I raced through Machines Like Me. The narrative was gripping and enriched by a sense of foreboding. It always felt as though something dark might be around the corner (and their often was), but the novel never quite descended into the dystopian ‘machine gone wrong’ tale that I had expected. Having never read anything by McEwan before, the suspenseful and evolving plot was a real highlight.
Set in a counter-factual London of 1982 – one in which technology is anachronistically advanced, the Falklands War has been lost, and Alan Turing is alive and celebrated as the patriarch of AI – the novel charts a love-triangle between two humans and a humanoid robot named Adam. The narrator, Charlie Friend, is a thirty-something technology enthusiast who avoids full-time employment by making incremental profits on the stock market. Unable to inhibit his curiosity, he spends his inheritance on a cutting-edge robot named Adam. Deeply in love with Miranda, a social history student living above his North Clapham flat, Charlie envisages that co-parenthood of their proto-child will bring the two closer together, but Adam is soon romantically drawn towards Miranda, and vice versa.
“As Schopenhauer said about free will, you can choose whatever you desire, but you’re not free to choose your desires”.
McEwan tackles a multitude of themes (consciousness, political factionalism, historic recurrence, the complexity of human relationships) but his deliberations on morality are central. Although Adam is meticulously programmed to behave as if human, he struggles to comprehend man’s flawed ethic, and this leads to his demise. Openly in love with Miranda, he is compelled to indict her at the conclusion of the novel, confident that the sense of justice will liberate her. In contrast, human characters repeatedly allow emotions (love, rage, revenge) to overpower ethical considerations. Adam is not alone in suffering from a realisation that humanness equates with imperfection. He is one of thirteen ‘Adams’ and twelve ‘Eves’ who are sold to the public, and we read how a handful of the androids effectively self-implode when they fail to reconcile humanity’s failings. One is compelled to sympathise with the cyborgs.
The ethical dilemmas don’t stop with Adam. Miranda tells how her childhood best friend, Mariam, was raped by a boy named Gorringe at their school. She pledges Miranda to secrecy and then later commits suicide. In response, Miranda keeps the secret but later orchestrates an elaborate plot to get Gorringe convicted on a false rape charge. Where does this position the novel’s heroine? The tragic story of Mark, a child placed into care who Miranda and Charlie plan on adopting, is another interesting sub-plot, and allows McEwan to take aim at the endless bureaucracy and general inadequacy of social services.
In spite of the sections on AI and some of Adam’s philosophical meanderings, the prose is generally limpid and transparent. Characters are well-constructed and complex. Charlie is a technology whizz and devout lover, but he is also avaricious, self-indulgent and uninspiring; Miranda is compassionate – a dedicated student, daughter and friend, but also harbours a dark secret. Their relationship mutates over the course of the novel, and it is never quite clear if Adam’s love is fully reciprocated.