Machines Like Me sees Ian McEwan tackle a genre about which he evidently knows very little – speculative and science fiction – and it has to be admitted that he doesn’t fall completely flat on his face, although the most interesting aspects of this novel have only a tenuous relationship to artificial intelligence. There are actually two speculative conceits at work in Machines Like Me, though only one is obvious from the cover. Firstly, McEwan imagines a world in which robots which fully pass the ‘Turing test’ of sentience have been built, and, bizarrely, have been sold commercially for private use with seemingly few safeguards. These machines certainly don’t obey Asimov’s First Law of Robotics (‘a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, cause a human being to come to harm’) although, interestingly, they may be working with a version of the Second Law (‘A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law’) which would explain the seeming rebelliousness of these creations.
Secondly, this is all taking place in an alternative version of the 1980s, whose political history becomes increasingly satisfying as it moves outwards from its starting-point of Thatcher losing the Falklands War. McEwan enjoys himself sketching deliberate parallels to current politics, using Tony Benn as a Corbyn figure who gives an inspiring speech to huge crowds in Hyde Park then wins a snap election foolishly called by Thatcher as, like May, she struggles to hold on with a tiny majority of MPs (in this alternative reality, she’s also introduced the poll tax early, which has further hollowed out her support). I had fun reading all of this, but frankly, it serves little purpose in the novel itself other than to provide a background for the most plot-significant ripple effect: Alan Turing is still alive and his insights were instrumental in developing the sentient robots (though, like Einstein with the nuclear bomb, he is not happy about this).
Much of the novel, however, is taken up by the simple human story of its two central characters: Charlie, an aimless man in his early thirties who makes ends meet by speculating on the stock markets (a historical piece that remains firmly in place) and Miranda, his lover, a PhD student in her early twenties who is hiding something from him. The plot ostensibly kicks off when Charlie purchases Adam, one of the first robot prototypes, whom he installs in his flat as a kind of friend and servant. However, he’s slow to get to know Adam and to realise his potential. Because of this, Machines Like Me is very sluggish to start; the first half is slow, and says nothing about artificial intelligence that SF readers won’t have encountered before.
McEwan comes more into his own in the second half of the novel, which consists largely of a series of set-pieces, his consistent strength as a novelist. An immensely enjoyable scene when Miranda introduces Adam and Charlie to her father and her father assumes that Charlie is the robot could have stood to be even longer; while a final confrontation with Turing addresses some of the obvious moral issues that are weirdly ignored in earlier chapters. Nevertheless, I wasn’t convinced by the ending: while avoiding spoilers, the way Adam conceives of his ‘self’ didn’t seem to square with the moral burden that Charlie and Miranda end up carrying. This book did not make me cross, which is more than I can say for the last three McEwan novels I read (Saturday, Sweet Tooth, The Children Act); but it’s not really doing anything new. McEwan uses robots here as a device to explore some of his familiar preoccupations – culpability, moral responsibility and moral relativity – but just as the robot seems to have something to say on these issues, he throws it away.