Book Review: Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan

Book Review: Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan treads a known turf in Machines Like Me

Machines Like Me

In his seminal guide, The Art of Fiction, John Gardner extols the value of a formal literature education for those who want to write. Going through such a course of study, he says, gives the writer-aspirant a sense of what has already been done in his field. What are the commonly held views, what topics are clichéd, what philosophies are overused? Having learnt about these, the hope is that the writer knows enough to create something new in his own work.

Unfortunately, Ian McEwan did not take Gardner’s advice when planning to use a science-fictionish plot device for his new book, Machines Like Me.

The book starts with the protagonist, Charlie Friend, buying an exciting new product: an artificial human. The robot (though it isn’t explicitly called that), is named Adam, and as Charlie figures out the setup instructions, he finds that Adam requires a large set of characteristics to be set by the human owner, rather like how a parent would pass his own characteristics to his offspring through genes. Charlie brings in his neighbour (and secret crush) Miranda to set half the characteristics, and thus a modern-day “family” of mother, father, and robot child is born. Starting from this point, McEwan explores several strands. An Oedipal love triangle begins to develop between Adam, Charlie, and Miranda. As Adam’s consciousness gains life experiences, the impulse for self-preservation arises within him. Partly as a result of these trends, but also because of Adam’s machine-fast and expansive reading of English literature, his burgeoning sense of poetry leads him to work on haikus.

The central theme of the work makes its appearance through these strands of story: given a consciousness that’s clean and unencumbered by all the grey morality that humans possess, will it be able to make sense of, indeed forgive those it considers its progenitors? Because neither Charlie nor Miranda are exemplary human beings. Charlie is drifting along in life, making just enough money to survive on the stock market. Miranda is a research student — but she has a murky past. She was the accuser in a rape case earlier — a case that wasn’t completely genuine. While Adam does understand their respective motivations, he can’t quite forgive and accept them. Eventually, he grows sure enough of himself to interfere more deeply in their lives - helping Charlie with his income, and collaborating with Miranda on the aftermath of the rape case. But he’s got a final surprise for them, a final judgement of their all-too-human sins, coming up.

Does this idea of artificial humans being too pure/innocent for human civilisation seem familiar? It should. It’s the core conceit of the first sci-fi novel ever: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. Frankenstein’s monster has remained in the public imagination as a frightening, mindless, zombie, but the original work reveals him as an emotional, thinking creature, tormented by his own sense of self and his alienation from human society. Hundreds of later works in both sci-fi and horror have further explored the concept. Oblivious of these precedents, McEwan has talked of his “original concept” of chronicling the feelings of an artificial human here. Obviously, this has attracted due scorn from the reading community. One wishes he had spent a few months taking Gardner’s advice and read at least the classics of the genre, if not the latest fads.

In a further attempt to make the world of his book more interesting, McEwan embeds some alternate history. Britain has lost the Falklands war. Margaret Thatcher is on her way out of the prime ministership. Most importantly, Alan Turing is still alive and is working on artificial intelligence. This reviewer has the nagging suspicion that McEwan created all this alternate history solely to make Turing available in the text. Who better than Alan Turing, after all, to be the “technical authority” in a book about AI? He’s the man who created the “Turing Test”, the popular way to discern intelligence in a machine. Sadly, all Turing does here is to deliver knowledge dumps on what is happening in the Robot programming world, and explain the fate of multiple other robots that are “siblings” of Adam.

McEwan also fits in a few pages of awkward explainers on programming and mathematics in the guise of Charlie reading up on Turing’s latter-day contributions. Awkward, because, for someone familiar with the domain, they are way too basic to add to the story in any way. For a non-software person, they are too distant from the flow of the story to mean anything. McEwan could simply have dispensed with the long explanations and lost nothing.

Overall, apart from a few rare sparkling moments, Machines Like Me feels like an immature effort to write a literary science fiction novel - neither breaking ground in the science part, nor carrying forward the literary themes it aspires to.