Books

Twists and turns

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 17.05.2019

A ménage à trois with a difference. That is the set-up at the heart of Ian McEwan’s latest novel. Machines like me takes you by surprise right from the start, when it conjures up an alternative 1982. Yes, the Falklands war takes place, but instead of Margaret Thatcher’s belligerence leading to both personal and political triumph, it all ends in disaster for Britain. 3 000 British soldiers are killed and the Falklands become Las Malvinas. Tony Benn soon takes over as Prime Minister – only to die when the Provisional IRA target the Labour party conference hotel in Brighton.

In an interview with Andrew Marr on Radio 4 McEwan discussed his fascination with the very nature of history. Events could so easily have taken an altogether different direction, he claims, even though history books make developments look inevitable and almost natural. He argues that chance is a key factor in the whole process. Or as Charlie Friend, the book’s narrator, puts it: “The present is the frailest of improbable constructs. It could have been different. Any part of it, or all of it, could be otherwise.”

This fascination makes McEwan not only explore counterfactual options. He also has his fictional characters meet historical figures. Thus, in many ways, the hero of Machines like me is Alan Turing.

The latter was to enter history books as a tragic figure, a patriot who played a key role in cracking intercepted coded messages coming from Nazi Germany and helped shorten World War II, but who then fell victim to national bigotry and the medical cruelty with which homosexuality was “treated” in the 1950s. He died in 1954.

In the novel, however, “Sir” Alan Turing has been given a statue in Whitehall and is at the forefront of the technological revolution Britain is going through during the 1980s. His work in AI has been central to the manufacturing of androids: twelve Adams and 13 Eves are made and swiftly sold all over the world: “a creation myth made real”. These cousins from the future are meant to be better versions of ourselves. They learn social skills and amass data at spectacular speed.

As soon as he owns serious money, Charlie Friend becomes the proud – though at times also rather confused and anxious – owner of one of those synthetic humans. Most of the comic moments in the novel derive from the interaction between Charlie, Miranda, the upstairs neighbour who he starts a relationship with, and Adam, the robot.

When a dark secret hidden away in Miranda’s past is revealed, it appears that Adam’s way of reasoning will never get close to understanding human behaviour. He cannot accept the contradictions which make us who we are. There is no space for empathy either – at least not if he has to stick to the way he has been programmed.

As a result, Adam, who has been advertised as a friend and factotum and comes with a 470-page online handbook, causes havoc. Perhaps Charlie and Miranda are simply not ready for this disturbing though eerily familiar presence! At the same time, McEwan raises wider questions about machine consciousness and the robot age that many predict we are about to enter. His depiction is sceptical. It is miles away from the type of celebratory article we have all read about humanoid robots helping out in Japanese nursing homes.

What is a conscious machine? And what will happen once robots do most of the jobs done by humans? How will we cope with all that extra leisure time? Who knows…

The pacing of Machines like me is brilliant, with the lecturing bits merely helping raise the stakes. They do draw striking parallels between then and now, i.e. between a divided counterfactual 1980s Britain and the stalemate Brexit has been conjuring up over the last three years. Just watch Adam come out of the debris of his packaging like Botticelli’s Venus rising from the shell! McEwan’s tongue-in-cheek humour sets the tone.

Ian McEwan: Machines like me, Jonathan Cape, 2019 (ISBN 978-1-787-33166-2)

Janine Goedert
© 2019 d’Lëtzebuerger Land