The reading public is often the quickest to turn on heroes who had usually been consistent and reliably productive. This might be even more the case with such writers as Ian McEwan, who started his career writing gloomy, Gothic short stories in First Love, Last Rites (Jonathan Cape, 1975) and In Between the Sheets (ibid, 1978.) The doom was palpable and the sense of fear always consistent. McEwan seemed to understand the balance between creating worlds through which his people were moved like chess pieces and the visceral romance of such relationship novels like The Comfort of Strangers (ibid, 1981), The Innocent (ibid, 1990) and Atonement (ibid, 2001), people torn between literal war-time conflicts and the danger of stepping out of their lanes.
Through stories, children’s fiction, plays, 15 taut and controlled literary novels, and a handful of film adaptations over the past 35 years, McEwan has never steered away from risking popularity, likeability, or credibility. Drive outside the boundaries of your perceived lane and risk being torn down by the fierce members of a club that’s easily offended. McEwan’s 2016 novel, Nutshell (ibid), was told in the voice of a fetus in utero in its final period before birth. Call it speculative fiction, an alternative narrative, or pure science fiction, McEwan produced a story that stayed within his unique lane and distinctive voice. If McEwan has been anything since his literary debut in 1975, he has been precise, determined, and audacious — sometimes to his own detriment. Like his British contemporary Martin Amis, McEwan has always seemed to understand that the distinct coldness of his subject matter is an asset if doled out in small doses.
In his latest novel Machines Like Me (given the cheeky subtitle And People Like You on the title page), McEwan has run the risk of alienating genre readers during a round of publicity. Take this headline quote (from the legendary late literary provocateur Harlan Ellison) used for a 2 May 2019 New York Times article about McEwan’s perceived snobbery regarding being given a label: “Call me a Science Fiction writer. I’ll come to your house and nail your pet’s head to a coffee table.”
McEwan might not have been as antagonistic or blunt as Ellison, or Kurt Vonnegut, two other writers who worked within the speculative fiction genre, but they didn’t have to contend with Twitter. On its surface level (as safe a place to start as any), Machines Like Me is a love triangle between Charlie Friend, his girlfriend Miranda (who lives upstairs from his flat) and Adam, their personal robot. The humans here are bland and for the most part, not likable. They live in an alternate history England, 1982, where Alan Turing is alive and well and plays a pivotal part in dealing with the complications of this robot. The Beatles never disbanded and are lingering in the background with music that’s become corny and outdated. John F. Kennedy survived a “near-death in Dallas”, Jimmy Carter won a second Presidential term (thereby eliminating Ronald Reagan), and the British economy is in a tailspin.
Consider this passage, about an imagined 1982 Beatles album released to a London (and worldwide) audience that had passed them by. The reader might not initially understand this gimmick, but eventually, it becomes clear. Music that had been such an important international cultural force in the brief time it was recorded (1962-1970) was meant to end when it did and never return in a world that wasn’t its own:
“Their album, Love and Lemons, had been derided for its grandiosity, for failing to resist the lure and overreach of an eighty-strong symphony orchestra … I liked the music’s muscular sentimentality, emptied of irony … Lennon’s rasping voice floated towards us from some faraway echoing place … I didn’t mind being told again about love.”
This idea is nicely played through the course of the story. Charlie is open to the possibilities of love, the idealized and idealistic tableau set so carefully by The Beatles in the ’60s and since relegated to the dustbin of good intentions. He’s a shallow man who questions the role this replicant Adam could play in the romance (stagnant of blossoming) between himself and Miranda.
There is nothing here without purpose; 1982 might not on its surface seem a significant year, but it works for McEwan’s counter-history. In his timeline, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is vilified for losing the Falklands War. Science Fiction fans will understand (and certainly appreciate) as well that 1982 was the year Ridley Scott released his instant classic film Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick‘s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In both the novel and film, the reader wanders through a narrative asking questions still relevant today. How alarming is a world where dramatically advanced “replicant” humans are allowed to interfere with mortals?
Charlie Friend is a 32-year-old man without much direction in love with a woman ten years his junior but also “…mature for her years…” He is beyond the needs of formal education and a survivor of professional, financial, and personal failures. Charlie impulsively purchases Adam. McEwan tells us Adam is not a sex toy, but he is capable of sex. “The Adams and Eves, it was thought, would be lively.”
Miranda sees the appearance of Adam as something deeper. She’s a doctoral student of social history, but she doesn’t opine much. When Charlie compares Adam to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in that they shared “…a hunger for the animating force of electricity”, we know what’s ahead. Sexual complications will invade their quiet and complacent world, but there will also be the question of spiritual autonomy and the essence of what it means to be human.
Charlie is quick to tell us he passes his life “…in a state of mood neutrality.” He keeps his personality in suspension. Early in this book, McEwan is quick to drop titles of famous novels that suggest there is no definite beginning to this alternate history. In other words, if Charlie read novels like Joseph Heller’s Catch-18 and Leo Tolstoy’s All’s Well That Ends Well, he’s living is a totally different history, not simply a twisted alternate branch from the common tree of time.
In the different history world of Machines Like Me, Turing had not opted for chemical castration and suicide death in 1954. Instead, by 1968 he started what by 1982 was a fully-formed world of artificial intelligence. McEwan’s key considerations are those of his Turing character: “…the moment we couldn’t tell the difference between machine and person was when we must confer humanity on the machine.” Later in that same passage, after we know Adam has been intimate with Miranda, we get the real truth from Charlie: “I duly laid on Adam the privilege and obligations of a conspecific. I hated him.”
What does it mean to be good? McEwan pontificates about those considerations and the reader unable to warm to this voice might find it ponderous. On the other hand, in McEwan’s hands, the intellectual journey is strong and relatable. “We set our aspirations in poetry, prose, and song,” he writes, “and we knew what to do.” McEwan’s determination nicely balances the conflict between a character with a tendency to try and impress us and our ability and willingness to see a few steps ahead. He writes of his alternate time: “It was the golden age of organized crime, domestic slavery, forgery, and prostitution… We were all getting poorer by the week.”
This strange triangle becomes more decisive when Charlie tries to convince us that what he had bought (Adam) was his own, and it was his choice to share this possession or not. Though Charlie claimed he hated Adam, he seemed to enjoy the “intellectual exuberance” of their relationship. The replicant was getting bold: “He had written 2,000 haikus and had recited about a dozen, of the same quality, each one devoted to Miranda.” Later, we read that “Adam’s utopia masked a nightmare… but it was a mere abstraction. Miranda’s nightmare was real and instantly became mine.”
McEwan deepens the plot at this point with a story that makes Miranda duplicitous and complicated. What is she hiding? Was she involved in wrongly convicting somebody of a crime? By the final act of this novel. McEwan brings us to a no turning back point, and Adam declares that he is also in love with Miranda. In this world of McEwan’s making, where all cars are self-operating, somebody has to get behind the steering wheel.
Science fiction purists who see McEwan’s comments as a slight against their beloved literary genre are missing the point. Adam proves to be the purest being, the cleanest entity, the only character who can never fully be destroyed because his entire being is stored elsewhere. McEwan’s plot complications are less convoluted than they are complex. This is a novel set in an alternate history where people have done things they cannot correct, where the bland nature of the first voice we meet (Charlie’s) culminate in this lead human male having to prove his existence. Justice is served, romantic ideals realized, while the question of what defines humanity is left up in the air. McEwan allows Turing, in 1982 recalling his controversial life of 1954, to have the last word on the nature of humanity:
“In those days I had a highly mechanistic view of what a person was. The body was a machine, an extraordinary one, and the mind I thought of mostly in terms of intelligence…”
It probably takes longer than it should for McEwan to make his points. Machines Like Me is a deep study in ethical considerations about what it means to be truly human. The strange dance George and Miranda do with each other as they try to incorporate Adam into their lives is weighed down by the credible back story of Miranda’s past. It’s within the imagined history McEwan creates here, from Turing and the revived Beatles and a world of alternate classic novels that Machines Like Me becomes a slightly bloated but important addition to McEwan’s canon.