Machines Like Me
by Ian McEwan
‘We create a machine with intelligence and self-awareness and push it out into our imperfect world ….. such a mind soon finds itself in a hurricane of contradiction. We may be confronting a boundary condition.’
I was delighted to learn in yesterday’s news that a portrait of Sir Alan Turing has been chosen to adorn our new fifty-pound note. He was badly treated by the law and British society and is a worthy recipient of this posthumous honour.
But what if Alan Turing were still alive in the 1980s? What if, on his conviction for ‘gross indecency’, he had opted in 1952 for a different punishment? These are the intriguing questions at the heart of Machines Like Me, the latest novel by Ian McEwan. What If? has been a popular subject of sci-fi and speculative literature for many years now. The dream of artificial intelligence is even older. Automatons and robots have been appearing in world literture for centuries. However, rarely can an author have combined the two and tackled them novelistically with such daring.
Machines Like Me is set in the 1980s in an alternate universe (- another darling of sci-fi writers -) in which Britain has lost the Falklands War, Tony Benn is Leader of the Opposition, electric cars are already the norm and driverless vehicles almost so. This world, thanks to Turing’s work, has manufactured the first humanoid robots, capable of rational thought and so much more. Twenty-five in all, named Adams and Eves are on sale for £86, 000 – and presumably equivalent sums in other currencies. Charlie Friend, the protagonist of Machines Like Me has purchased one, an Adam, with his mother’s legacy.
‘The robots would pay for us once they were taxed like human workers, and made to work for the common good.’
Charlie is in love with Miranda, his neighbour in the upstairs flat, and decides that together they should programme Adam’s personality. However, all the robots are already programmed with some kind of conscience, which can unfortunately react against the owners’ programming or operate independently of it. The upside is that Adam is good at making money by playing the stockmarket; the downside (from Charlie’s point of view anyway) is that he’s good at writing poetry and making love. He too falls in love with Miranda.
Wired as he is to the Internet, Adam is capable of tapping into the outside world. He soon discovers that Miranda has a guilty secret and warns Charlie about her. From a human point of view, Miranda’s “crime” has real moral worth. She sees her actions as fully justified, even when they are illegal. Adam sees it differently: good equates to truth and truth is everything. He takes a similar view when it comes to making money for Charlie. Whose money is it?
The balance in this strange love triangle changes when Charlie meets Mark, a four-year-old boy being abused by his parents. Miranda takes a fancy to him and wants to adopt, but will have to marry Charlie in order to do so. Is Adam jealous? We’re not sure, though Charlie certainly has his suspicions. Adam’s actions from now on would seem to confirm Charlie’s opinion. But that is human opinion. Adam, we remember, is a robot with a highly developed sense of truth and falsehood. Black or white – there is no grey!
‘Instead, the contents of her stomach, the colourful buffet lunch, lay thickly over the hall carpet and threshold. She had stood outside the house and vomited in ….. the avenging angel’s parting shot.’
The crisis comes when Miranda decides to confront Peter Gorringe, the ex-con she has sent to prison for rape. Now we begin to see Adam’s true nature and the extent to which he is a victim of his programming. But are we humans similarly the victims of ours? Is an unlawful act ever justified, even when committed to right a terrible wrong?
Machines Like Me, with its gloriously ambiguous title, tackles this and other moral and political issues of OUR world. In an imagined Britain of yesteryear, pollution, unemployment, mass protests and immigration are all hot topics, just as they are in 2019. Alan Turing makes several appearances as his resurrected self, to explain his decisions, give us the benefit of his research and to ask, with Erwin Schroedinger, What is Life? His answer may not please us but it has an inescapable logic.
McEwan is a very good writer. Words and ideas flow sweetly from his pages. And, above all, he can tell a story, round it off neatly and still leave the reader with unanswered questions. Machines Like Me seamlessly enmeshes the fantasy genre in an exceptional work of literary fiction.
Of course, the ‘history’ of this imaginery world is a bit different to ours and you’ll have to read the novel to ‘get it’. But, as a taster, I include as my last word on the subject the novel’s lightly-veiled reference to today’s politicle debacle –
‘Only the Third Reich and other tyrannies decided policy by plebiscites and generally no good came of them.’
P.S. My title is borrowed from Shakespeare via Aldous Huxley, another great writer of speculative literary fantasy.