There is a scene toward the end of Ian McEwan’s new novel, Machines Like Me, when the narrator, Charlie, is pushing his lifelike prototype robot, Adam, in a wheelchair through a demonstration in Trafalgar Square. The demonstrators are protesting about everything under the sun – “poverty, unemployment, housing, healthcare, education, crime, race, gender, climate, opportunity”. The suggestion being presented by McEwan and his narrator, however, is that here, unnoticed in their midst, is the one thing they should be most concerned about: a man-made intelligence greater than their own.
There is a Cassandra tendency in McEwan’s fiction. His domestic dramas routinely play out against a backdrop of threatened doom. Since the portent-laden meditation on war and terrorism, Saturday, in 2005, he has also turned his gimlet attention to climate change in Solar. The opening lines of that novel – “He was running out of time. Everyone was, it was the general condition…” – have sometimes sounded like his fiction’s statement of intent. The New Yorker called his work “the art of unease”.
It was perhaps, I suggested to him one afternoon a couple of weeks ago, therefore only a matter of time before he got around to the looming ethical anxieties of artificial intelligence.
Literary pilgrims to Paris, however ardent, tend toward crises of faith. A whole genre has flowed from the deflated hopes of writers who once believed the muse to be Gallic, living in a garret, and partial to Americans abroad. Of course, American writers don’t have a monopoly on disappointment about Paris. Tourists from around the world complain about the rude shock—now dubbed “Paris Syndrome”—of their fantasies crashing into the city’s prosaic reality. It’s a lesson in the perils of idealization.
For those of us who live in the French capital, it’s more complicated, as are most long-term relationships. I regularly cycle through devotion and disillusionment, witnessing how the city’s beauty and the ugly commodification of that beauty coexist, how its idyllic myths mingle with its sometimes bloody history. I’ve also come to see how the city is like any other, with the same simmering cultural tensions and socioeconomic issues as any metropolis.
Fifty years ago, in April 1969, I ran my first road race, and it was no local fun run or 5K. I decided to run the biggest road race there was: the Boston Marathon. I had no idea if I could finish the 26.2-mile grind, but I thought I should at least give myself a big challenge.
I chose Boston in part because I didn’t know any better, and mostly because the world of running was very different back then. There were few runners and fewer races — only a handful of marathons across the country.
Back then, Boston did not require runners to meet a qualifying standard. I was 34, and to run Boston you only had to send the race organizers $2 and a physician’s letter stating that you were healthy enough to run 26.2 miles. Since my longest training run had been 13 miles, I’m not sure how my doctor established my readiness, but he did.
Back in the early 2010s, Beijing comic artist Yan Cong (a pseudonym that translates to “chimney”) was told by printers that they wouldn’t wouldn’t publish any of his books with nudity in them. Both irritated and inspired, he decided to respond to the censorship with an anthology in which all the main characters were nude. Naked Body, published in Chinese in 2014, highlighted the humour, loopiness, horniness and astonishing breadth of the Chinese alternative comics scene. It is finally due to be published in English this year.
I Am God is an almost outrageously charming book. In the first of his seven novels to be published in English, Giacomo Sartori takes a simple, playful premise and sets the universe crazily spinning. The Italian writer has conjured up a delicious, comical stream of omniconsciousness: a pensive diary by the original omniscient narrator, God. Sartori’s God, a being of authentic complexity and paradoxical humanity, of both otherworldly dignity and satirical absurdity, is an irresistible character. He is also in love.
Appeasement, the fatal delusion that Nazi Germany could be contained by buying it off with concessions, was the most momentous British mistake of the 20th century. In the memorable phrase of Lord Hugh Cecil, it was like “scratching a crocodile’s head in the hope of making it purr”. All involved had their reputations blighted to the grave and beyond. It vindicated the anti-appeasement minority, notably Winston Churchill, who had grasped that the real choice was between “war now or war later”. The alleged lessons have been invoked in many subsequent crises, from the Korean war to the Syrian conflict. Memories of appeasement inform and misinform Brexit arguments. The story has relevance in our own age as dictatorships once again confront the democracies.
So it is timely to take a fresh look at what happened in the 1930s. The tale is a complex one, with many moving parts and personalities. To this tricky challenge, Tim Bouverie rises superbly. His narrative is well constructed and fluently written. He excels at capturing the atmosphere and conveying the debates in the dining clubs, drawing rooms and society playgrounds of interwar Britain. He addresses the issues with clarity of expression and judgment. There are convincing sketches of the principals along with a seasoning of entertainment from a cast of eccentric and gruesome secondary characters in the plot. The author is unsparing about the guilty parties while always careful to put them in context.