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Ian McEwan: Machines Like Me

So how did you interpret the title of his novel? Does it mean that machines are similar to me or are partial to me? Well, without giving too much away, both could well be applicable. Interestingly, the subtitle is And People Like You, which carries the same ambiguity. It will be interesting to see how the title is translated into other languages where it is not possible to use this play on words.

According to this interview, McEwan has little time for conventional science fiction. In this article, Sarah Ditum complains that the book is not, however, science fiction, at least according to its author. I do not think McEwan is saying exactly that. What he is saying is that he is concerned more with the human aspect – actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. Yes, he is making a distinction between hard science fiction – what he calls travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots – and the more cerebral type of science fiction focussed on human interaction with various science fiction tropes.

There are two science fiction tropes we are primarily dealing with in this novel. The first is the main subject of the book, namely artificial intelligence and what it means to us as humans. As the title puts it, do robots like us and are they similar to us? The second is an alternative future. This book opens in London in 1982 but it is not quite the London/world we knew. Thatcher has lost the Falklands War, John Lennon is not dead, the Beatles have reformed and Turing did not kill himself but invented the Internet and is now Sir Alan. More importantly, many of the technological advances that we saw starting in the mid 1990s are already well advanced in 1982.

Our hero is Charlie Friend. He is in his early thirties and lives in a dingy ground floor flat in north Clapham (a suburb of London). He had inherited a fair amount of money and is now working freelance, trading online, at which he is not very successful. He had been a tax lawyer but had been struck off and just managed to avoid a prison sentence for some unspecified misdemeanour. He had had a girlfriend, Claire but that had not worked out.

At the beginning of the novel he had decided to blow his inheritance – £86000 – on a robot. Twenty-five were made – apparently Sir Alan Turing bought one – thirteen female ones (called Eve) and twelve male ones (called Adam). The Eves sold out very quickly (seven went to Saudi Arabia) so he got an Adam. The robots conformed with Asimov’s Law of Robotics (though that may not be entirely accurate, as we shall see) and look like humans. They could be programmed with specific characteristics, e.g. more gregarious or more solitary.

When Charlie takes delivery of Adam, he is helped by Miranda, who lives in the flat above him. She is ten years younger than him. From a long perspective, there was not much between us. He is, naturally, attracted to her. He has to wait sixteen hours to charge Adam.

We follow both his relationship with Miranda, which quickly, in part because of Adam, ends up in bed, and both his and Miranda’s relationship with Adam. While everything might have been smooth without Adam, there are complications. The conventional view is that it is men who buy the female sex toys (which is presumably why the Eves sold out first and several went to Saudi Arabia) but, with a fully functioning male robot, it can happen the other way round.

There are two other complications. The first is Mark. Mark is a young boy Charlie sees in the park with his mother. She is screaming at him and hitting him and Charlie intervenes. She calls her husband over and Charlie offers to take care of the boy. The parents nearly accept but then withdraw but, a few days later, Mark is dumped on Charlie’s doorstop. It is Adam who calls social services. Miranda is all in favour of keeping him.

The second complication is that Miranda has a past and it is Adam who tells Charlie about it, as he has access to court records. This does not improve either the relationship between Miranda and Charlie or the relationship between Miranda and Adam.

Charlie soon finds out that things with Adam are not going to be as simple as he had anticipated. He was far more complicated than I’d imagined, and so were my own feelings about him. We follow the two complications, and the relationships between Charlie, Adam and Miranda which, inevitably, turn out to be messy and unpredictable.

McEwan raises various issues about artificial intelligence, artificially intelligent robots and our relationship to them. Firstly, of course, are they humans (obviously no) and should they treated as humans, not least because they have intelligence, feelings and understanding? They are not human because they are not biological constructs but… They cannot reproduces but then there are humans that cannot reproduce and not just the elderly, and that does not make then less human.

How do we judge what makes them human? They certainly look human. Indeed, Miranda’s father thinks it is Adam who is the human and Charlie the robot. If we are to judge them by intellectual prowess and judgement (which, of course, we should not but McEwan, to a certain extent, does) the robots may well win. McEwan is at pains to show that Charlie has no interest in books, art, museums, etc. He has never seen a Shakespeare play. Adam, however, is a keen devotee of both Shakespeare and Philip Larkin, he writes poetry (albeit only haikus) and likes the art of Artemesia Gentileschi.

Charlie has been earning his living, not very successfully, by playing the financial markets. When he hands the job to Adam, Adam soon makes a lot of money. So both in intellectual prowess and financial acumen (and therefore money-earning capability), Adam is far superior to Charlie. Where Adam fails, apart from the ability to reproduce (and we do not know if Charlie is fertile), is with children or, at least, with Mark.

Charlie visits Alan Turing to talk about his robot – Turing is interviewing several of the owners – and he learns that one area where the robots or, rather, these robots, fail, is play. Children learn by play and this is something that robots have never had and presumably have not been programmed with or maybe cannot be programmed with. Just as children and some animals automatically take an instinctive dislike to something that, to them, does not seem right, Mark takes an instinctive dislike to Adam.

Inevitably, the robots do not work out entirely as hoped or expected. They couldn’t understand us, because we couldn’t understand ourselves, says Turing. However, for Turing, they are sentient beings and should be treated accordingly and not as toys or servants. The ones in this book may have flaws and may not be pragmatic or be able to delude themselves or make compromises, as we can and do on a regular basis.

Apart from the robot story and the other plot elements mentioned above, one of the interesting things is how McEwan has changed events, while, at the same time, marrying them somewhat to actual events. For example, in 1984, the Provisional IRA planted a bomb at the Tory Conference, aimed at killing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In this alternative scenario, Thatcher is not prime minister but a bombing does take place, with a different target. There are several other similar examples. Of course, McEwan dodges the interesting question. How, why and, in particular, when did events alter from what we know really happened.

In McEwan’s novel Atonement, the main character is wrongly accused of assault, which has a major impact on his life. Briony, who made the accusation, writes a story about the man and his girlfriend, Cecilia (Briony’s sister) which gives them the happy life they did not, in fact, have. McEwan has done something similar in this book, in that he has given Alan Turing the happy and fulfilled life he did not have, as he committed suicide when arrested for a homosexual act, then a crime in Britain.

At the time of writing (April 2019), we are learning that many of the issues we seem to be concerned with – Brexit, Trump, Putin and so on – are trivial, compared with the main problem we face, namely climate change. Climate change is hardly mentioned in this book, not least because it was not really considered a major problem, at least by the public, politicians and media, in the early 1980s. McEwan seems to be saying in this book that our main problem may well not be climate change but artificial intelligence and the rise of the robots. My money is still on climate change to kill us off but McEwan may have a point.

I have criticised McEwan’s recent books, as I felt that they were not of the same calibre as his early works. However, I must say that he does not, like some authors, write variants of the same book. Each book is different in topic and approach. I will say that I really did enjoy this book. He raises an interesting topic, about which I had given little thought, tells his story well (with other interesting topics raised) and his alternative future is certainly fascinating.

Publishing history

First published 2019 by Jonathan Cape