Futuristic Technology of an Alternate Past: Ian McEwan’s “Machines Like Me”

By Ben LibmanMay 8, 2019

Futuristic Technology of an Alternate Past: Ian McEwan’s “Machines Like Me”

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

will be no novels, only
well-crafted haikus.

That’s what an artificially intelligent robot designed in the early ’80s would have you believe, anyway. This robot’s name is Adam, and he is Ian McEwan’s latest, though by no stretch greatest, creation.

Here’s a head-scratcher: what if Alan Turing, the legendary British mathematician and father of computer science, had chosen imprisonment over chemical castration? This is the central question that drives the alternate history undergirding McEwan’s new novel, Machines Like Me. McEwan’s answer is, well, somewhat bewildering. On the one hand, Turing’s imprisonment and the rather peaceful isolation it grants him ironically frees him up to tackle some of the most difficult math and physics problems of the early postwar period. The result, in brief, is a series of technological breakthroughs that allow 1982 to look a lot like 2019: mobile phones, the internet, laptops, electric cars. Actually, in some ways it looks a little more like 2050, if you’ll allow me to speculate: the cars are electric, yes, but also completely autonomous; and artificial intelligence and robotics have reached such a stage as to produce robots that are fully convincing as human beings. The first generation of these machines hits the market as a group of 25 individuals, 12 “Adams” and 13 “Eves.” The novel’s protagonist, Charlie Friend, gets his hands on an Adam. We’re told that he resembles “a docker from the Bosphorus.”

That’s right. The technology of the future — or, what here amounts to the same thing, the futuristic technology of the alternate past — hasn’t managed to transcend the arbitrary limitations of the gender binary nor of human conceptions of race. Despite the rather massive moment of philosophical, anthropological, sociological, and technological upheaval that these robots represent, human beings themselves, and the history of Western society in particular, remain remarkably unaffected. Thatcher is still prime minister of the United Kingdom, the Falkland Islands are still at the center of the British political imagination, the citizens of the world still haven’t quite figured out how to stop destroying the planet. McEwan’s thesis on history, then, seems to be this: even if we tinker with an entire significant line of historical development, the general current of events remains unchanged.

On second thought, maybe not. True, Thatcher is PM, but her rule is challenged quite convincingly by Labour leader Tony Benn; the Falkland Islands Task Force, in this alternate timeline, fails to recapture the islands in dramatic and disastrous fashion; Jimmy Carter, it seems, beat out Ronald Reagan in the 1980 elections; the Brexit concept takes hold of the population 35 years early; and the Beatles still exist, though their best years are behind them. (Oh and, as a marvelous throwaway line informs us, Kennedy somehow survived his assassination attempt.) So what vision of history are we dealing with here? The butterfly effect? Not quite. The impact of the Turing Revolution seems governed by a careful selection in which the author’s hand betrays its own involvement. We’re meant to focus mainly on the technology itself, which allows the novel’s protagonists to play out a rather quirky and innovative plot before an otherwise familiar socio-political backdrop.

The most accurate generality one can lay over this story is that it is eminently readable. As with many McEwan novels, this one has you signing the readerly contract by about page 20, and likely breezing through it within a day or two. The plot is the right mix of congenial and eccentric: Charlie, a 32-year-old amateur stock trader living in London, is looking for a change in his life. He wants to stop falling back into his old habits, which mostly involve riding the waves and troughs of various get-rich-quick schemes. He has just spent his inheritance from his recently deceased mother on a shiny new Adam; a rather imprudent decision, he admits. But he has a passion for everything robotic and he “had to have one straight away.” So, he forks over all the money he has and determines that now he’ll get serious and do something mature and responsible.

As luck would have it, Charlie lives right beneath the apartment of the woman he loves and with whom he resolves to start a life. Miranda is 10 years his junior (I’ll let you do the arithmetic) and seems less focused on settling down than on finishing her dissertation on corn laws, the fascinating sequel to her work on “the role of the half-wild pig in the household economies of a medieval Chilterns village.” It doesn’t take Charlie long to figure out that Adam could open the way into Miranda’s life; sophisticated as he is, Adam still needs to be set up before he can function properly, and the owner is meant to adjust the behavioral preferences for his new toy in order to ensure compatibility. So, Charlie figures that he and Miranda can split this artificially genealogical duty and have an equal share in Adam’s makeup. In other words, he would be their child.

But, as Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke once said, no plan ever survives contact with the enemy. As it happens, Miranda has some dark secrets to keep, and Adam doesn’t exactly turn out as Charlie had expected. Also, a real human child named Mark enters the scene, and things get significantly more complex. At any given point when the characters appear to be reaching some degree of emotional or experiential equilibrium, a new reactant is thrown into the mix and everything must be recalibrated anew. The rapid unspooling of the story’s development leaves many questions of an ethical nature hanging in the air, among them: is it adulterous to have sex with a robot, or is it just a form of enhanced masturbation? Some riddles are irresolvable.

The novel, to be fair, is mostly a good deal more serious than its philosophy. The standard how-human-is-this-robot and will-these-robots-revolt-and-overthrow-human-society tropes are deftly brushed aside in favor of more interesting questions: How robotic are human beings? How will an artificial intelligence designed by humans and made to absorb the manifold creative productions of human culture navigate the profound yet emotionally complex irrationality that governs human decision-making? Is there such a thing as robo-depression?

This is not to say that McEwan’s ventriloquized musings are confined to an anthropocentric ontology. He also looks outward to human society and wonders, for instance, how people might “fill the time” in a world in which robots handle the production, and the anthropos sits comfortably on a universal basic income. (Note that this vision of society still floats somewhere in the future imaginary of this novel, and is not really grappled with in any meaningful way.) And of course, he wouldn’t be a writer if he didn’t probe the category of literature itself. Once we learn how to download information directly into our brains and merge our consciousnesses into one big “community of minds,” Adam says, there will be no need for narratives, whose main purpose is to record “varieties of human failure” and to help bridge the fissures of social misunderstanding and miscommunication. In this massive mind cloud — run, I suppose, by Amazon or some equivalent — “the lapidary haiku, the still, clear perception and celebration of things as they are, will be the only necessary form.” No novels; only haikus. I guess we know what to expect from McEwan’s second act.

As Machines Like Me propels us along the robo-humanoid love-triangular saga of Charlie, Miranda, and Adam, all the rest is noise, more or less. And that’s not exactly what one might expect from a work of speculative fiction, the major task of the genre being the plausible delineation of the many social, political, and economic consequences that tumble out of a central speculation. What if FDR had lost the 1940 election, as in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America? Or what if, following Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, earthlings figure out how to colonize that distant red planet? That sort of thing.

McEwan has a nimble hand when it comes to good-old-fashioned, Walter Scott–approved historical fiction. And according to a certain reading of Atonement, one might even be persuaded to look at Briony Tallis, the novel’s protagonist, as a kind of speculative historian when we learn that she has rewritten the lives of Robert and Cecilia according to an alternate answer to a certain “what if” that plagues the young Briony for decades. And that speculation, perhaps due to its narrow scope, plays out quite well along its branching tree of causality.

But Machines Like Me seems to struggle with the possibly gigantic scope of its speculative manipulations. Can it really be that the only ripples we’d get in return for the development of true artificial intelligence are four more years of Carter and a 70-year-old version of Alan Turing in a silk shirt? It doesn’t quite feel like enough simply to gesture to a protesting public or to insist that the enduring legacy of autonomous vehicle technology rests in eternally congested roadways. There is no industry of technology that sits apart from a complex. One would have to argue quite persuasively to convince the average reader that the development of an Adam or an Eve wouldn’t have profound reverberations across all sectors of the political economy and the better part of the social fabric. McEwan has led an elephant into the room, but he doesn’t want to do the work of rearranging the furniture.

Instead, he gives himself a slick way out: early on in the novel, Charlie mentions in passing that, as a student, he read Tolstoy’s All’s Well that Ends Well. Say what now? All’s Well that Ends Well, as in, the early never-used title of War and Peace. In fact, Charlie has read a number of classics from our timeline that go by different titles in his own: Heller’s Catch-18, Fitzgerald’s The High-Bouncing Lover (that was a close call) — you get the idea. This alternate timeline, McEwan seems to indicate, actually goes back quite a way, perhaps to the beginning of time itself. And if that’s the case, then McEwan is absolved of his requirement to follow closely and plausibly the unfolding of his counterfactual, because there isn’t one. This is simply how it all happened, over there!

But this is too convenient, and it is too insufficient a way of hiding the fact that the novel really leans most of its weight on a counterfactual — a Turing point, one might say — like a crutch. Either the timeline of Machines Like Me never made contact with or branched off from our own, and is therefore uninteresting, or it did, and therefore requires a careful and plausible enumeration of its ever-cascading differences. You can’t have both.

McEwan seems ultimately to have wanted to write a science fiction novel, but he couches it in his old historical upholstery. The ’80s are comfortable for him, so is London. The result, though, is confounding, both as history and as science fiction. For its clear, and at times, elegant prose, as well as its evident success as a page-turner, this novel probably deserves to sit among the ‘M’s on the shelf. But, as the old Robert Browning line goes, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp! Perhaps the adage doesn’t apply to robots.


Ben Libman is a writer from Montréal. He lives in California.

LARB Contributor

Ben Libman is a writer living in Montréal. He is currently a PhD student in English at Stanford University and a frequent contributor to Politics/Letters. Drop him a line at [email protected]. Find him on Twitter @benlibman.


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