I think I probably count as an Ian McEwan fan. I have read all of his seventeen novels and story collections listed at the front of this book.
In this latest novel we have something slightly different from the norm. I know his works are fiction, but they are often in a contemporary setting. In a real life that you or I would recognize. Sometimes, like in ‘Atonement’ and ‘On Chesil Beach’, they are set in the not too distant past. In Machines Like Me, events are set in the early 1980s, but in a parallel universe, where McEwan has changed the history that some of us might remember. It was the time of the Falklands War, when Britain sent a naval taskforce to eject the Argentinian invaders. But rather than being a victory for the Thatcher government, it is a crushing defeat and thousands of lives are lost. Thatcher is overthrown and the Labour leader Tony Benn is elected prime minister.
But the real twist of history is that Alan Turing is still alive. He is the code breaker who was close to inventing computers in the 1940s and 50s. What we are reading about is a world where some inventions arrived a lot sooner that in reality.
Computers and mobile phones are everywhere, even an anachronistic electric car produced in the 1960s. It is a disorientating picture of the world, where many things that are only just becoming common now, are commonplace nearly forty years ago.
Step forward our two protagonists, Charlie and Miranda. Charlie is a not very successful drop out, who has lost a lot of money and dislikes the idea of a normal job. Instead he plays financial markets from an old computer in his bedroom and scrapes a living from the meagre earnings. But at least he has no boss, no commute or no schedule to speak of. A sort of freedom. In the south London flat above lives Miranda, whom Charlie likes, and begins to fall in love with.
Charlie’s other interest is electronics and when he is left some money he decides to invest it all in a single purchase. Alan Turing’s latest invention, a fully automated, fully functioning robot. It is real enough to pass off as a genuine human being. The male version is called Adam, while the females are Eve. They are the most sophisticated synthetic humans ever made.
Adam arrives and is plugged in for an initial 16-hour charge. Charlie begins to read to user’s manual and realizes there are a lot of preferences to set. He decides that he will enter some and Miranda will do the others, that way they can both be part of the experiment.
Up to this point, everything has been pleasant and predictable. Adam wakes from his 16-hours connected to the mains and immediately tells Charlie that he cannot trust Miranda. Everything shifts a gear and is never quite the same again.
I love this wonderful piece of humour about Adam’s early hours. “Without the lifeblood of a personality, he had little to express. He was running on some form of default program that would serve him until the downloads were complete. He had movements, phrases, routines that gave him a veneer of plausibility. Minimally, he knew what to do, but little else. Like a man with a shocking hangover.”
What follows is a new take on the old theme of whether a machine can become “human”, and just what it means to be human. This machine can do the washing up and weed the garden, but can also quote most of Shakespeare at you. When Miranda takes Adam to bed one night, Charlie is angry. The ensuing row about whether he is a machine or simply just a vibrator, is excellent. “He was a bipedal vibrator and I was the very latest in cuckolds.”
As the story proceeds, a series of shocks or surprises are introduced right the way to the end. It is ingenious and very entertaining, thoughtful and thought provoking.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Published by Penguin Random House