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.