Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan
Published by Nan A. Talese
Publication date: April 23, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Literary, Science Fiction
It’s 1986 and the first artificial intelligence humans are for sale in London. Only 25 have been made and Charlie Friend decides he has to have one. Why is not quite clear except that he wrote a book about AI and has always been fascinated by Alan Turing and his contributions to the field. It’s much like the rest of his life, flitting from one thing to the next without much thought or effort. He’s tried a number of careers, but none have quite panned out so at 32 he lives in a small apartment and ekes out a living as a day trader. He sells his family home to buy Adam. Charlie and Adam’s relationship and what happens when AI collides with the human mind is at the heart of Ian McEwan’s new novel, Machines Like Me.
Before us sat the ultimate plaything, the dream of ages, the triumph of humanism—or its angel of death.
When Adam arrives, he comes with software forms that need to be filled out to sculpt his personality to his owner’s wishes. Charlie doesn’t want Adam to be either a replica of himself or the exact opposite, so he asks his neighbor Miranda to fill out half of the forms. She’s a good friend, but Charlie hopes for more. Their relationship progresses as does Adam’s role in their ‘family. His start is not an auspicious one. Shortly after being powered up he tells Charlie that Miranda cannot be trusted because she is a “malicious liar”.
What starts as a novel with a science fiction-ish feel (AI exists but we’re not there yet) expands rapidly into a vast array of fields. McEwan enhances the sci-fi feel by mixing up accepted period markers and facts so that even though it is only the 1980s there are already driverless cars, Jimmy Carter is a two-term president, a fictional British Prime Minister is assassinated, and Great Britain wants to leave the EU. With all of this going on, plus Miranda’s backstory, Machines Like Me could turn into sludge but, for the most part, each new element flows easily into the story. Extended sections on the Falklands War is the only area I really struggled with, possibly because I’m not British, but it felt extraneous until this sentence about a new weapon, a guided missile:
This fearsome weapon, once fired from a jet in the general direction of a ship, could recognize its profile and decide mid-flight whether it was hostile or friendly.
This comes to feel like significant foreshadowing in what lies ahead for Charlie and Adam. In the beginning, there is the natural wonder in being presented with a machine that looks like a human but processes the world, theories, history…everything, at rates humans cannot. Within weeks Adam goes from being sluggish to understanding complicated physics theorems and being able to quote any of Shakespeare’s works. What is unexpected is that he falls in love. With Miranda. This despite his initial statement about her and the fact that she is Charlie’s girlfriend.
McEwan is intensely cerebral making Machines Like Me is a very different experience from my recent reading. There isn’t the action of Miracle Creek or the emotion of Normal People. Instead, there is an incisive and swift probing into topics like truth, personal responsibility, and justice. And areas we’ve not yet had to consider, such as if synthetic humans are sentient what rights do they have? Is a lie acceptable if it rectifies a crime? What is the self?
It’s in these questions that McEwan goes deep on the difference between the laser sharpness of a synthetic brain and the even more complex but infinitely less logical human mind. He compounds a feeling of being off-balance by pursuing these weighty questions with characters who shift between relatable and unlikable, making right and wrong harder to identify. The reader is forced to think and more importantly, to question beliefs that may not hold up as we move into an age of technological advances far beyond our imagining.