Ian McEwan: An alternative history of the future of humanity

Machines Like Me has a fantastic setting but very real political and social preoccupations

Ian McEwan: ‘The moment the Tories called a referendum and urged us to take sides in their 40-year civil war, we had a nervous breakdown.’ Photograph: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty

Ian McEwan: ‘The moment the Tories called a referendum and urged us to take sides in their 40-year civil war, we had a nervous breakdown.’ Photograph: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty

 

“The present is the frailest of improbable constructs,” says the narrator of Ian McEwan’s 16th novel Machines Like Me. “It could have been different. Any part of it, or all of it, could be otherwise.”

In the author’s house down a quiet mews in London’s Bloomsbury, he makes tea as I set up my equipment for our interview, and the present political moment can’t help but invade our friendly small talk about books. What has he been reading recently? He loves Sally Rooney’s Normal People, he tells me, admiring especially what he calls the “clever rhetorical trick” of how she merges the thoughts of protagonists Marianne and Connell. The prose is “very fine, approachable and easily absorbed, but nicely overladen with emotional frit”.

On souped-up multi-strain creative nonfiction he’s not so keen. “I want some invention: to be stretched in that way.” But he likes the autofiction of Knausgaard, I’ve read somewhere. He’s “compelling in his thoroughness” but can be overwhelming. “One day I’d say I can’t take any more of this, and the next day read 100 pages. It’s a bit like Brexit coverage,” he tells me. “I don’t care how much I hate it; I’ve got to have more of it.”

Remainers don’t send death and rape threats as easily as Brexiters. A Remainer has not yet stabbed a Brexiter MP in the street. I think we’ve been the herbivores in this

When we speak we are in the hinterland between one of UK prime minister’s Theresa May’s many feints, stalls and threats in the process of exiting the EU. I ask McEwan whether he thinks Brexit’s having politicised a generation will be ultimately a good or bad thing for art-making.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I think the cultural consequences are already profound in that we are going to resemble the United States. A land with two cultures that won’t speak to each other. The moment the Tories called a referendum and urged us to take sides in their 40-year civil war, we had a nervous breakdown. And it’s very hard to get out of it at the moment.”

In his clipped tenor, McEwan relays an imagined chain of events in which the UK gets itself out of this breakdown. “If we have a second referendum, which is what I hope parliament will push for, Remain will win but narrowly. The other half will feel betrayed. We’re better behaved, I think,” he says about the Remain side. “We don’t send death and rape threats as easily as Brexiters. A Remainer has not yet stabbed a Brexiter MP in the street. I think we’ve been the herbivores in this.”

The world of his new novel has been built out of a chain of circumstances that are at once optimistic and difficult: a counterfactual timeline that sits alongside our known political history. Alan Turing, having chosen prison over chemical castration as punishment for homosexual activity, didn’t become depressed and kill himself in 1954. Instead he invented the internet decades early, was awarded a knighthood, and is known for his contribution to Aids awareness and treatment. John Lennon and John F Kennedy were never assassinated. The Americans never dropped a nuclear bomb and Margaret Thatcher, after thousands of British troops are killed on their way to the Falklands, responds to military defeat with “the famous ‘I take it on my shoulders’ speech”.

And when Labour icon Tony Benn beats Thatcher in a snap general election, he sets in motion a departure from the EU. Only tyrants “decide things by plebiscite”, he says. This goes to parliament, not the people. Does McEwan agree with this fictional Benn? “No,” he laughs. “It’s my projection of what Benn might have said. I think referendums are fine if you have a simple yes/no answer. Shall we have an alternative vote system, say. But the answers to Brexit are teeming, and can’t be reduced to a binary response.

“To come closer to Machines Like Me, I think a good part of anxiety about immigration is misplaced anxiety about automation. You can run a car factory on 100 people now, not 2,000. It isn’t the fault of Poles and Lithuanians. There’s a much more important looming problem for all technologically developed societies: what are we going to do with everyone? It includes white-collar work too: clerical jobs, lawyers’ jobs, medical jobs. Ultimately Brexit has a lot to do with AI somewhere in the background.”

Technically, McEwan’s novels often achieve the level of neatness and elegance which their left-brain characters often profess to admire in famous scientific equations

To reduce the Booker winner’s career to the familiar march of preoccupations, he was fashionable in the 1970s and 1980s for books that dwelt on brutality and psychosexual aberrations: incest, animals trained to rape humans, necrophilia, dismemberment. From here he became the respected (and respectable) laureate of trauma, guilt, tension and trickery. His highly intelligent narrators, often at the top of their fields, give over pages to explaining Einstein, photovoltaics, John Keats, John Milton, probability, string quartets, Darwin, the structure of DNA, family law and solar energy, without alienating his popular readership.

His books have lent themselves successfully to the screen (last year adaptations of both On Chesil Beach and The Children Act were released). Technically, they often achieve the level of neatness and elegance which their left-brain characters often profess to admire in famous scientific equations. They have for a long time been grounded in the political moments of their setting, but creeping in, every couple of books or so, has been an urgent modern worry. Climate change, post 9/11 politics, artificial intelligence.

Machines Like Me is set in a fictional 1980s that is like our present, and is described by the narrator as “the digital age”. Emails have been around 40 years; “Brain-machine interfacing” has been long surpassed and disregarded as a product of the 1960s. Like today, every latest advance is novel for a second before being outstripped. It’s a hyper version of our own advancement, like the trains of McEwan’s world-making which travel at 250mph.

“The future kept arriving,” says narrator Charlie Friend, a directionless man in his early 30s who buys one of the first plausible artificial humans, known as “Adams”. In a bid to get closer to his upstairs neighbour Miranda, he allows her to help create Adam’s personality. This synthetic man’s developing interest in Miranda and friendship with Charlie don’t prevent him from struggling with their slippery human moral decision-making, or setting himself up against it.

The novel grew, McEwan tells me, out of a lifetime of interest in the subject. He wrote a play called The Imitation Game (“long before that movie,” he says), which was broadcast on the BBC in 1980. For research he spoke to women who worked the Turing machines.

“I was sitting on material that no one else had because it had all just come off the Official Secrets List. Even those women were reluctant to talk to me until I showed them newspaper clippings that gave them permission. One of them said she’d never even told her husband what she did in the war. ‘And I don’t think I could tell him now,’ she said. ‘he’d be so upset if he discovered that my war was more important than his.’”

I wanted to explore morally what it would be like to deal with an entirely plausible human being who seemed to have a whole range of sentience and subjectivity and consciousness

Since then, McEwan has kept up with the false starts and more recent strides in artificial intelligence. “Today we’re in the golden age of programming, and I wanted to write not a sci-fi novel but a literary novel with the impulse to explore morally what it would be like for us to be dealing with an entirely plausible human being who seemed to have a whole range of sentience and subjectivity and consciousness. We’ve a way to go, but it is beginning to intrude on our lives. We’ve recently lost 400 people to AI.”

He is referring to the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air crashes which resulted in Boeing grounding its 737 Max model until June. “Imagine yourself 10,000m off the ground,” McEwan says. “The plane’s brain is being informed by sense data that it’s stalling. The pilot can’t persuade it otherwise.You’re flying in an autonomous vehicle, even though airlines don’t like to call them that.”

Before meeting McEwan, I read an old TLS interview in which he predicted that “Some brilliant person, currently just starting at primary school, will emerge to astound the world with a novel about androids and why they must be granted full human rights and protection under the law.” But now, it seems, he’d covered exactly that proposed terrain himself. What will these future novelists write about instead? Might they not move in the direction of identity politics? This is a topic on which McEwan has seen to be slightly controversial.

In 2016’s novel Nutshell, his in utero narrator lamented the “almost-educated young” who are “angry at times, but mostly needful, longing for authority’s blessing, its validation of its chosen identities”. He’s also been criticised by campaigners for comments about people’s right to choose their gender.

“This is a kind of identity politics,” McEwan says about AI. “It will have reverberations for all kinds of identity politics. Who are we really, and if we make artificial humans, what sexual orientations and identities do we want to give them?”

Adam, McEwan’s android, at one point in the novel identifies that most of literature is about human failure. Machines, he says optimistically, will perfect these failings

Earlier in our conversation he told me about his short story Dussel, which he wrote to steel himself for the novel. It is about the future integration and interchangeability of real and synthetic humans. In this world, it would be intrusive and uncaring to ask someone if they are real.

“I’d like to think we’d cover the spectrum of identities. Though some people have found identity politics oppressive, I think its ultimate consequence will be enriching. Once everyone can relax about it: people who have identities which challenge certain orthodoxies, and everyone else who feels challenged by this. Let’s have as much diversity as we can and get on with it. At the moment it’s troubled and antagonistic. But I think AI will interestingly fulfil all those questions of identity.”

But will it fulfil questions of moral worth? Adam, McEwan’s android, at one point in the novel identifies that most of literature is about human failure. Machines, he says optimistically, will make good on this and perfect these failings. They will also connect humans’ brains, enabling them to understand each other. With AI, does McEwan see a palpable danger that literature might be diluted by morally perfect beings?

“If only,” he says. “I don’t think we’ll be out of work because everyone suddenly understands everyone else. Understanding each other might just be the beginning of our troubles.”

Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan, is published by Jonathan Cape

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