Machines Like Me
by Ian McEwan (2019)
Nan A. Talese (2019)
352 pp

I recently read Ian McEwan’s fun, clever — perhaps overly, but that’s part of what makes the book so fun — novel Nutshell (see here). In my post, I mentioned that for around a decade I didn’t really care much for McEwan’s work. His “important” books on current issues just didn’t do much for me, and because of that I never bothered with The Children’s Act. I like McEwan best when he’s being a bit silly, I guess. His gushing talents suit self-consciously pretentious eloquence. I hoped that his new novel would also fit the bill. The premise is promising: Machines Like Me is an alternate history of the 1980s where technology is advanced beyond what we have today; most importantly for the purposes of this novel 25 life-like robots (thirteen female and twelve male), with hyper advanced artificial intelligence, have been sold in the private marketplace. Our narrator, Charlie Friendly, spends his entire inheritance to obtain one, and, thankfully, havoc ensues. Some havoc, at least — but not nearly enough for me.

Here is the opening paragraph. Lofty in the right ways, leading us to our narrator’s introduction:

It was religious yearning granted hope, it was the holy grail of science. Our ambitions ran high and low — for a creation myth made real, for a monstrous act of self-love. As soon as it was feasible, we had no chocie but to follow our desires and hang the consequences. In loftiest terms, we aimed to escape our mortality, confront or even replace the Godhead with a perfect self. More practically, we intended to devise an improved, more modern version of ourselves and exult in the joy of invention, the thrill of mastery. In the autumn of the twentieth century, it came about at last, the first step towards the fulfillment of an ancient dream, the beginning of the long lesson we would teach ourselves that however complicated we were, however faulty and difficult to describe in even our simplest actions and modes of being, we could be imitated and bettered. And I was there as a young man, an early and eager adopter in that chilly dawn.

But who is this eager adopter, Charlie? As we come to find out, he is an unlikely buyer. He is not particularly wealthy; after quitting several jobs and settling into a routine making just enough as a day-trader to pass by, he still decides to spend his inheritance on a machine he says he is eager to see. However, other than a dilettante’s interest in science — his hero is Alan Turing, who is, importantly, not dead in this 1982 — Charlie does not come across as particularly motivated to do much other than make his scrap of money and lust after the graduate student who lives in the flat upstairs.

Beyond questioning his motives in purchasing his machine, one of the twelve Adams (he wanted an Eve), I also was never satisfied that such a breakthrough device, with such limited quantities, would end up with him. After all, one of the machines is purchased by Turing’s scientists, as we’d expect. And several of the Eves are purchased by a buyer in Riyadh, which is of course one of McEwan’s commentaries on current culture. Again, we’d expect such things. But here we have the otherwise anonymous Charlie carrying in his male robot, and it seems no one else really cares.

Ah well. I don’t need Charlie’s purchase to be believable, but this kind of convenient shoe-horning does overtake the narrative again, a few times, in ways that are more material to the novel’s structure and quality.

The woman upstairs is Miranda. When the novel begins, she and Charlie are friends, though Charlie is hoping that Adam can help them come closer. When you’re booting up your machine you have the ability to input certain personality traits on a spectrum. Charlie plans to do half and let Miranda do have: “She might be influenced by a version of herself: delightful. She might conjure the man of her dreams: instructive.” Furthermore, by doing it this way it would be like they are starting their family:

In a sense he would be like our child. What we were separately would be merged in him. Miranda would be drawn into the adventure. We would be partners, and Adam would be our join concern, our creation. We would be a family. There was nothing underhand in my plans. I was sure to see more of her. We’d have fun.

Is this enough for me to buy-in to McEwan’s choice to make Charlie one of the early adopters? No, but I accept that it makes Charlie and his motives more interesting.

And my interest was piqued early on once Adam woke up. He assessed his situation quickly, looked at his “owner,” and told him that the woman he was in love with was a liar. He should be careful.

That intrigue gets subverted rather quickly, though, when Adam himself falls in love with Miranda. No one quite knows how or why it happens — can we explain it in ourselves? — but it does. Whatever secret Miranda has, however much Adam wants to protect Charlie, it doesn’t seem to keep Adam from trying to express his love to Miranda. Naturally, this makes Charlie angry.

To justify my rage I needed to convince myself that he had agency, motivation, subjective feelings, self-awareness — the entire package, including treachery, betrayal, deviousness. Machine consciousness — was it possible? That old question.

Unfortunately, all of this seemed cobbled together. We soon learn what Miranda’s secret it, deflating that intrigue but creating more — a convicted criminal may try to murder her . . . though that is also done away with in a rather ho-hum manner. And there is a young child in the mix. Charlie sees Mark getting abused by his father and neglected by his mother, and Mark ultimately ends up playing a minor? major? role in the novel. I say minor because Mark is usually not present but serves mostly to remind us that Miranda is at heart a good person and Charlie is too if he can stop being selfish. I say major because it seems McEwan is suggesting that the child is the thing Adam cannot understand. How does a child learn? Adam cannot mimic that. But even this is rather quickly done away with in a long conversation with Alan Turing, in which Turing explains a lot of what we’ve been reading:

I hunted the bear with my knife. I hunted the bear with my wife. Without thinking about it, you know that you can’t use your wife to kill a bear. The second sentence is easy to understand, even though it doesn’t contain all of the necessary information. A machine would struggle.

Ultimately, I must say that I thought the book was fine. It’s filled with ideas about artificial intelligence. Sure, some of them are the same ones we’ve been reading about for decades in science fiction novels: the machine’s touchy relationship with its “owner,” the machine’s depression upon seeing what humanity does to itself and to the world, the machine’s perfectly logical ethical system that places everyone in precarious situations. But there are some I hadn’t come across before, like the machine’s predilection, upon exploring human art, for the haiku, a treat I’ll leave you to discover.

Yes, it’s a novel of ideas, but they are not tied together well. There are too many subplots with only slight importance to this threesome we’re invested in.

And what about the alternative history? Is there a good reason this is set in 1982? I’m not sure, but I this is an aspect I enjoyed often, if I again had the same issues with the execution (McEwan will interrupt the narrative for pages at a time to go over current events, meant primarily to have us looking for similarities and differences between our real history and our real present). I enjoyed seeing a 1980s where Turing was still alive, where John Lennon was still alive (and The Beatles were reuniting in a tour that didn’t go too far). McEwan’s desire to do this seems to boil down to an exploration of this:

The present is the frailest of improbable constructs. It could have been different. Any part of it, or all of it, could be otherwise. Trust of the smallest and largest concerns.

I do wish he’d done more with the plot to really dig into his ideas and into the alternative history. Machines Like Me has moments, and McEwan’s natural talent made the journey an easy one to sink into, but the moments didn’t combine well, and in the end I put the book down anxious for something else.

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