utopia Avenue are no Monkees put together largely for their looks: despite diverse backgrounds, all have pedigrees in their fields and no little amount of musical chops. Utopia Avenue play gigs, get noticed and signed, make a couple of records, be seen, and get the chance to try and break America before the band’s rising star is extinguished just as things start really coming together.

This being David Mitchell, we also have a sub-plot featuring some pyschosoterica – Mitchell’s term for the psychic abilities of some of his characters and the compelling good vs evil struggle in which they are engaged – although this does not include epic battles akin to The Bone Clocks, his previously published work. Mentioning that the character involved here is the guitarist, Jasper de Zoet, immediately strikes a chord for those familiar with Mitchell’s oeuvre, but this aspect doesn’t take over the novel and it reads well as a study of a genuinely terrifying mental illness and a character’s own neurodiversity, as well as the links between mental health and tortured virtuosity (Mitchell is currently reading about Vincent van Gogh, which may well indicate some planning for a future work). At the same time, the late 1960s provides some fruitful contextual background for the study of mind-altering abilities.

Each of the chapters is titled for a song on the two Utopia Avenue LPs and tells of a stage in the band’s development predominantly, but not exclusively, from the perspective of that song’s composer. This leaves the drummer (and the manager) somewhat unstoried (this is, of course, a running gag when it comes to drummers) although they each get one writing credit and thus one chapter. Nevertheless, both are well fleshed-out characters – indeed, Griff, as might seem befitting for the drummer in a band in a Mitchell novel (i.e. the one whose responsibility it is to keep time), gets a lot of very good lines during band interviews and press conferences. This sort of structure gives the work a clean, chronological progression (even if it does deal with only with a highly compressed period of time) in Utopia Avenue’s rise to fame – this is quite clearly (and deliberately) written about on the way up – and, as such, this is one of Mitchell’s more conventionally structured novels, as the writer himself has acknowledged. Nevertheless, Mitchell is careful enough to sow sufficient seeds of the many petty trivialities that end up destroying bands.

Where Utopia Avenue really scores, however, is its depiction of scene. There are three aspects to this. Firstly, Mitchell has evidently done a phenomenal amount of research into the period which allows him to describe the scene predominantly in London, but also in New York (the band stay at the legendary Hotel Chelsea) and at Laurel Canyon in the US, accurately and with impressive detail and yet without succumbing to nostalgia or sentimentality. In the process, he read 50-60 music memoirs, biographies and autobiographies (including, I suspect, Springsteen’s Born To Run). It might be true that, ‘If you remember the 1960s you weren’t really there,’ but there are enough accounts around to allow Mitchell to be absolutely authentic in his descriptive detail of the bars and the dives of Soho (this being a band, much of the action takes place inside and after dark), although Mitchell is also very capable of describing the dynamics and breathtaking stillness of nature at work. This is done with such an easy touch that the essential detailing never appears laboured.

Secondly, Mitchell took piano and guitar lessons some ten years ago because he knew one day he would be writing some kind of rock novel. Consequently, he can write with accuracy about musicianship and the creative process. This is as true of guitar tunings, for example, as it is of the on-stage scenes as the band are playing at gigs. I’ve never been in a band, though I have been around them, and the dynamics and conversations between and about the band members, both on stage and while endlessly travelling to and from gigs, ring absolutely true while rarely falling into cliche. Mitchell is persuasive in letting the reader develop the impression that this might well be the best band they’ve never heard.

On the other hand, for all the excellence of his prose, Mitchell is not a lyricist – song lyrics appear throughout the book as the band perform their songs, as they have to in order to provide at least a ghost of how the band sounded, but several are not particularly convincing either in themselves as songs or in terms of aiding the impression of the star quality of Utopia Avenue. As Mitchell notes, there is no speaker in a novel to let you hear the music – and putting one in presents real challenges which, here, he is not fully able to overcome. It is – without the music – a tough thing to do to write song lyrics.

Thirdly, authenticity is hugely increased by the appearance in the novel of a large number of well-known contemporary names and faces. All of Sandy Denny, John Martyn, Keith Moon, Francis Bacon, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Syd Barrett, Brian Jones, David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead – amongst dozens of others – have small walk-on parts and dialogue. This not only places Utopia Avenue at the heart of their milieu, while also increasing the accuracy of Mitchell’s scenic depiction, but also allows him to develop characterisation further as the members of Utopia Avenue become accustomed to their own growing stardom. At the same time, this adds additional strength to the novel’s exploration of the brief hopes of 60s musicians for a route to an alternative way of organising society – for a Utopia Avenue – before being dashed amidst commercialisation as well as rising violence.

It has to be said that this sort of placement doesn’t always work, either in terms of dialogue or in terms of accurate placement. Rick Wakeman appears on the first page of the novel – but he wouldn’t be building a reputation as a session man until 1969, after Utopia Avenue had already called it a day. Brian Eno also appears, not personally but in the sense of his description of the ‘scenius’ (the relationship between art and place); again, the period covered by the novel is simply too early for this. Mitchell does attach an acknowledgment that there are ‘lyrical anachronisms’ but invites us to look the other way on the basis that ‘music is timeless’.

That may be so, but I’m reluctant to call these – along with a small number of other aspects of dialogue that appear more 2020 than 1967 – as mistakes firstly because of the quality of the attention to detail that has otherwise gone into the work; and, secondly, because Mitchell is a writer whose work describes some aspect of people travelling through time. My suspicion, which is drawn not only from a desire to give Mitchell a bit of leeway on this, as he’s a writer I admire hugely, is that these things are not errors at all and may indeed be resolved in a later novel, perhaps in the Über-novel dealing with ‘unresolved characters with unfinished business’ about which he has frequently spoken in interviews and as he finds out more about his cast of characters.

For this is the thing with David Mitchell novels – not only is it a feature of his work that his characters (Levon Frankland, Utopia Avenue’s creator and manager; Luisa Rey, Crispin Hershey), places (Gravesend, here for Dean Moss, bassist, and previously for Holly Sykes in The Bone Clocks) and motifs (the ‘Star of Riga’; the Cloud Atlas Suite; the film PanOpticon; cats; butterflies; N9D) repeatedly appear and add richness to the ‘shared universe’ in which his novels exist, but he has his future novels already mapped out. As far back as 2014, for example, he was talking in interviews, and in a detailed way, of his next five novels (of which this is only the first). A writer who knows that much about his forthcoming works and who is in absolute command of his abilities as a writer tends not to make such basic errors, especially when the research is evidently otherwise so sharply on point and when such facts are easily checkable. I’m fully therefore expecting to see Elf Holloway, the woman keyboardist in Utopia Avenue, in one of these future books.

Ultimately, Mitchell has written a lucid, elegant narrative about people’s journeys of self-discovery and, in a musical context, of the connections they make which drive them in the process of making a band greater than the sum of its parts. He is a writer of great technique (repeating paragraphs at the end and start of chapters, for instance, thus creating a moment in and out of time for the ones in between). It’s no mean feat to extend such a narrative over a novel of some 560 pages without losing pace or direction, and to keep the reader turning the page and guessing as to the likely reason(s) for the band’s break-up. And, when it does, it has the capacity both to shock and to break your heart, as all great music can do. Pitch perfect.

NewMusicMondays – 14 September 2020

New Zealand-based The Beths follow in the strong power pop tradition blazed by Scotland’s Camera Obscura, Canada’s Alvvays and Australia’s Allo Darlin’ – bittersweet relationship observations shared in common, yet with a somewhat harder edge than all three. Even so, they (also) have melodic hooks galore, sharply yet painlessly so pointed as to be capable of being swallowed hook line and sinker, and brave octave leaps in the vocal line. Their second album, Jump Rope Gazers, was released in July but written last year and finished earlier in 2020 with the global march of Covid-19 already underway. It’s hard, nevertheless, not to see it as something of a metaphor for our times: on the standout track, ‘Dying to Believe,’ Elizabeth Stokes sings ‘I’m dying to believe/That you won’t be the death of me;’

while the title track, written as the band toured extensively away from home, envisages two people apart but still connected on the end here of a skipping rope but which stands as a metaphor for anything which links people and keeps them together – a phone line, a laptop-based camera link, good old fashioned mail. The whole album speaks of distanced relationships but of the ability of people to reconnect and to maintain whatever it is that holds them together no matter the time spent apart.

The Beths’ Bandcamp is well worth checking out; and note that their first album – the wonderful Future Me Hates Me – is available for pre-order again on another differently-coloured vinyl; this time on neon yellow splatter expected to ship at the back end of this month.

Second up this week is Khruangbin’s ‘Pelota’, off their new album Mordechai, released in June. Khruangbin have been around for a while – Mordecai is their third album – but despite raising quite an industry buzz over the last five years, their soundscapes have passed mostly rather over my head up to now. ‘Pelota’, coming over the airwaves on Iggy Pop’s show on 6Music last Friday, immediately strikes an evocative, haunting, late night guitar line straight from the heyday of Senegalese maestros Orchestre Baobab, before Laura Lee’s Spanish vocal and a Latin-oriented percussion take on the theme. There is a clever and rather liberating video, too:

Again, you can pick up more of Khruangbin’s work via their Bandcamp.

Orchestre Baobab, by the way, are shortly to release Specialists in All Styles, their 2002 re-unification album featuring also Youssou N’Dour and Ibrahim Ferrer, for the first time on vinyl, coming at the back end of next week. Sadly, Balla Sidibe, Baobab’s founding and sustaining light, died suddenly at the end of July.

Held also in memoriam this week is Pete King, doyen of the British alto sax scene, who died on 23 August. You can explore his legend on plenty of YouTube videos but the one I come back to is his uplifting role on Everything But the Girl’s ‘Each and Every One’, which came out as the British jazz scene was starting to take shape in the mid-1980s and which song and album (Eden) was also my own founding introduction to feminism. Tracey Thorn might have intended this as a response to the Marine Girls’ music critics, but not least in an album context, its wider resonances are also clear:

‘Each and Every One’ might be best-known otherwise for its Latin groove, but it’s Pete King’s sax which gives it its joy. King appeared on all of EBTG’s first four albums, by the way, as well as on Amplified Heart. RIP to Balla, Pete and Toots Hibbert, who died at the weekend while awaiting the results of a Covid-19 test.

NewMusicMondays – 7 September 2020

Lockdown has been a challenging time for all of us including those furloughed and facing highly uncertain futures in workplaces that, where they are safe, will look very different to before; those freelancers in the entertainment industry left out of the scheme where my old union, Prospect, has been very active; and, most recently, the belittling of the contribution made by people working from home.

Music and has suffered more than most and while BBC 6Music – which I listen to frequently – is back to its normal schedule today, some of its DJs in the evenings are still likely to be recording their programmes from home (not at all phoning it in) for some time to come. Artists have suffered immensely from the loss of live music – music is meant to be played, not just listened to – and DJs for whom gig-going is a vital part of their own music appreciation have no idea what works well live. Indoor live music has returned, at least in some way, but it will not result in musicians being able to return to their living – with the model in the downloads era being based on touring and merchandise rather than sales of actual music – while the Musicians Union comments that the Cultural Recovery Fund, as with entertainment freelancers, is unlikely to reach the majority of musicians.

One of the DJs still recording from home, and whose programmes I pick up at least bits of most nights, is Gideon Coe, whose programme last Monday was a lockdown special featuring only music recorded by artists at home. This has been a real phenomenon with music recorded even on smartphones, while musicians zoomed their collaborations, and then despatched over the wires for mixing elsewhere. Thank goodness for fibre broadband: it does save a round trip between New York and London these days. Quite a bit of the programme was, quite frankly, a bit too trippy for me – but it did feature two Kathryn Williams versions of Bob Dylan songs – ‘Don’t Think Twice’ and ‘Not Dark Yet’ – recorded actually for an earlier special celebrating the release of Dylan’s new album.

I can’t link to the tracks directly – they were specially recorded for the Beeb and they’re not otherwise released. Neither does Kathryn seem to have recorded them previously, despite the prolific nature of her output, although I don’t know whether they have formed any part of her live sets. But you can pick up Gid’s programme at the website (for the next 23 days only) – these particular tracks are just a few seconds after the 2-hour mark. And if you enjoy them, Kathryn Williams’s Bandcamp is right here.

Now, I’m not especially a Dylan fan, and I’ve not heard either one before. But these strike me as being beautiful (and beautifully arranged) songs, the first apparently jaunty, the second dark and brooding, infused here with Williams’s own trademark soul-searching honesty and vulnerability, and taking Dylan back to his folky roots. Sometimes these recordings (or, at least, versions of them) do see the light of day in the end – and I hope something is being worked on for that because they deserve a wide audience.

Secondly, if you ever thought that The Stranglers’ ‘Golden Brown’ owed a bit of a debt to Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’, firstly you’re not alone; and secondly, musician Laurence Mason is here to help by bringing such a thing brilliantly to life. Mason’s rhythm section essentially plays ‘Take 5’ while the pianist (who may nor may not also be Mason) plays the distinctive harpischord riff from ‘Golden Brown’ and Mason himself contributes a lovely piece of alto work taking on the vocal line. The video is Brubeck and band themselves in action cut not faultlessly – it could hardly be – but well enough.

Recorded as a tribute to Dave Greenfield, who died earlier this year, this is one of those youtube phenomena – over one million hits for something recorded originally as a demo without an expectation of much in the way of feedback [EDIT 16/9/20 and now over 2.3m for the original video]. A release date was planned, and now brought forward – formally now for this coming Friday – and you can get it via Bandcamp right here.

Really must fetch down my own alto again from its temporary home on top of the bookcase right behind me…

Book Review – Machines Like Me

One of the UK’s foremost novelists, Ian McEwan has written 18 novels, of which Machines Like Me was the 17th. I’ve read many of its predecessors, and all since Enduring Love, but I only managed to catch up with this one in its paperback edition.

McEwan’s greatest skill as a writer lies in making us confront topical aspects of our own existence, whether it be terrorism (Saturday), climate change (Solar) or the extent to which the courts are able to adjudicate on matters of individual morality and belief (The Children Act). He writes most comfortably in terms of developing middle class characters, perhaps, but the situations which each of them have to confront are universal. He’s also of course no stranger to writing historical fiction, with many of his novels set at least partly in the past.

Told in ten chapters, Machines Like Me is no different in these respects. Charlie is a bit of a drifter but has come into an inheritance which he uses to buy Adam, an artificial human – a first (and limited) edition of ‘truly viable manufactured humans with plausible intelligence and looks, [and] believable motion and shifts of expression’. Together with Miranda, his upstairs neighbour and herself the daughter of a man of letters, he sets about creating Adam’s personality and the three set up an existence together. The novel is set in the 1980s, but an alternative reality, counterfactual version in which certain historical events have not happened, or happened differently. Most significantly, the Falklands War has been lost and, in the aftermath, Thatcher is facing political oblivion in the face of a Benn-led Labour Party; but, critically, Alan Turing, the wartime codebreaking and early computer genius of Bletchley Park, and a figure of long-standing literary interest for McEwan, has not committed suicide/suffered a careless accident/been killed by agents of the state but lives free and able to use his brilliance to develop and refine theories of the construction of artificial intelligence.

This has left the 1980s UK in a state of technological development much greater than we have even now, in the 2020s: autonomous cars, for example, have been on the streets since the 1960s – though Britain still suffers intense pollution – mobile phones are cutting edge rather than bricks; and Adam is here to carry out the tasks expected and desired of a creation deliberately constructed by humans.

Thus McEwan is able to confront the concerns now being raised by artificial intelligence – the future of work (and workers), and class, and whether and how humans can live alongside robots – in a way that does not potentially date by being set in the future and by concerns either that this or that event was ‘not going to be likely’ or which ‘did not turn out like that’. This is not science fiction and it does not predict; therefore, because the ‘facts’ of a historical novel are those which are set out within its pages, the morality issues which McEwan wants the work to confront are allowed to take their proper place at the centre of the novel.

Chief among these is the ability of humans and robots to live alongside each other and how those relationships can be regulated – the rights and responsibilities appropriate to each – within our existing understanding of the rule of law. This is not just a question of the lack of understanding of the illogicality of humans, and the question of ‘Who will write the algorithm for the little white lie?’; but also, and more critically, one of how the one can be held responsible for his or her actions vis-à-vis the other. In the process, McEwan raises issues of mental health – in a cutely aware nod to the demise in real life of Turing – as well as the moral choices we face when confronted with a dilemma. The shocking end to the work reveals the crucial truth present in all of McEwan’s novels – that you always have to be paying proper attention.

If the book is indeed a ‘novel about the power of novels… a celebration of the flaws that make us human‘ it’s only correct to point out the flaws in the work.

Firstly, the alternative reality 1980s is, in many cases, rather familiar – for Benn and Labour in the early 1980s, read Corbyn and Labour at the end of the 2010s – while there is also a reference to leaving the EU (to be fair, this was Labour Party policy at the time). Protest rallies and confrontations on the streets which set the popular background to events in the novel appear highly contemporary in the US (Black Lives Matter) and with the third Extinction Rebellion now taking place on the streets of London (and elsewhere), and convey the same impressions of social and political breakdown. Here, it is as if McEwan’s alternative reality was simply the product of reading today’s newspapers – and, probably, The Guardian – rather than one of powerful imagination. This does give a reminder of the contemporary nature of the conundrums that McEwan is raising – the novel is, after all, about the present not some alternative dystopia, but the counterfactual does appear to be somewhat easily, if not lazily, created.

Secondly – and somewhat stemming from the above – McEwan might well have set out both here as well as in Nutshell just to write, free of the detailed research that informed previous works, but there are several extended, McEwan-like discourses on different issues stemming from his research which are shoe-horned into the text and which disrupt the flow. The impression of wading through treacle is, when viewing the novel as a whole, fleeting – and, as above, the need to pay attention in a McEwan novel remains ever-present – but there is the thought that sharper editorial control would have produced a better, tighter novel.

Thirdly, Machines Like Me indicates a first person narrative, i.e. from the perspective of Adam, though the work is actually narrated by Charlie. It’s not that the title is odd – there is a reason for it, which appears late on in the text – but that the dialogue between Charlie and Miranda is curiously stilted. It doesn’t crackle with tension and desire, and neither does it convince. The characters simply do not leap off the page at you. This is particularly a problem when there are really only three characters in the novel (Turing is a fourth): the interactions that takes place between them is the novel’s only dialogue and thus greater emphasis is thrown on it. My impression throughout most of the work was that McEwan was running his own version of a Turing Test (whether you can tell the difference between a human and a robot mind) on the reader and that one – or even both – of Charlie and Miranda were also (earlier prototype) robots. This is not the case – but it’s as if McEwan has been unable to write dialogue between humans and robots at the same time, within the same novel, as between humans. It might well be that one of the problems of robots and humans living side-by-side turns out to be that dialogue does become stilted, but this doesn’t appear to be one of McEwan’s themes. Consequently, this leaves behind it the question that the dialogue is, disappointingly, awkwardly constructed.

Machines Like Me is a profound, uneasy and ultimately rather disturbing novel which thus fits rather well within McEwan’s 45-year canon concerning human beings in some way out of control. The questions that it raises are real and need to be confronted the closer we get to situations in which robots take a greater role in our actual everyday lives as opposed to simply in the manufacture of the products we consume. Autonomous driving (and the use of piloting software in aeroplanes) is a very real example of this, as indeed is the use of algorithms whether in the classroom or in the workplace. Whether we have the minds capable of producing answers to them – in government or in society more broadly – is an open question.