MACHINES LIKE ME:
By Ian McEwan
Book club lurker Ian McEwan was once a polarising author – the macabre subject matter of his early work earned him a reputation as a purveyor of filth. This is no longer the case, and modern McEwan is a gift to the level-headed critic (in other words, any critic worth her salt). His work is nicely suited to the kind of indifference required for honest criticism because his work is always measured – not one of literature’s maximalist writers (he is no Faulkner or Nabokov, wildly tearing through pages of cascading sentences), he has a mechanical control.
This is not to say that his writing is boring or lacking a certain ingenuity. The vibrant and fragmented Atonement unfurls slowly but beautifully, and Enduring Love is saturated with an immediate and constant sense of dread. Even his lesser known works, such as Nutshell, are imbued with meticulously constructed narratives that make even notoriously difficult critics – James Wood, for one – kneel before his feet and insist that he is ‘one of the most gifted literary storytellers alive’. But for me, McEwan’s unwillingness to stray from the narrow parameters of realist fiction impedes his work. As such, his work is often good but rarely great.
His latest, Machines Like Me, is sadly not the great novel he has always threatened but is, instead, a rather tepid experience. It is McEwan’s first foray into science fiction, and it signalled a willingness to try new forms, an attempt to reignite his creative spark. Risk-taking, however, is limited and the novel stumbles past without leaving much of a lasting impression.
Thematically, it is promising. Set against a ‘counter-factual’ 1980s London, McEwan constructs a plot with artificial-intelligence at its core. Alan Turing is still alive, and his otherworldly genius has transformed the United Kingdom into a nation slightly more technologically advanced than our own. It capably serves as a foundation for a novel-of-ideas – the kind that McEwan has carved out reliably over the past decade.
It begins to founder beyond the premise. Our bland protagonist, Charlie, buys Adam, an artificial human. He, his (bland) girlfriend, Miranda, and Adam become involved in a love triangle. It is a mostly tedious and predictable plot. Albeit, for the salacious among us, there is some off-screen robo-copulation: ‘the night-air was suddenly penetrated by Miranda’s extended ecstatic scream that tapered to a moan and then a stifled sob’. And for the inquisitive among us there is even an explanation of how it works: ‘His cock fills with distilled water. From a reservoir in his right buttock’. (More on genitalia later.)
Expressions of technosexuality are hardly the primary impulse of this novel, however. And in between scenes of this derivative love triangle, McEwan manages some pages to reflect on consciousness, technology, and the self. Here is where McEwan excels.
Can a machine be conscious, or have a self? Should what a machine believes or does be its own decision to make? The subject of ‘robot ethics’ is intertwined in the plot – if they are conscious beings, then surely artificial humans could exercise ‘their right not to be bought and sold and destroyed,’ and seek ‘their dignity in self-determination’. The novel is predictably set to question whether a machine with intelligence is just that. Charlie starts off sceptical: ‘It seemed my question had lowered his spirits. But within such microprocessors, what spirits?’ Indeed, if we cannot decide if a machine with human intelligence is conscious, how then is it possible to identify actual human consciousness? McEwan stops short of blurring the boundaries too much, but Charlie settles for the notion that cognition has ‘the trick of seeming beyond explanation’. The easy way out.
Formally, there is nothing surprising here. Science fiction past and present has frequently been an incubator for structural experimentation ever since H.G. Wells all but created the genre. Here, McEwan opts for a first-person realist narration, which offers nothing revolutionary. And this is only exacerbated by the depthlessness of the characters. Miranda, Charlie, and Adam all enjoy long, expositional dialogues, and they all sound, you feel, like the novelist. Despite the promises of a counter-factual experience, Machines Like Me remains ontologically stable.
Alongside the main plot, McEwan expands his political panorama, which primarily depicts a battle between Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn. Unfortunately, his alternate reality merely offers some fatuous parallels to our own present day. McEwan makes sure to allude to those youngsters who voted for Jeremy Corbyn (the ‘middle-class students and working class youths’ become enamoured with Tony Benn, who is ‘greeted like a rock star’ at political rallies), and those plebs who voted for Brexit (There is reference to Thatcher’s ‘heroic endeavours to structure the European Single Market’, and the emergence of a ‘fringe political group dedicated to taking Britain out of the European Union’).
Now – hold on – aren’t these things happening in our time?!
Well, yes, and that is about the only purpose these sections serve – functioning as a kind of congratulatory back-pat from the novelist to those shrewd enough to join the dots. And as the novel somnolently churns out more and more pages of this political subplot that nobody asked for, only one question crystallises: So what?
Despite these missteps we still have McEwan’s assured hand to guide us through the novel with sharp, incisive prose. Well, almost. The novel certainly contains brilliant prose fragments, say, on the fragility of anthropocentrism:
Once, we sat enthroned at the centre of the universe, with sun and planets, the entire observable world, turning around us in an ageless dance of worship. Then, in defiance of the priests, heartless astronomy reduced us to an orbiting planet around the sun, just one among other rocks.
But there is always a bizarre remark on the purpose of a young boy’s genitals, for instance, to counteract it: ‘It had been a long time since I’d seen a penis so minuscule, so dedicated to one uncomplicated task’ (I am leaving this without context, which, remarkably, does not really clarify the sentence). The prose falls uncomfortably short too often. And the usually reliable McEwan, the McEwan of Black Dogs and Amsterdam, is absent for long stretches of Machines Like Me.
I mentioned above that a critic should remain level-headed when appraising a book. Here is the problem – it turns out that indifference and boredom can become something like frustration, and in a Sith-like chain of emotions, I have arrived at anger.
Not that McEwan would appreciate that Star Wars reference – or any such rubbish. In recent interviews, he has insisted on his novel being ‘counter-factual’, rather than science fiction, as it does not involve ‘travelling at 10 times the speed of light in antigravity boots’. (I wish it did.) That statement speaks volumes when read alongside Machines Like Me. The novel seems ignorantly unaware of its heritage – entering into very little dialogue with sci-fi precursors (and it is science fiction). For a writer as well-read as McEwan, the text seems to exist in isolation. Intertextual references are next to none, and there’s a distinct feeling that he is treading on well-worn ground without knowing it.
Machines Like Me is not a bad novel. Nor is it good, but somewhere in between. It exists in some literary limbo where the novels of Julian Barnes sulk like abandoned children. And sometimes a middling experience angers more than an outright offensive one. Read some Philip K Dick instead. Because McEwan has managed to make androids – androids – boring.
Machines Like Me
(UK: Jonathan Cape, 2019)
Hardback, pp. 320