Sunday 20 October 2019

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan: Big ideas abound in parallel world of humans and robots

FICTION Machines Like Me Ian McEwan Jonathan Cape, hardback, 320 pages, €17.99

Alternative reality: in McEwan's 1982 Margaret Thatcher has just lost the Falklands War
Alternative reality: in McEwan's 1982 Margaret Thatcher has just lost the Falklands War
Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

At the outset of Ian McEwan's new novel, 32-year-old narrator Charlie has just become the owner of a handsome young robot called Adam, which he then proceeds to programme, assisted by 22-year-old Miranda, who lives in the upstairs flat of their shabby abode in Clapham, London.

Miranda is a doctoral student in social history, while Charlie's failed legal ambitions have led him to adopt a slacker lifestyle while desultorily trying to make a bit of money by sitting at his laptop and playing the markets online - mostly with no success.

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Here's the thing, though. The novel is set in 1982, long before online markets or the internet that made them possible came into being. And in many other ways, too, it's not a 1982 that anyone old enough to recall that year will recognise. Yes, Margaret Thatcher is still in power, but she's just lost the Falklands War, is hugely unpopular and is about to be toppled in a landslide election that will see Tony Benn installed as Labour's prime minister.

That's not all that's different. JFK survived Dallas; Jimmy Carter, not Ronald Reagan, is still the American president; the reunited Beatles are releasing a new album with a still-alive John Lennon; computer scientist Alan Turing (who actually died in 1954) is on hand to talk about Charlie's replicant; and Tony Benn is intent on Britain's withdrawal from an EU that didn't then exist - that's before the IRA assassinate him in a Brighton bombing.

This is all good fun and McEwan is clearly enjoying himself, though the reader may wonder about the point of this counterfactual world, especially when it doesn't really impinge on the main storyline, which concerns Charlie's deepening relationship with the troubled Miranda and Adam's rivalry for her sexual and emotional affections.

There are big themes here - concerning science, humanity, ethics and the future - and the 70-year-old McEwan eagerly worries at them as befits someone who has long taken on the mantle of Most Important British Novelist, an honorific bestowed on him in the last couple of decades by his many admirers.

Indeed, you'd never have guessed from such sinister early novels as The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981) that he'd end up addressing British military intervention in Iraq (Saturday, 2005), climate change (Solar, 2010) or medical and legal ethics (The Children Act, 2014).

Along the way, he's also written more intimate stories - Atonement in 2001, On Chesil Beach in 2007 (with Saoirse Roan outstanding in the movie adaptations of both) - and for many readers, myself included, they've tended to be among his most persuasive: certainly more credible than either Saturday, which depended on a wildly implausible plot turn, or Sweet Tooth (2012), which at the very end asked you to disbelieve everything you'd previously been told.

And there are implausible elements in Machines Like Me, too, quite apart from the counter-factual history bits. You're told that Adam is one of only 25 replicants - 12 Adams and 13 Eves - that have been manufactured, and that some of these have been bought by Saudi princes, who favoured the Eves. So how on earth was penniless nobody Charlie able to acquire one, and for the requisite £86,000, which was a lot of money in 1982? Apparently, through an inheritance from his late mother, though that's not convincing, either.

But McEwan's saving grace is his ability to shape, pace and tell a story - indeed, various stories, including the arrival into Charlie and Miranda's life of a four-year-old abused boy they wish to adopt, and the matter of Miranda's past life.

This latter, which is the book's most absorbing plot strand, concerns a false accusation of rape that had been made by the then teenage Miranda against a young man who had actually raped her best friend but was sent to prison for this concocted offence.

So should Miranda's courtroom perjury, which resulted in a perversion of justice, be reported to the police? The logical Adam thinks so and takes steps to do just that, even though the rapist had got what he deserved, if for the wrong crime.

McEwan teases out the ethical dilemmas of this storyline with his customary verve, though other familiar traits are in evidence, too, not least the pleasure he takes in making you aware how much he knows about various matters, whether they concern quantum mechanics, biology, moral philosophy or such diverse figures as Einstein, Schrödinger or Michel de Montaigne.

He has fun, too, with his own craft - Adam, whose preferred literary medium is the impressionistic haiku, declares that novels will be redundant when intelligent machines like himself become able to eradicate the human misunderstandings that form the basis of all fiction.

McEwan, though, remains on the side of fallible human beings with all their flaws and neuroses. Towards the book's end, Adam tries to persuade Charlie and Miranda that the future will belong to "machines like me and people like you", though eventually "we'll surpass you and outlast you".

This is a quirky and enjoyable book, effortlessly readable and fizzing with ideas about all sorts of things. And if it remains puzzling to the end why it's set 37 years in the past, that brings its own diversions, too.

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