Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan is set in London in the 1980s, only these are not the 1980s we know, but rather a sort of Sliding Doors variant of the that time. Thatcher is in power but has lost, rather than won, the Falklands War. Computer genius Alan Turing, the breaker of the Enigma code, has not committed suicide, as he did in real life, but is alive and well. He has invented the world wide web, solved some unsolvable scientific conundrums and taken the world way past 2019 in terms of technological advances. McEwan, always with his finger on the pulse of the world we live in, has noble ambitions with this novel. Sadly, it just doesn’t work.
Our protagonist Charlie has spent his inheritance buying Adam, a limited edition human robot. 32-year-old Charlie, trades on the stock market from his bedroom for a living and is generally a bit lost and lazy. Only 21-year-old Miranda, who lives in the flat upstairs, truly excites him and in his bid to get closer to her, Charlie asks Miranda to help program Adam. Their ‘baby’ becomes a constant presence, and whereas it’s handy to have him do all the tedious housekeeping, his running commentary around the dinner table is less endearing. Miranda carries a terrible secret, which Adam, with his instant research capabilities, quickly discovers.
Sadly, the fluency of story and depth of characters we see in McEwan’s best books just isn’t here. I didn’t care about either Charlie or Miranda. I didn’t believe in Miranda’s desire to adopt a neglected little boy. I didn’t even feel for the boy. Ironically, it’s Adam who comes across as most ‘alive’ and interesting in this story. He made me, briefly, consider the many ethical dilemmas in robots replacing humans.
I worked hard to like this book, but repeatedly found my mind wandering. The long sequences recounting the political landscape were particularly dull. Why describe them from afar and not take us ‘into’ them instead? McEwan’s, at times, over exuberance in covering the topics of our time is on display here. The future of AI. Date Rape. Male angst of becoming obsolete. Neglected children. Political polarisation. Ecological catastrophe. Crickey! You just wish he’d settle for one or two.
For me, McEwan’s books come in two categories, those ‘constructed’ around a particular theme(s) and those with a theme flowing out of the story. The former rarely successful, the latter often. Unfortunately, this one belongs the former.
Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan is published by Jonathan Cape, 306 pages.