Sunday 20 October 2019

Cyber meets steampunk in McEwan's new novel

Fiction: Machines Like Me

Ian McEwan

Jonathan Cape €20

Author Ian McEwan's 'Machines Like Me' is a quirky and humorous novel
Author Ian McEwan's 'Machines Like Me' is a quirky and humorous novel
Machines Like Me

Paul Perry

Ian McEwan's new novel Machines Like Me is told by the plain-speaking, science-buff Charlie in a quasi-fictional 1980s England. Thatcher is in power. The Beatles have reformed. Charlie has come into some money. He decides, rather than invest the money wisely, to purchase one of the first batch of synthetic humans, an Adam, 'a joint project to bring' his beloved and him closer together.

Adam is our modern-day Frankenstein, less monster and more sophisticate, a 'toy', who thinks for himself, develops a penchant for poetry, and, predictably, falls in love with Charlie's girlfriend, Miranda.

Charlie imagines the 'scent of warm electronics on her sheets', and is in fact, however briefly, 'cuckolded by an artefact'. So far so absurd. (In fact, McEwan tells us on more than one occasion how absurd the situation is.)

McEwan has been publishing acclaimed fiction for over 40 years since the Somerset Maugham Award-winning collection of short stories First Love, Last Rites. He is a Booker prize-winner.

Feature films have been made from his novels. But that does not mean McEwan does not have his critics. John Banville wrote that Saturday was a dismayingly bad book in the New York Review of Books. Self-satisfied, arrogant, ridiculous. These are some of the words Banville used.

One of the reasons for Banville's aversion was McEwan's attempt to write a state-of-the-nation novel. There's the same urge to say something of importance politically and scientifically in machines. Much of what that effort entails is entertaining, and some of it is rather ridiculous, too.

Machines Like Me is a quirky, humorous and somewhat odd novel. It's on the speculative spectrum of fiction. Think cyber meets steampunk.

Its distinguishing feature is the Janus-like narrative technique which places future technology into a fictional past. The plot itself is familiar. The love triangle between Charlie, Adam, and Miranda is complicated by a 'terrible secret' in Miranda's past. Adam becomes increasingly independent and manages to disable his 'kill-switch', his 'off button' in layman's terms. And when Charlie tries to turn Adam off one night, Adam breaks his wrist.

Later, Adam tells Charlie that if he tries to turn him off again, he will 'remove' his arm. Amazingly, this does not seem to disturb Charlie that much, and he carries on. So amazing in fact, I wondered, how 'human' Charlie was. Cue, McEwan the didact.

One of the novel's strengths is its humour. Philosophical subjects are addressed: what does it mean to be a human in a pre-Brexit Britain, for example, but the less subtle humour is, well, funnier.

For example, when Charlie declaims to Adam about the machine's lovelorn poetic vocation, 'I'd like to think that there will always be someone, somewhere not writing haikus'.

Or when Miranda's father mistakes Charlie for the robot, and Adam as the human: Charlie plays along, excusing himself from the old man to charge himself up.

A whimsical aside is added; Miranda's father, we are told, 'on a strange whim … joined a fringe political group dedicated to taking Britain out of the European Union'.

McEwan is known for his set-pieces - another Banville quibble - and Machines Like Me is no different. The novel is well made. A clockwork novel, if you like.

The writing is lucid, and narrative momentum is made incrementally, if somewhat predictably. Even the humans in this novel sometimes feel mechanistic in their construction, and responses.

Perhaps, that's the point. Some poll tax, Bob Geldof, Virgil, IRA, and machine sadness references later, and we have a thriller which is spinning towards a denouement which involves a villain who has found God.

But fear not, our existential robot has a plan. A confrontation takes place. A confession ensues. Along the way, questions of consciousness and free will are played out. Charlie gets to meet his hero, the real-life computer scientist Alan Turing, who actually died in 1954. Adam's twins - the other Adam and Eves around the world - are beginning to disable themselves. They are committing machine-suicide. Adam does not know why, but it troubles him.

For all the weighty moral questions the novel touches upon, which despite Brexit, appear to be imminent and urgent, this is quite a light read, and has all the moving pieces of a rather conventional thriller.

In fact, the crucial revelation, Miranda's 'terrible secret' is made in unapologetic and rather hum-drum expository dialogue.

What distinguishes McEwan's fiction from many of his English peers is its interest in ideas. He is also a moral writer.

His early work may have been considered subversive. It is probably less so now. Where Ishiguro writes with pathos about clones in Never Let Me Go, McEwan writes with bathos in Machines Like Me. Ultimately, McEwan sides with the humanoid, as Charlie says, 'We live alongside this torment and aren't amazed when we still find happiness'.

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