Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan review: a baggy and jumbled narrative
McEwan shrewdly touches upon the intricacies of artificial intelligence
3d rendering android robot thinking in office
Machines Like Me
Ian McEwan is one of our most venerated living writers who garnered eminence for his earlier books Atonement and The Cement Garden in which he explored dark themes and depicted moral ambiguity at its most visceral.
However, lately his stories have veered towards broader themes, addressing how political and social environment impacts personal life.
Machines Like Me attempts to coalesce both the themes. The story is set in an alternate 1980s England- Margaret Thatcher is now Prime Minister, the British are about to lose the Falklands War, JFK survived his assassination attempt, the four Beatles are all the rage and Turing is not only still alive, but his algorithms have propelled technology and AI to the extent that androids have been brought into existence.
Charlie is an aimless 32-year-old who, on an impulse, spends his inheritance on purchasing the “first truly viable manufactured human with plausible intelligence and looks,”. These first in line androids comprise of twelve Adams and thirteen Eves. This is very much like designing your own customisable human where you can choose the degree of each desirable personality trait across the full gamut of human personality. The only evidence for his automated existence is the “kill switch” on the nape of his neck which essentially works as a power off button.
Charlie splits the task of reprogramming Adam with Miranda, his neighbour, as a romantic overture as each of them provide half of the “personality parameters” to catapult Adam on his life as a human.
As Adam acclimates to his “humanity”, he soon begins to exercise his free will that leads to a situation where Charlie reflects on “being the first to be cuckolded by an artefact’. Charlie eventually has to get in touch with Turing to share his grievances about Adam which include declaration of love for Miranda, joking about removing his arm and disabling of the kill switch.
One detail the book gets right is the ways in which androids, no matter how advanced or finely tuned, are bereft of moral sophistication. They are created with self awareness and intelligence and pushed out into our imperfect world. When they witness appalling injustice, violence and several other outrages, they are unable to integrate that with the happiness that coexists in such a world. We, however, “have lived with them and the list wearies us.”
Soon enough, there are reports of other Adams and Eves around the world choosing to destroy their own mind or “fade” of their own volition.They end up suffering an existential pain, having failed to apprehend the horrors of our world, which we have become accustomed to, and opt to end their existence.
This is sagaciously put by Turing as “...they or their succeeding generations will be driven by their anguish and astonishment to hold up a mirror to us. In it, we’ll see a familiar monster through the fresh eyes we ourselves designed.” The novel is at its strongest when highlighting this ethical dilemma with unnerving pathos, in which tables are turned and machines exhibit more humanity than humans.
The intricacies of artificial intelligence are also shrewdly touched upon. Adam is a sentient being who is eerily aware of his artificial beginnings. At one point, Charlie asks Adam about his earliest memories. Adam tells him that they involve the feel of the chair he was sitting in when he was being charged for the first time. He later casually remarks that the manufacturers initially wanted to plant credible childhood memories to make these androids fit in with everyone else but he is glad that they changed their mind. “I wouldn’t have liked to start out with a false story, an attractive delusion. At least I know what I am, and where and how I was constructed.”This complacency is a bit disturbing and is more than most humans can say about themselves.
There is a sense that the themes of morality and AI that McEwan delves in have been addressed before in much more stimulating ways in recent literary fiction
McEwan seems to have exhaustively researched Alan Turing before writing this book but the problem is that he insists on detailing all his research on the slightest pretext. This proclivity extends to other topics as well, specially when it comes to the robot. Adam is a philosophical entity and goes at length to ruminate on every topic, no matter how trivial. The narrative digresses frequently on lengthy insights about the mind, science and society. For instance in one scene Charlie is waiting at a clinic which leads to a two page pontification into the historical background of germs.
The story takes a few unnecessary detours, resulting in a baggy and jumbled narrative. Miranda’s complicated past with a Pakistani girl, Mariam, is brought to light which then extends into a long story of vengeance that controversially addresses violence against women and how they are judged for it.Then there is a chance encounter with Mark,a young boy who is a victim of neglectful parenting, and who Miranda wants to eventually adopt. One would be hard pressed to find any reason why Miranda, a 22-year-old student would suddenly become interested in co-parenting a child with a financially stable 32-year-old.
It is equally confounding why McEwan decided to base his futuristic tale of the warped relationship between humans and machines in an alternate past - 1980s. With a few key changes in the political scenario, this world seems to be exactly the same except for rising inflation and unemployment.
There is a sense that the themes of morality and AI that McEwan delves in have been addressed before in much more stimulating ways in recent literary fiction, Iain Reid’s brilliantly disturbing Foe comes to mind. However, the novel still asks a few provocative questions regarding the future of AI, and consequently, of humanity.
When Charlie is programming Adam’s personality parameters, he ruminates that “...a lot of life is lived in the neutral zone, a familiar garden, but a grey one, unremarkable, immediately forgotten, hard to describe.” Same could be said for this novel.