A review of Machines Like Me (Jonathan Cape, 2019).
Are science-fiction and literature mutually exclusive? That would depend, surely, on the author’s priority. To write a nine-hundred page novel miming the consciousness of an Irish Jew, on a single day of his life in Dublin, 1904, filtered through literary parody and wordplay, the introduction of robots and time-machines is mere cruelty. There is already enough for the reader to comprehend. On the other hand, should one write about time-machines, the language should be lucid enough for the reader to grasp a wholly fantastical concept (my example is a poor one: the precise nature of H.G. Wells’s time-machine, as he describes it, remains an obscurity). But the tendency to plain language in science-fiction often includes plain conventions: witness the bimbo and the safari-suited villain of J.G. Ballard’s debut novel The Drowned World; go back and count the number of clichés in Orwell’s 1984. Let us move out to another genre, and observe the sometimes-clunky operations of a John Le Carre novel. But, then, James Joyce could not write about spies so well.
It is all a matter of degrees, and there are some beautiful exceptions to these trends. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, for example, and the works of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, treat the fantastical through literary experimentation, without compromising their highly-wrought prose styles. I wonder if it is these authors to whom Ian McEwan recently referred when he claimed no debt to the science-fiction genre in writing his latest novel, Machines Like Me (2019).
Of course, by representing an artificial intelligence – an artificial consciousness – McEwan’s novel contains fictional science. Thirty-something narrator Charlie, drifting through life on an inheritance, playing the game of stock-trading for extra keep, purchases with his nest-egg a first-edition artificial human being, aptly named Adam (and although Adam was ‘not a sex-toy’, the Eves, he notes glumly, were sold out within the week). The novel is Ian McEwan’s fifteenth, and the opening passage rolls with the same drum and thunder as his novels always have done:
In the autumn of the twentieth-century, it came about at last, the first step towards the fulfilment of an ancient dream, the beginning of a long lesson we would teach ourselves that however complicated we were, however faulty and difficult to describe in even our simplest actions and modes of being, we could be imitated and bettered. And I was there as a young man, an early and eager adopter in that chilly dawn.
Note the date. McEwan recreates a past that serves in many ways as an allegory for the present. It is the early 1980s, and this time around Margaret Thatcher’s Falklands War ends in defeat. The British public treat her with some sympathy, before electing Tony Benn’s Labour Party. ‘The present is the frailest of improbable constructs,’ Charlie observes. He imagines a world in which the United States had taken to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. It is with such considerations as this that the sinister ironies work best; at other times, such as when Prime Minister Benn announces the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, that we feel McEwan wishes to write a Brexit novel.
Meanwhile, thanks to the discoveries of Sir Alan Turing, who survives his untimely death and becomes a character in the novel, a technological revolution occurs way in advance of our own day. For £85,000, we can purchase our own servant, slave, and search-engine; our own friend, or lover, perfected to our selfish needs. Charlie decides to program half of Adam’s personality, and allow his friend and sometimes-lover Miranda to program the other half. No doubt McEwan had Prospero’s daughter in mind when he named this character. Miranda taught Caliban how to name the bigger light and how the less, raising his consciousness above that of an animal. As one of the great poetic inventors of human consciousness, Shakespeare is an interesting thematic concern in the novel, which I shall come to.
Others have already identified McEwan as a master of tension-building, of intricate relations between secret-sharers and sufferers of trauma. The love-triangle that develops between Charlie, Miranda and Adam is also subtly unnerving. By handing half of Adam’s consciousness over to Miranda, Charlie make him a more authentic ‘person’, which is to say that there is much about Adam that he cannot fathom, because it has been decided according to the tastes of his ‘secretive’ girlfriend, with her ‘inability to ask for help, her trick of getting it anyway, and of never being held to account’. Humans and robots at least have this much in common.
The setting-up of the novel, which constitutes the first half, belongs to the essayistic tradition; there is very little visual description in the novel, but instead the narrator examines the impact Adam makes on his life. How fortunate that, as a work-from-home stock-trader, Charlie has ample time to make his observations and queries. Lucky for us, too, that he is a student of anthropology, and once wrote a book about artificial intelligence. But this is a familiar McEwan tactic: employ your characters appropriately, and educate them in literature, music, and scientific theory. They are going to need it.
For a writer who wishes to eschew genre conventions, McEwan’s plotting often strays close to melodramatic. The middle act introduces a false-rape accusation, a vengeful ex-convict, and an orphan child from a broken home. Miranda’s backstory, told by her at length and broken up with stage-directions (‘She paused and swallowed hard before starting again’), is one of the weakest passages of a McEwan novel since the protagonist of Enduring Love acquired a handgun from a den of thieves. This, along with the Brexit backdrop, needlessly obstructs what holds our fascination and engages us: Adam.
The novel remains ambivalent about whether an Adam’s artificial consciousness is in fact as authentic as ours, or whether a biological and artificial consciousness are both equally pre-determined. ‘What could it mean, to say that he was thinking? Sifting through remote memory banks? Logic gates flashing open and closed? Precedents retrieved, then compared, rejected or stored? Without self-awareness, it wouldn’t be thinking at all so much as data-processing’. Is this not, indeed, how a brain of flesh functions?
The true tension within the novel is the unease with which Charlie regards his new slave: stronger, ruthlessly logical, and boundlessly intelligent, with an increasing self-awareness and sense of dignity. One moment, Adam is a devoted lover; in the next, he is an advocate for the extinction of our race. But again, is this not a natural human temperament? Towards the end of the novel, there is an ingenious case of mistaken identity that is worthy of Jane Austen, and reminds us that McEwan is the ideal novelist for this subject. He has shown, in Saturday and The Children Act among others, an ability to render the technical, the scientific, the unliterary, through a steely, precise, unrelenting prose-style, which is as muscular as it is ironic.
In Machines Like Me, McEwan pitches a familiar battle between the reason and the irrational, just as he has done before in the novels already mentioned in this review. Adam, the ‘ambulant laptop’, with his wholly-rounded understanding of justice and the rule of law, threatens Charlie and Miranda’s happiness. A biological human’s understanding of the situation might factor in the emotion of empathy and an understanding of the compromises made in the human world. Not Adam, with his ‘utopian’ vision of society, in which connectivity enables an ‘ocean of thought’, a ‘community of minds’, dispensing with the individual, and by implication, all forms of deceit. And so it seems, McEwan’s latest novel prefers the analogue functioning of emotion and unreason, woven into the fabric of the human brain.
This notion of McEwan’s makes one particular aspect of the novel puzzling. I have already said that with every McEwan novel, there is somebody nearby who is educated in science and literature. In Machines, it is Adam who immerses himself in the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Montaigne, the metaphysical poets, and Philip Larkin. As brilliant as he is, Larkin seems too provincial for a data-processor to consume, but of course Larkin has informed McEwan’s style for decades. Eventually, Adam develops a taste for haikus, ‘the literary form of the future,’ perhaps because, as Charlie suggests, they can be easily churned out by an algorithm.
But as for Shakespeare and Montaigne, Renaissance masters who contributed to the humanist’s conception of the self, and the self in relation to the cosmos, their appeal to Adam is less clear, even if they factor into his own concerns. ‘Was ever a mind,’ asks Adam of Hamlet, ‘a particular consciousness, better represented?’ Yet, are we convinced that a data-processing machine’s conception of the self would share anything in common with Shakespeare’s strongly-individual creations? McEwan’s conclusion, that it would, seems naïve. Artificial intelligence will surely usher in a new understanding of our relationship to the cosmos, one that will abolish, not identify with, our current notions of ‘humanity’. It is as yet too weird for us to fathom, although the philosopher John Gray recommends that we turn to pre-Christian, pre-humanist literature, such as Homer’s epic poems, for a picture of what that world might look like. McEwan’s evident faith in liberal humanism, which is crumbling even in the political backdrop of his own novel, means that, along with the appended short story, ‘Dussel’, it can glimpse but fleetingly at the coming strangeness of a world without ‘humans’.