Ian McEwan’s new novel Machines Like Me is intelligently crafted but also emotionally hollow sometimes, much like a machine. The plot is pretty straightforward: Thirty-two-year-old Charlie Friend inherits a huge sum of money and decides to spend it all on Adam – a lifelike male variety android, the “first truly viable manufactured human with plausible intelligence and looks”, part of a small batch of twenty-five prototypes available in various ethnicities. Thirteen of these are supposed to be male, and twelve Eves are female.
Why does he do that even though he could easily use the money to help his dwindling career in stock trading from a home computer which hasn’t really taken off? Because he’s an AI geek – he admits early on. “Robots, androids, replicates were my passion,” he tells us and because McEwan has been a constant, faithful comrade for many of us, we believe him. At least, I did.
It’s when Adam is introduced to Charlie’s neighbour-cum-girlfriend Miranda that equations become complex and their little household turns into a playing field for mind games. Almost none of the questions McEwan poses in this book are new. Do androids have a consciousness? Are robots capable of feelings? What is it we mean by a human experience? Could machines too have rights like the rest of us?
This is a bit of a disappointment, of course, since we have come to associate someone of McEwan’s calibre with originality of thoughts. Even his previous novel Nutshell, which too had been released to mixed reviews, was lauded for being the most audacious retelling of Shakespeare in as long as one can remember.
McEwan’s version of sci-fi
This novel is set in what we can call the alternative ’80s, and in McEwan’s counterfactual imagination it becomes a far more technologically advanced decade than what it was in reality. Alan Turing, the mathematician and computer scientist who was originally hounded and scourged to death by the state for his sexual orientation, is healthy and alive and has contributed greatly to the cause of making artificial intelligence more sophisticated and integrated with everyday lives.
Everyone rides self-driven automobiles run by AI. The British forces have faced a crushing defeat in the Falklands War and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has been forced to step down, making way for a left-wing Labour government to take charge.
My favourite imaginary anecdote involves a Beatles reunion. And even though some of it reads contrived and tend to be overlong, it’s in these portions – while recreating history and at the same time drawing stark parallels with contemporary Britain – that Machines Like Me is at its most inventive.
It’s no surprise though that he managed to offend the community of science fiction writers and buffs when he said in an interview with the The Guardian that his new book engages with the genre “not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you.”
In saying this he negligently undermines the struggles and achievements of those who have gone where he’s going now long before him. And more successfully. Perhaps if he had approached the genre with a little more humility this would be a more rewarding book, and certainly less outdated.
The entertainment factor
But that doesn’t in any way mean that Machines Like Me fails to entertain. Every time the focus shifts to the three leads and their romantic triangle, the plot crackles with witticisms and genuine feelings. The two characters of Charlie and Miranda may come across as wooden to some readers, but I felt this was deliberate of McEwan.
As Adam learns and adapts to the human ways of doing things, the differences between man, woman and robot keeps thinning. In one of the novel’s most humorous and best scenes, a character mistakes Charlie for a robot and Adam for a human. Charlie’s one-note personality begins to feel more rehearsed and mechanical in front of Adam’s growing curiosity and empiricism.
In Adam we get a righteous but complex hero, who writes haikus for his lady love but doesn’t shy away from meting out justice even at the risk of creating a major upheaval in her life. For him, truth is above love or friendship. “Of course, truth is everything,” he declares at one point.
Two subplots are introduced, one a little more hastily than the other, involving a child the couple yearn to adopt and start a family with, and the return of an old adversary from Miranda’s tragic past. Much of the drama happens here, especially when Miranda is forced to confront her personal demons, and McEwan creates pages of palpable tension out of them. Evidently this novel is more interested in examining ethical dilemmas than scientific accuracy, and it manages to keep us invested for the most part.
The romance factor
McEwan uses the trope of technological advancement but under the garb of it chooses to tell a story older than time – what happens when two “people” fall in love with the same person? He’s very devoted to plot here and takes liberties only an assured novelist can, but a lot is conveyed in the form of an expository info dump and the climax reads uninspired and frankly underwhelming.
But much is to be admired here too. Like most of his novels, the prose is elegant and when the passages really work his sentences sing. Admittedly it’s the most “fun” I have had reading a McEwan novel in a while.
A few years ago I met and had the chance to chat with former Granta editor Ian Jack about writers and writing. The two Ians, I learnt, are old friends and Jack told me a story from 2006-07 when he was asked by McEwan to read what I believe was an early draft of On Chesil Beach.
In one scene a character takes his rickety bicycle and sets off aimlessly “through a green tunnel, down the steep hill, past Balham’s then Stracey’s farm, and into the Stonor Valley…” until he arrives at the town and heads straight for the railway station. On reaching he has to make a crucial decision of whether he should go to London, as he had planned, to look up friends, or take the train which was waiting at the platform and was going in the opposite direction towards Oxford.
When Jack read this passage he called up McEwan to convey that it’s preposterous and a geographical impossibility because there’s no station on earth from where one train could leave for London and another for Oxford. And all McEwan had calmly said in his response was, “There’s a reason it’s called fiction.”
There are many profound pleasures to be derived out of Machines Like Me, ruefully subtitled And People Like You, as there are dissatisfactions. But so has been the nature of fiction since it came into being. And so is life.
Machines Like Me: A Novel, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape.