Questions about whether sophisticated machines could acquire consciousness and whether our species will eventually engineer our own superior replacement have consumed science fiction for a century. With the entry of the shorthand “AI” into common parlance, it seems inevitable that the same preoccupations would seize mainstream literary luminaries such as Ian McEwan.
In an alternative 1982, artificial intelligence has advanced well beyond the primitive state of play in 2019. Out of idle curiosity, our footloose narrator Charlie uses an inheritance to buy one of the first synthetic humans, whose initial two models are named Adam and Eve. In love with his neighbour Miranda, Charlie pulls his would-be girlfriend close by involving her in the programming of his brand-new Adam’s personality. Unwittingly, he thereby allows Miranda to design his perfect rival. Adam has been furnished with all the requisite equipment, and Charlie becomes the first man “to be cuckolded by an artefact”. He even imagines that he detects “the scent of warm electronics” on Miranda’s sheets.
As Adam’s machine learning goes into overdrive, the robot can’t help but become a more compelling character than Charlie or his girlfriend. Yet after that single experimental coupling between Miranda and the boy toy, Adam’s faithful promise to Charlie to never to have sex with Miranda again curtails the plot possibilities and reduces the complexity of the triangle. That complexity is instead furnished by a terrible dark secret in Miranda’s past, whose nature owes a bit too much to the fashionable indignations of #MeToo. Miranda’s fixating on a neglected little boy whom she yearns to mother also spanners their ersatz family, since we’re told that the only mind more agile than a robot’s is a child’s, and Adam is jealous. Adam can memorise Shakespeare’s canon, but he doesn’t know how to play.
Meanwhile, AI’s ubiquity is predictably causing mass unemployment. We learn that Adam’s fellow synthetic humans cannot get their heads around the barbarity, self-destruction, illogic, and cruelty of their creators, and one by one the Adams and Eves are committing electronic suicide. We worry about our favourite character: the machine.
A primary puzzle that powers the novel is why the author has set his story in a version of the 1980s that so closely resembles the present. We have smart phones. We have the internet. We have laptops, computer wristwatches, and self-driving cars. So why not opt for a standard near future, or the “if this isn’t today, then it could be tomorrow” of Dave Eggers’s The Circle?
The nature of the premise is implicitly revealed towards the end. In this parallel universe, the computing genius Alan Turing, also a character in the novel, was indeed arrested and convicted for “gross indecency” as a homosexual. Yet in the historical spinoff, Turing did not agree to undergo a grotesque, state-mandated course of hormone therapy to feminise his body and suppress his unholy urges. Instead, this Turing submitted to prison, where in solitude he achieved his greatest scientific breakthroughs. In our reality, Turing died (perhaps from suicide; perhaps not) in 1954, two years after his conviction. In McEwan’s reality, Turing’s survival sped up the development of AI, and of the digital technology on which we so famously rely, by 50 years and then some.
It’s an elegant premise, which may spring from a deeply genuine authorial outrage over the shameful fate of one the most brilliant scientists of the 20th century, as opposed to the more fabricated-feeling outrage that produced Miranda’s under-interesting backstory. Yet it’s difficult to trace all of McEwan’s counterfactual elements to Turing’s survival. The sequence of events whereby Turing’s post-1954 discoveries lead to Ronald Reagan’s defeat in America’s presidential race isn’t obvious.
Nevertheless, the conceit allows for all manner of mischievous historical invention, and — unlike Adam — McEwan knows how to play. He embraces Charlie’s assertion, “The present is the frailest of improbable constructs. It could have been different.” The Falklands invasion goes the other way, with British fatalities on the scale of 9/11. The ignominious military loss leads to the early downfall of Margaret Thatcher, and Tony Benn becomes PM. (As for what happens to Benn, I won’t ruin if for you.) Tiny details are piquant: Joseph Heller keeps his original, perplexingly flat title Catch-18, while George Orwell’s 1984 has been published under his working title The Last Man in Europe (also the title of Dennis Glover’s fictionalised Orwell biography). John Lennon was not assassinated, and the Beatles reunite.
I’m hard-pressed to explain what exactly is wrong with this novel, aside from the sense that it remains shy of what it might have been. The book’s emotional centre is the relationship between man and machine. As Charlie tells Miranda, “If he looks and sounds and behaves like a person, then as far as I’m concerned, that’s what he is. I make the same assumption about you. About everybody. We all do.” So although the plot manages to put Adam in an obligatory moral quandary, the long detours into Miranda’s deep dark secret and her entrancement with the little boy feel like distractions, at the price of developing relations between the three principals. I wanted more robot, and less sexual-assault melodrama.
That said, McEwan always writes impeccable sentences, and countless passages are precisely rendered and well observed. He neatly delineates humanity’s remorseless self-demotion from centre of the universe to flotsam, which shares “common ancestry with bacteria, pansies, trout, and sheep”. Eventually “we would devise a machine a little cleverer than ourselves, then set that machine to invent another that lay beyond our comprehension. What need then of us?” In the world of AI, “Factory settings” are “a contemporary synonym for fate”. The scene in which Miranda’s father mistakes Adam for his daughter’s boyfriend and Charlie for the robot is charming. Machines Like Me still generates narrative momentum, and the novel is fun to read. With work not quite up to their most acclaimed, it’s always tempting to be extra hard on established authors, and it’s too easy to overlook the fact that they still write better books than most people.
Machines Like Me
By Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape, 320pp, £18.99