Review: ‘Machines Like Me’, by Ian McEwan
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Could a synthetic being be considered human? The question is at least as old as science fiction itself, and many may wonder what insights McEwan has to add. However, his latest novel – filled with his usual sharpness, humour, and creeping discomfort – is a welcome addition to the genre.
‘Machines Like Me’ (Jonathan Cape, £18.99, ISBN: 9781787331662) is set in a retrofuturist 1980s London. In this timeline, Margaret Thatcher’s defeat in the Falklands war sets in motion a Tony Benn premiership and leftist-led withdrawal from the EU, while The Beatles regroup to a tepid critical response. Most importantly, computing pioneer Alan Turing chooses a prison term over chemical castration. Rather than ending his own life at the age of 41, Turing returns to work after serving his sentence and ushers in the digital revolution decades ahead of time.
Charlie Friend is an aimless dilettante with an occasional interest in electronic engineering. Following his mother’s death, he decides to blow his inheritance on one of the world’s first synthetic humans and comes into possession of an ‘Adam’ (the ‘Eves’, of course, had already sold out). Privately, Charlie hopes that Adam will help him bond with his neighbour, Miranda. Together, Charlie and Miranda pre-determine Adam’s character.
“Miranda, a doctoral scholar of social history, said she wished the teenage Mary Shelley was here beside us, observing closely, not a monster like Frankenstein’s, but this handsome dark-skinned young man coming to life. I said that what both creatures shared was a hunger for the animating force of electricity,” Charlie explains.
Charlie, Miranda and Adam quickly fall into a tense, lusty, anxiety and jealousy-ridden domestic arrangement. Charlie and Miranda begin a relationship. Adam tips Charlie off about a hidden, dangerous side to Miranda. Miranda seduces Adam (a “bipedal vibrator”), causing him to become instantly smitten by her. “Existentially, this is not your territory. In every conceivable sense, you’re trespassing,” Charlie tells Adam, after the synthetic man confesses his love for Miranda.
Unfortunately for Charlie, his new toy is more than a cold series of logic circuits. Adam generates rubbish haikus to express his love for Miranda, expresses fear about being switched off (even breaking Charlie’s wrist during an attempt) and articulates well-informed opinions on literature and philosophy. He is also handsome and screws like, well, a machine. Adam’s virility seems to emasculate Charlie more than anything else; one may assume that the dynamic between man and machine may look very different if Charlie had managed to acquire an Eve instead. His petty attempts to assert his dominance and humanity over Adam only confirm his mediocrity. In every way, Adam outperforms him, ultimately proving himself to possess inhuman moral courage and sense of justice.
Another storyline concerns the elderly Turing investigating the plight of the other Adams and Eves, who (much like Frankenstein’s monster) experience unbearable agony when they learn about human cruelty. A third storyline follows Miranda as her past returns to wreak havoc on her plans. This is the one seriously weak element of the novel. It could almost be a McEwan parody and deals with a complex issue with none of the subtly with which he previously explored it.
This ill-judged narrative thread aside, ‘Machines Like Me’ is as exquisite a novel as we have come to expect from McEwan. McEwan’s first full-length outing with speculative fiction (having previously written a short story about synthetic humans) also proves an effective vehicle for his wit. Adam’s breath is like the “back of a warm television”, and he gets his erections from a reservoir of distilled water in his right buttock. In one scene, Adam delivers an astonishing discourse on literature and metaphysics to Miranda’s father, who subsequently mistakes Charlie for the robot.
‘Machines Like Me’ suffers from a serious narrative misstep and offers no new and radical answers to the question of what makes a human. Despite this, it is undeniably another excellent novel from McEwan, who demonstrates that he can conjure up challenging characters, witty dialogue and moral ambiguity when dealing with sex robots just as brilliantly as he does on literary turf.