Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me, review: Gripping and pleasurably dizzying

McEwan’s latest focuses on a character who might have stumbled into the world of JG Ballard

Philip Womack
Saturday 20 April 2019 15:23 BST

The setting is a drab, divided England that has followed a slightly different path from ours but still subtly reflects our fractious land. “The present is the frailest of improbable constructs,” muses Charlie, the narrator. “Any part of it, or all of it, could be otherwise.” The Falklands War has been lost, and Tony Benn is a Jeremy Corbyn-like figure, adored at mass rallies. Crucially, Alan Turing has survived, becoming the father of a new leap into the technological future. Driverless cars, the internet, mobile phones: it’s all here, but it’s the 1980s.

Charlie might have stumbled in from a JG Ballard novel. He’s bourgeois, with radical leanings, and an expert in electronics (which allows much subtle humour throughout), but has no real purpose in his life. Ian McEwan plays with us: a character should have purpose, but from where does that purpose derive? On a whim, and with an inheritance from his mother, Charlie purchases a top-of-the-range, remarkably lifelike android called, somewhat unsurprisingly, Adam. He’s one of several, both male and female, that have been expensively unleashed upon the world.

When Charlie unboxes Adam he compares the android to Botticelli’s Venus, and his naked, slumbering body is examined in detail. This homoerotic aspect isn’t fully developed. Charlie, we learn, wasn’t able to get one of the Eves, many of which have ended up in the Middle East. His real love interest lies upstairs, in the flesh-and-blood person of Miranda (O brave new world!), a graduate student, whom Charlie soon involves in the calibration of Adam’s personality. This leads to complications: how, as Adam observes, can he serve two masters?

While there is plenty of humour, such as Adam’s terrible haikus (“In her loving look/ a whole universe contained./ Love the universe!”), McEwan also explores the potentially terrifying aspects of having an intelligent walking laptop in your house. Able to access all kinds of records, Adam can accurately predict people’s behaviours based on what they’ve done before. It’s a million times worse than Alexa quietly recording what you say. What Adam decides can affect your life for the worse.

Soon, news filters in from the other androids. Some appear to have taken their own lives; one has reset his mind to a state of stupidity. Able only to be Procrustean, they cannot reconcile humanity’s many failings. There are echoes here of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (and it’s interesting to note that soon Jeanette Winterson’s reboot, Frankisstein, will hit the shelves). One is also reminded of the clones in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, searching for meaning.

At one point, Charlie is mistaken for his robotic companion, and the plot strands also interweave and mirror each other. The major complications are intensely moral, based on the most ancient literary form there is (the act of revenge). An ethically knotty problem in Miranda’s past threatens to resurface, destablising the security that she and Charlie had hoped to find for themselves. They want to adopt a child, Mark, whose mother is a drug addict; but children, to androids, are astonishing in their powers of learning and adaptation. Adam’s reaction to these matters provides the book’s tense, resonant climax. What motivates Adam? Is it jealousy or justice? And how can an algorithm be true to the mess of human ambiguities?

In Machines Like Me, McEwan is grappling, still, with the novel qua novel. He marries a gripping plot, handled with rarefied skill and dexterity, to a deep excavation of the narrowing gap between the canny and the uncanny, leaving the reader pleasurably dizzied, and marvelling at human existence.

Machines Like Me is published by Jonathan Cape, £18.99

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