Machines Like Me

Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape, £18.99

Machines Like Me is set in a version of the 1980s in which the internet and artificial intelligence have been around for decades, developed by Alan Turing, who has become a national hero.

The novel is narrated by Charlie, a 32-year-old mediocrity who spends his days on his bedroom computer barely making money on the stock exchange. He uses an inheritance to buy Adam, a new kind of robot who can, once programmed with a personality, pass for a human. Adam, Charlie, and his neighbour Miranda – an improbable 22-year-old PhD student with whom Charlie inevitably begins a romance – enter into a relationship that is part love triangle and part family. Charlie and Miranda determine Adam’s personality as if he were their son; Adam and Miranda become lovers under the nose of Charlie. Machines Like Me is offered as a novel of ideas: what makes us human? Can a machine feel?

McEwan’s style never lets the reader forget the novel’s topic. Some opening exposition is to be forgiven but it soon becomes McEwan’s modus operandi: baggy, generalised, journalistic sentences. When these sentences riff on the majesty of Adam’s creation – “Before us lay the ultimate plaything, the dream of ages, the triumph of humanism” – they’re rather irritating. When they’re describing scientific concepts, they read like Wikipedia: “The idea that germs were responsible for the spread of disease didn’t gain general acceptance until the 1880s and the work of Louis Pasteur.” McEwan can’t seem to find a better way to integrate this information into the action of the novel.

Uneventful sentences are matched by an uneventful plot. The novel’s characters mainly sit around their kitchen tables talking about robots. A sense of the superfluous builds up around the novel’s themes of robotic engineering; when Charlie, Adam, and Miranda do go outside, it’s usually the result of a subplot involving the rape of Miranda’s childhood friend Mariam and her desire for revenge, none of which is dependent on the technology the novel has spent a long time discussing.

Flabbiness also infects the development of the book’s alternative world. Setting it up involves a lot of information and scene-setting, and there are various ways to do it. McEwan opts for the simplest approach, nudging the reader each time a detail is revealed: “a radio was playing the Beatles, recently regrouped after 12 years apart”; “It was during the miners’ strike of 12 years before that self-driving cars first appeared.” These lame little asides overplay their invention: do you see what I did there? McEwan seems to be saying.

Despite – or maybe because of – this, actually figuring out how this world works is quite difficult. Some events from our world have happened in McEwan’s (Auschwitz, the Poll Tax), some haven’t (America never dropped the bomb, Tony Benn becomes Labour leader, ousts Thatcher, and is then assassinated by the IRA’s Brighton bomb). While this is part of the alternative history genre, the familiar and the unfamiliar still need to be connected so that the reader feels the plausibility of the “what if?” being proposed. It requires a commitment to material reality greater than in more straightforward stories: we want to see this new society’s nuts and bolts. But here we don’t. We are not told how the internet was invented so much earlier, what combinations of technology, science, geography, and politics led to it. McEwan doesn’t have a theory of how history works. Instead, he conceives of it as disconnected, constructed from isolated events that have no impact on other events. We’re told that in this world Thatcher loves public transport, and that as a result the train times between London and Glasgow are only seventy-five minutes. But there’s no explanation of how a politician who in all other respects resembles the right-wing, free-marketeer of our world could be so committed, or what system of political belief allows for these oppositions to sit comfortably together. Sometimes it seems as if the novel is premised on ‘roads not taken’: Turing refusing chemical castration, Britain losing the Falklands War. At other times, the book subscribes to the old “great man” theory of history, no less than when Turing is described by Charlie as just that when he bumps into him at a restaurant.

There’s a lot in this book that speaks more to the 2010s than the 1980s. Episodes of Prime Minister’s Questions between a beleaguered Thatcher and an advancing Benn resemble those between May and Corbyn, who also seem to be the real targets of McEwan’s depiction of Tory backbenchers muttering “She has to go” and “[f]iery Bennite activists” who are “determined to purge the ‘dithering centrists’ of the Parliamentary Labour Party.”

The juxtaposition of Olympic success with rising poverty, racism, and obesity looks a lot like the Cameron years, a reference to “counterfeit news” is not very subtle, while the “right blam[ing] unemployment on immigration from Europe” sounds like Brexit Britain. The first thing Benn does on becoming Prime Minister is announce the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. One gets the sense that McEwan is trying to write two novels at once, or that the novel he began writing – about artificial intelligence and robotics – became superseded along the way by another, more topical, novel: a Brexit novel.

In the end, though, Machines Like Me isn’t really either. It’s a bland book offered as an inventive one. Late in the novel, Charlie, Miranda, and Adam meet Miranda’s father, who mistakes Charlie for the robot. Readers see it coming a mile off, but the reason for the mistake encapsulates the novel’s problem. Miranda’s father thinks Charlie isn’t human because he is a blank. Charlie himself admits that his “existence was an empty space.”

The novel shares Charlie’s problem: there’s nothing to it. It appears to consider profound questions, but does little more than note their importance. The differences between our world and McEwan’s are, ultimately, surplus to the requirements of a story that is merely about a man-child growing up and a love triangle. The ‘ideas’ are just window-dressing.