A Literary Exploration Of The Differences Between Man And Machine

A Literary Exploration Of The Differences Between Man And Machine

Venerable British novelist Ian McEwan's latest, 'Machines Like Me,' imagines an intriguing, but ultimately disappointing, past where Alan Turing never died and humanity is forced to confront advanced artificial intelligence in the 1980s.
Clay Waters
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Machines Like Me, the 15th novel by renowned British author Ian McEwan, is speculative fiction set in an alternative 1980s England in a dawning age of “synthetic humans”—wholly realistic androids.

McEwan has penned several classics, including 2001’s Atonement, an emotionally gripping tale of guilt and regret covering the years up to and after World War II. His previous book, Nutshellis a thriller told from the perspective of a fetus who has learned about the world through its mother’s insatiable obsession with podcasts. Each is a tour de force demonstrating McEwan’s mastery of tricky and original points of view, but my favorite is the short, nasty chiller Amsterdam.

He stands out as both literary and accessible, and his works are often short, a bonus in this distracted era, although Machines is a standard-length novel. A novel of ideas probing the meaning of consciousness, it’s a disappointingly shaky step into a science-fiction genre that he was accused of demeaning in a recent interview.

Turing’s Machine

Our protagonist, the 32-year-old semi-loser Charlie Friend, has purchased at great cost one of the first batch of 25 synthetic humans, 12 Adams and 13 Eves (poor Eve, always unlucky). The purchase feels curiously unmotivated, but one has to start somewhere.

The “unboxing” of the android Adam is cute, with Charlie fending off buyers’ remorse akin to getting a Christmas present and then realizing it needs batteries—Adam takes 16 hours to charge. Charlie has the idea to program Adam with half his personality, leaving the other half of Adam’s creation in the hands of his younger, academic girlfriend Miranda, making Adam their unpredictable offspring of sorts, a conceit that’s not followed up on. In any case, Adam is soon outstripping his “father” in every way, even sexually, the details of which are darkly amusing.

All the while, Adam’s limitless brain is receiving fathomless input, even grasping “the purposeless beauty of art,” reading Philip Larkin’s poetry and composing his own haiku, and formulating his own theories on law and justice, to potentially sinister effect. Meanwhile, rumors are flitting about that the other Adams and Eves—“The A’s and E’s,” in the lingo—are not doing so well. The scenario reminds one of Netflix’s dystopian show Black Mirror, but doesn’t everything these days?

In this alternate timeline, which sports some familiar British political names, the metabolic rate of technology has been revved up thanks mostly to one great man, Alan Turing, who was an actual computer genius and World War II codebreaker, who in McEwan’s world does not die in 1954 at age 41, after being prosecuted by the British government for his homosexuality. Instead, he’s thinking and creating into a lively old age, after having chosen a spell of prison instead of chemical castration, and now lives openly gay in a London suburb.

Charlie alternately repents of and embraces his purchase of Adam as his feelings toward the “manufactured human with plausible intelligence” ebb and flow with Adam’s annoyingly insatiable curiosity about a world Charlie had become jaded on. He is, however, happy enough to use Adam’s fleet calculating power for day-trading.

Disappointingly Familiar

There is an inescapable past-tense, second-hand feel to the broad political and cultural references. Things happen opposite the way they really did, or to other people, all from a remove. There’s a deep dive into some things, like The Falklands, but little about other aspects of this world, leaving it lopsided. 

Is Margaret Thatcher on Twitter? Is there a Twitter? We do learn The Beatles are all alive and have released a florid comeback album, to mixed reviews. There’s a nice bit about the unintended hazards of self-driving cars. But overall the landscape seems disappointingly familiar (not even a flying car for laughs), the period details wedged in.

Perhaps I’m spoiled by the immersive pungency of McEwan’s previous novels, but Machines’ world feels two-dimensional, dutifully conjuring up a general mood and place that is not integrated into the story, like the mid-1970s setting of Sweet Tooth, or On Chesil Beach’s capture of the early 1960s.

National tragedies lead to harsh unemployment and huge protests, but even when Charlie is caught up in one, it feels like it’s taking place on another street. His character’s bird’s-eye perch feels less like a personal view and more of a gloss of McEwan’s own thinking. Charlie is isolated by his homebound, day-trader job, an insularity that muffles the conceit of immersion into a particular time and place. The cast feels underpopulated.

McEwan seems to be going for the idea that humans will struggle to deal with androids that are too lifelike, old news to anyone who has seen The Terminator or read any of a myriad of other robot tales. And not enough is made out of the counterfactual 1980s milieu—perhaps McEwan picked an earlier decade so he could plausibly write about Turing?

He previously tried to tackle Turing in the 1970s but was flummoxed by a lack of primary sources on the security-sensitive topic, so Turing only featured glancingly in the resulting BBC television play, The Imitation Game (1980) about the British breaking German military codes during World War II. A contemporaneous London Review of Books piece by McEwan included this harbinger: “I knew that Turing would have to be invented.” In Machines, the novelist indeed constructs an entire future for Turing, and he and Charlie eventually interact.

Consolations

Although it’s not top-shelf McEwan, Machines Like Me has many consolations, as anything written by him would.

While no conservative, he has had a few brushes with the P.C. cops over identity and transgender issues, although he was eventually obliged to bow and scrape. Close attention to Machines Like Me will be rewarded by a few mild jabs in the direction of the hard left, like the “sinister” Trotskyites rioting in support of the Labour Party’s Tony Benn.

The author chooses words like no one else, and Machines is brimming with lovely sentences: “some sweaty U-turns in disobliging traffic” made under duress; the “scent of warm electronics” emanating from Adam after a shocking turn of events; the “long querulous memories” of scowling old bebop fans. Still, Machines must be graded a rare McEwan failure, his own fault for setting the bar so high in his previous work.

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