Artificial Adam

Cover of Ian McEwans' Machines Like Me showing the bust of an artificial looking man.

Machines like Me by Ian McEwan

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Since I recently finished Kazuo Ishiguro‘s Klara and the Sun and found it disappointing, I figured why not jump right into Ian McEwan‘s Machines like Me, another literary novel about artificial people? McEwan’s effort received more mixed reviews than Ishiguro’s, so I wasn’t expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Charlie, drifting through life in his early thirties, has in interest in robots and AI. So when the first artificial people come up for sale, he blows his inheritance to buy one. He really wants to buy an Eve, but gets an Adam instead because there are no Eves available. Charlie wants to win over Miranda, his upstairs neighbor who is ten years younger than him, and figures he can do so by involving her in this project. She seems game, and they split the task of answering the questions that create Adam’s character. Charlie doesn’t know Miranda very well and has no idea how she has answered the questions, so it’s never clear which traits come from whom, or whether Adam is just developing these characteristics on his own–kind of like a child, which is part of the point.

McEwan is at his best when he creates insoluble problems for his characters, and you know there’s going to be trouble when the first thing Charlie notices is his how well-built and well-endowed Adam is. For anyone who’s read any science fiction or seen any movies (i.e., everyone), it’ll be no surprise that Adam doesn’t develop as Charlie would expect or wish, and the entanglements that ensue between the three main characters are deliciously twisted. For those of you who’ve never read an Ian McEwan book, if there’s a dark place to go, he will go there.

Miranda is also harboring a secret, which Adam hints at from the start, as he has instant access to the vast reservoir of information on the internet. This creates further moral quandaries, and the complications keep multiplying from there.

McEwan is playing with a lot of themes in this book. It takes place in an alternate 1980s, in which Alan Turing did not die in 1952 after being prosecuted for homosexual acts, but rather served his time and became a national hero as he spurred the development of artificial intelligence. There’s a lot of exposition about politics and historical events that doesn’t seem all that necessary, but it also serves to disorient you when events such as the Falklands War turn out very differently. Aside from a clumsy red herring at the end of the book, I didn’t mind it, and some was fun to imagine, like the Beatles getting back together and releasing another album. McEwan seems to be playing with the ideas of fatalism, destiny, and chance in creating this alternate history. The story is all being told, the narrator hints, from a remove of many years, but what has happened since the end of the narrative is never explained. Given its gloomy tone, we can guess that future iterations of AI were more destructive than this first wave proved to be. Perhaps it was always meant to turn out that way, no matter what we did.

The characters in the novel are vividly drawn, and Adam still haunts me. He was created to be an adult but never given a childhood, an idea that the book plays with in its parallels with Mark, a young boy Miranda wants to adopt.

McEwan often gets you thinking about ideas, but he can write a great yarn with subtle, unexpected twists–a character responding in a way you’d never anticipate, for instance–although sometimes I wish he would slow down to polish his novels more. This felt like it could have been a masterpiece on the level of Atonement, but it was just shy of the level of detail and thoughtfulness that would have brought it there. One thing I did appreciate was that amidst the bleakness there was genuine humor. The scene where Miranda introduces Charlie and Adam to her dad is priceless, and there’s a slapstick scene near the end that cleverly helps you swallow the bitterness of what’s taking place.