Reviews, Reflections & Lifestyle
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Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata and translated into English by Ginny Tapley Takemori is a weird, whimsical novel depicting the dissonant experience of being a woman from a unique perspective. Protagonist Keiko Furukura is a devoted convenience store worker and a single woman in her thirties, making her an unwanted paradox in society. She is neither a home-maker nor someone with a high-powered career. The fact that she loves her job, finding belonging and much-needed structure there as opposed to a confusing and adversarial outside world, is inconsequential.
This third-wave feminist push to get women to the point where they can ‘have it all’—i.e. a traditional family life as a homemaker as well as a full-time career in whatever job they might want—has morphed here into codifying three restrictive ways to be an acceptable woman. In Convenience Store Women, full-time mothers are applauded, having a low-valued part-time job is permissible if you also have children, and well, if you’re single without children, you’d better be an ambitious career woman rising up the ranks to make up for that deficit.
Keiko fits into none of these categories. She is scorned by some and regarded as pitiable and downright incomprehensible by others. Her perspective shines a light on how nonsensical and confining these social expectations are; no wonder she prefers the solace of the convenience store to a judgemental society!
These elements also combine to support a reading of Keiko as autistic-coded. She doesn’t understand society, and more importantly, society and the people around Keiko make no effort to understand her. Keiko thrives with the external structure provided by the store and appreciates the fact that customer service has a set group of social rules that she can learn rather than the confusing and ever-shifting norms of society. Yet, Murata renders Keiko’s perspective with such sensitivity and relatability that I intimately understood Keiko. One of the novel’s greatest successes is how it depicts the people around Keiko as absolutely unwilling to understand her while drawing the reader so deep into her psyche, taking the reader on an exercise in compassion and empathy that the supporting cast of the book are incapable of.
The novel’s depiction of the convenience store as a heterotopic space is depicted with such detail it challenges the genre of the novel, bringing it beyond contemporary or women’s fiction—genres themselves which are infinitely vast and variable. Convenience Store Woman could be described as magical realism or fabulism, and yet it doesn’t fit neatly into either of those categories. This rejection of binary definitions links to Keiko’s assertion that convenience store workers don’t have gender like they do in the outside world, but instead leave all of those defining characteristics behind when they enter the store and put on their uniform. Every other character in the novel, even Keiko’s co-workers, dismiss the convenience store as an insignificant place to work, but for Keiko, it is the only place she can escape the gendered demands of a world that refuses to make space for her needs and her happiness. It is more than a convenient space for her.
Have you ever wondered what would happen if we had robots disguised as human companions in our everyday life? How human can a robot be? And can humans and human-like robots coexist peacefully?
In his novel, Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan explores exactly these questions as he navigates through his protagonist Charlie’s experience of appropriating one of the brand-new artificial humans, called Adam. Intertwined in the narrative that sheds light on practical issues of this strange situation, the author also ties in a love relationship between Charlie and his upstairs neighbour Miranda.
Initially, Charlie is a lonely person: he dwells on his past and fantasizes about what he could have chosen as a career that would have brought him more success and reputation than his current position as a stock investor. That is why he uses the inheritance from his mother’s death to buy an Adam, the newly developed and first ever human robot on the market. With this investment he hopes to make a fresh start, to gain a new experience and to ultimately feel part of a community that witness this bizarre coexistence between robots and humans. One might also think that Charlie is looking to find a friend in Adam; a sort of helpful companion in his life. After Miranda helps him carry Adam into his flat, he suggests programming the robot together – with the aim to get closer to her – so that they can share the robot between the two.
Oblivious to the moral consequences of this choice, Charlie enjoys the robot’s company after he gets used to having another person in his house. The aspect of exploiting a machine for one’s own purposes is one route the story goes down: in fact, Charlie uses Adam to take over his own job of investing money in the stock market. The protagonist does not foresee what this will entail: Adam, who tries his hardest to act like a human, will confront Charlie with issues like wanting a salary for his work. Charlie even starts to suspect an affair between Miranda and Adam which adds to the rising doubts that sharing a robot can bring.
The plotline becomes more and more tense in the second half of the book, as more and more of the Adams and Eves on the market start doing odd things. A very awkward face-to-face conversation between the protagonist and the founder of the human robots, filled with doubts, shame and self-deprecating thoughts on Charlie’s side, concludes the story and leaves the book open for the reader to form their own opinion on how Charlie will deal with what has happened.
The almost dystopian-like atmosphere in Machines Like Me allows for a critical exploration of the controversial topic of the human-versus-computer rivalry. Although the novel is rather conservative in giving much information on how this phenomenon would play out in technical terms in the real world, the author does give enough attention to different aspects that influence Charlie’s experience, surprising the reader repeatedly. Machines Like Me is accessible to all readers interested in the topic of the ethics of Artificial Intelligence, even if it needs to be acknowledged that it is just a fictional exploration of the topic and the story might therefore not seem as realistic as the real-life phenomenon would be, because not all technical intricacies are fully explained. Nevertheless, this novel is a good starting point for discussing this topic on a deeper, more philosophical and ethical level.