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Ian McEwan Challenges Himself

February 22, 2020

Review: Machines Like Us by Ian McEwan, 2019

Is Ian McEwan so accomplished at writing novels that he now has to make the writing process as hard as possible?

In Machines Like Me McEwan sets himself two challenges. Firstly, Charlie, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, is boring. Charlie himself acknowledges this: “I passed most of my life, especially when alone, in a state of mood-neutrality, with my personality, whatever that was, in suspension. Not bold, not withdrawn. Simply here.”

Secondly, McEwan chooses themes about which it is difficult to say anything new: the relationship between humans and humanoid robots, and their rights and responsibilities to each other. These issues have been thoroughly investigated by sci-fi writers since the fifties, and there is nothing new about the way McEwan deals with them.

Despite my reservations about the novel, it kept me reading. Let’s examine it more closely.

Machines Like Me is an alternative history novel, set in 1982, differing from our version of the world in two ways:

  • Argentina wins the Falklands war by destroying the British fleet with Exocet missiles.
  • Alan Turing is still alive, and his work has resulted in many advances, including highly intelligent robots. Twenty-five artificial humans have just been released, twelve Adams and thirteen Eves.

Charlie, an artificial intelligence nerd, spends his inheritance on an Adam, the Eves having sold out immediately. Adam has a strong personality that makes up for Charlie’s lack. He falls in love with Charlie’s girlfriend, Miranda, and writes haiku to her.

Miranda takes Charlie and Adam to meet her father, a writer, who discusses Shakespeare with Adam, assuming that he is Miranda’s boyfriend and that Charlie is the robot.

Statue of Alan Turing at Suffix University (Photo: Fernrohr, CC)

Miranda is more vital and real than Charlie or Adam, and she is key to the novel’s success. A prisoner has threatened to kill her when he is released, and the back story to this threat is heartbreaking. In a separate thread of the novel, four-year-old Mark, who is abused by his drug-using parents, becomes an important character. Charlie’s responses to Adam, Miranda and Mark change him and, as the novel progresses, he becomes a little less boring. Alan Turing also makes several appearances, especially when problems with the robots begin to emerge. McEwan’s interweaving of these stories and characters is what kept me reading.

While human-android ethical conflicts are sci-fi stand-bys, McEwan does vividly portray them. Is truth everything, as Adam insists? The lives of Miranda and Mark will be determined by the outcome of such conflicts.

McEwan’s skill enables him to tell a good story despite the two challenges he set himself. Machines Like Me is not one of his best novels, but I enjoyed it.

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