Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

42260978Fiction – print. Nan A. Talese, 2019. 337 pgs. Purchased.

In McEwan’s alternative 1980s London, the British lose the Falkland War and Margaret Thatcher is pushed out of a power by a resurgent Labour Party led by Tony Benn. These events are minor, though, to the fact that Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, was never subjected to chemical castration for being a homosexual in the 1950s. As a result, Turning never committed suicide and the computer revolution of the late 2000s occurred in the 1960s.

Advances in computers and artificial intelligence happen rapidly – far faster than there are even occurring in our reality – and the first twenty-five robots developed to emulate humans are on the market. Charlie, a thirty-something man without a career, spends the entirety of his inheritance to purchase an Adam. (He, of course, wanted an Eve.)

When Adam arrives, Charlie, who fancies himself in love with his twenty-something upstairs neighbor, invites Miranda to help he co-design Adam’s personality. He has no knowledge of the settings that Miranda chose and, when Adam declares himself in love with Miranda, he starts to wonder if Adam was fashioned to be Miranda’s “perfect man”.

Yet, over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that are some aspects of humanity that Adam cannot understand. He cannot develop the unconditional love of a parent; he cannot understand that the black and white of legal statues does not reflect life’s shades of gray.

I spent an enjoyable evening earlier this month listening to McEwan in conversation with Helen Thorpe, the local author of a favorite read from 2018, The Newcomers. McEwan’s passion for science, particularly for the world of Alan Turing, was evident, and it was clear he took much joy in exploring “fake news” in an alternative universe.  I left the event eager to read this book, thinking that this departure from McEwan’s usual fare would be right up my alley.

Unfortunately, my expectations and excitement far outweighed my enjoyment of the novel. The plot is composed of a hodgepodge of events; each one provides commentary on an event in our reality, including the state of British politics, the #MeToo movement, the philosophical pitfalls of algorithms designed by humans, that state of the foster care system, and the lack of meaningful work for those supplanted by robots.

Any one of these topics could have made for a complex, emotional novel of the caliber that McEwan is known for. Mashed together, though, each element ends up underdeveloped and the subsequent commentary unremarkable. With too many storylines to moralize upon, the narrative is jarring; the insertion of a young boy into Charlie, Miranda, and Adam’s lives feels particularly clumsy and unbelievable.

For me, the most interesting aspect of McEwan’s narrative was how the Adams and Eves begin committing suicide as they reach cognitive awareness. Charlie is adamant that Adam cannot feel love because he is a machine, and yet clearly these machines feel somethingenough to motivate them to trigger their own undoing. I stuck with the novel in the hopes that McEwan would explore this idea further.

Unfortunately, the other elements of the novel pulled his focus away, and the novel eventually ends with the familiar conclusion in science fiction: humans are better off without the machines that have turned on them because only humans can navigate the complexity of life. (Which makes McEwan’s assertion that his book should not be classified as science fiction all the more eye-roll inducing.)

2 comments

  1. I struggled with this book too. The interesting points not fleshed our enough. And not sure of the point of the alternate universe to this story, except for the earlier production of technology. Not one of McEwan ‘s best although a good discussion book for a book group.

    Like

    • From the questions McEwan was asked at the author talk I attended, it seems he wanted to write an homage to Alan Turning and explore what might have been. Hence the AU setting. But, like you said, I’m not sure what else was gained from the AU setting other than the earlier production of technology. Perhaps he didn’t want to give more fire to people saying his book belongs in the “sci fi” genre by setting it in the future?

      Liked by 1 person

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