Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan review – intelligent mischief

McEwan returns to his subversive early style with this dystopian vision of humanoid robots in a counterfactual 1982 Britain

By a strange twist of fate, I read this book while on a visit to the Falkland Islands, where the British victory over Argentina in the 1982 war feels as though it might have happened last week. Outside Port Stanley, on treeless uplands whose names ring distant bells – Goose Green, Mount Harriet, Tumbledown – the conflict is still unofficially memorialised by chunks of crashed war planes and the wires of field telephones from a pre-digital age. Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan’s new novel, also turns in part on the Falklands conflict, eternalising a version of that year’s events, though in the book’s fictional world things have turned out rather differently.

In the 1982 of the novel, the British navy sails from Portsmouth with calamitous results. A devastating Argentinian attack ends the war abruptly and the Falklands become Las Malvinas. The humiliation of defeat forces Margaret Thatcher from office, brings a very different politician to power, and triggers the country’s unexpected departure from Europe. This political and social upheaval feels like both reminiscence and prophecy. The counterfactual 1982 of the novel plays variations on our historical record and contains clear allusions to the present. “Only the Third Reich and other tyrannies decided policies by plebiscites and generally no good came from them,” the narrator reminds the inhabitants of post-referendum Britain.

More pertinently for the plot, another marked difference from history is that the United Kingdom of this 1982 is precociously computerised. Instead of having been hounded to death for his homosexuality, the scientist Alan Turing is thriving and lauded. His pioneering work in artificial intelligence has led to a series of technological breakthroughs: the result is that the latest and most expensive device in consumer electronics is “a manufactured human with plausible intelligence and looks, believable motion and shifts of expression”. One of the first people to part with £86,000 is the novel’s narrator, self-confessed AI nerd Charlie Friend: “Robots, androids, replicates were my passion,” he informs us.

Charlie is 32 and lives alone in a small flat in Clapham, south London, where he plays the stock market from a home computer without much success. He explains that he is only able to afford his extravagant purchase thanks to a recent inheritance from his mother. For reasons that are never entirely clear, only 25 of the devices are available, 13 Adams and 12 Eves, in a variety of ethnicities. Charlie would prefer an Eve, but they have all been snapped up, so he has to make do with an Adam, whom he brings home and unboxes. “At last, with cardboard and polystyrene wrapping strewn around his ankles, he sat naked at my tiny dining table, eyes closed, a black power line trailing from the entry point in his umbilicus to a thirteen-amp socket in the wall.”

The visceral uncanniness of this scene foreshadows the discomforting directions the novel will take once Adam’s batteries are charged. But his initial awakening is teasingly slow. It’s a tantalising moment that will remind older readers of the bittersweet feeling of buying a home computer in the 1980s, when the excitement of getting the purchase home was tempered by the realisation that it would take two days to partition the hard drive. As Charlie waits for the robot to come alive, he watches the news about the Falklands conflict and eats a cheese and pickle sandwich.

The other key element of the setup is that isolated Charlie is embarking on a relationship with his upstairs neighbour, Miranda, 10 years younger and a doctoral scholar of social history. He envisages his ownership of the new device as a joint endeavour, a kind of digital parenthood that will bring him and Miranda closer. Like some of his other rationalisations – not least his explanation of why he has spent his inheritance on a robot – it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. However, his plans are dealt a blow when one of the newly conscious Adam’s first actions is to blurt out a warning to Charlie about Miranda’s past.

Machines Like Me belongs to the genre of speculative fiction, but in its narrow focus on morally ambiguous characters in a bleak cityscape it also owes a debt to film noir, sharing noir’s conviction that nothing is more human than moral inconsistency. Charlie is broke, has a flaky employment history, and was lucky to miss out on a prison sentence for tax fraud. Miranda, a woman hiding a dark secret, is clearly a femme fatale. Now these characters are joined by Adam, a supremely intelligent and rather well-endowed robot, who very quickly figures out how to override his off-switch. As the true nature of Miranda’s secret becomes clear, the three characters are drawn together, with Adam taking on the contradictory roles of servant and moral superior. Further complexity comes in the shape of Mark, a young mistreated boy who awakens Miranda’s desire for a more conventional, non-technological form of parenthood.

Adam is the most compelling character in the book, with an unforgettably strange physical presence. We are told that even when unconscious he gives off the faint scent of saxophone lubricant and that he achieves erections thanks to a reservoir of distilled water in his right buttock. Having read most of world literature, he predicts the imminent death of the novel – hardly a new idea, but one he argues from a fresh point of view. Everything in fiction, he points out, describes varieties of human failure. “But when the marriage of men and women to machines is complete, this literature will be redundant because we’ll understand each other too well … Our literatures will lose their unwholesome nourishment. The lapidary haiku … will be the only necessary form.” In the bloodless world Adam describes, a novel such as Machines Like Me would be neither accurate nor necessary, turning as it does on the mess, lies and complexity of flawed human interactions.

Discomforting directions … Ian McEwan.
Discomforting directions … Ian McEwan. Photograph: Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The book touches on many themes: consciousness, the role of chance in history, artificial intelligenceAI, the neglected Renaissance essayist Sir William Cornwallis, the formal demands of the haiku and the unsolved P versus NP problem of computer science, but its real subject is moral choice. The epigraph quotes Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Secret of the Machines”, which presciently expresses the uncompromising quality of the machine mind. “We are not built to comprehend a lie,” the poem goes. In Adam’s digital brain, there may be fuzzy logic, but there’s no fuzzy morality. This clarity gives him an inhuman iciness.

The quote is also a reminder that Kipling dabbled in science fiction himself and that, consciously or unconsciously, most modern practitioners of the genre are indebted to him for pioneering a particular technique. This is the mode of exposition in which he seems to address the reader from a position of shared knowledge, sketching out an unfamiliar reality through hints and allusions, but never explaining it too completely. This inside-out style is the default mode of modern SF. It is economical and of special usefulness to makers of strange worlds, plunging a reader into a new reality and leaving them space to feel like a participant in its creation. It’s the opposite technique to that of McEwan’s narrator, who explicitly sets out his world, overexplains the historical context and never turns down a chance to offer an essayistic digression.

To my taste, this is a flat-footed way of doing sci-fi. And, since you can’t possibly explain everything, the reader is sometimes left wondering why the narrator hasn’t also told you what’s happening in the cold war, or China, or how he has ended up with a glass of Moldovan white wine in 1982, when the country, then Moldavia, was part of the USSR. A further weakness is a reliance on long expositional speeches that it’s hard to imagine anyone actually saying. Miranda is the worst offender, but elsewhere Turing explains the history of AI in a voice identical to the narrator’s, which is itself rather similar to Adam’s. One obvious sci-fi conceit would have been to have the robot narrate the novel, but given Charlie’s tendency towards bloodless cerebration, I suspect the result would not have been much different.

With these caveats, there are many pleasures and many moments of profound disquiet in this book, which reminds you of its author’s mastery of the underrated craft of storytelling. The narrative is propulsive, thanks to our uncertainties about the characters’ motives, the turning points that suddenly reconfigure our understanding of the plot, and the figure of Adam, whose ambiguous energy is both mysteriously human and mysteriously not. Like the replicants in his novel, McEwan has made himself available in various models over the years. Machines Like Me is closer in character to the dark and subversive McEwan of his earlier books than to the stiff and self-conscious one of Saturday, who seemed burdened by the responsibility of finding himself head boy of English letters. The novel is morally complex and very disturbing, animated by a spirit of sinister and intelligent mischief that feels unique to its author.

• Marcel Theroux’s The Secret Books is published by Faber. Machines Like Me is published by Vintage (£12.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.


Marcel Theroux

The GuardianTramp

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