‘Machines Like Me,’ by Ian McEwan book review

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Half a century ago, Philip K. Dick asked, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” and now Ian McEwan is sure those androids are pulling the wool over our eyes.

His new novel, “Machines Like Me,” takes place in England in the 1980s, but it’s an uncanny variation of the past we remember. Just the slightest fluctuations have altered the vectors of history. England lost the Falklands War. Unemployment is at Depression-era levels. Perhaps most significantly, in McEwan’s retelling, Alan Turing didn’t commit suicide after the British government convicted him of gross indecency. Instead, the brilliant mathematician rejected the offer of chemical castration and went to prison, where, in blissful solitude, he laid down the theoretical principles that have enabled the creation of remarkably humanlike robots.

“It was religious yearning granted hope, it was the holy grail of science,” the novel begins. “Our ambitions ran high and low — for a creation myth made real, for a monstrous act of self-love. As soon as it was feasible, we had no choice but to follow our desires and hang the consequences.”

That narrator is Charlie Friend, a lazy day-trader in London who vacillates between bouts of grandiosity and worthlessness. The ultimate early adopter, Charlie uses a recent inheritance to buy “the first truly viable manufactured human with plausible intelligence and looks, believable motion and shifts of expression.” The robot’s name is Adam, which suggests what the creators must think of themselves. He — it? — is one of 25 androids sold around the world in a variety of ethnicities, 12 male and 13 female versions. Adam’s affect may be slightly odd (he doesn’t blink quite right), but to the casual observer, he’s a handsome, muscular man — “fairly well endowed,” Charlie admits while hastening to add, “Adam was not a sex toy.”

But sex is certainly central to this carefully constructed comedy of terrors. As the novel opens, Charlie is wooing Miranda, a somewhat unresponsive younger woman who lives in his apartment building. He hopes that they can program Adam’s personality together, as a kind of bonding experience. “He would be like our child,” Charlie says. “What we were separately would be merged in him. Miranda would be drawn into the adventure. We would be partners, and Adam would be our joint concern, our creation. We would be a family. There was nothing underhand in my plan. I was sure to see more of her. We’d have fun.”

Danger, Will Robinson!

Charlie is a well-educated guy, but he seems not to have read enough science fiction to know that “fun” is the last thing he’s going to have. He gets an inkling of the complications ahead, though, when he spends an evening listening to Adam loudly making love to Miranda in the upstairs apartment. It’s grim satisfaction to realize he’s the “first to be cuckolded by an artefact.” What man could compete with that stamina, those hydraulics? Charlie should have known: Resistance is futile. Crawling into Miranda’s bed several days later, he imagines he can still detect “the scent of warm electronics on her sheets.”

McEwan, who won the 1998 Booker Prize for “Amsterdam,” is a master at cerebral silliness. His previous novel, “Nutshell,” was a modern-day retelling of “Hamlet” from the point of view of an indecisive fetus. In that book and in this new one, McEwan knows just how to explore the most complex issues in the confines of the most ridiculous situations.

Trapped in an apartment-size version of “Westworld,” Charlie and Adam debate the essential nature of consciousness while vying for Miranda’s affections. Charlie is sure that his android cares for Miranda only “as a dishwasher cares for its dishes,” but Adam, who has perfect command of the world’s religious and philosophical writings, claims, “I’ve a very powerful sense of self and I’m certain that it’s real.” He’s earnest and lovesick — his romantic haiku would make Lt. Cmdr. Data blush — but he’s charged by a crystal-clear sense of righteousness that may not integrate well with the ethical morass of human experience.

How exactly would you dismantle Adam’s claim to consciousness? Try clinging to the primacy of biology and you’ll slip on the comedy of Terry Bisson’s “thinking meat.” As countless fiction and nonfiction writers have pointed out, we have little understanding of what our own consciousness is; we’re in no position to deny it to a perfect simulacrum.

McEwan is incapable of writing a dull line, but his AI conundrums feel as fresh as a game of Pong. Fellow Trekkers will remember “Requiem for Methuselah” (Season 3, Episode 19), in which Captain Kirk falls in love with a gorgeous robot named Rayna. (Among many humiliating teenage memories, I recall weeping uncontrollably at the end of that episode.)

But our fascination with artificially created humans reaches much further back than that — at least to Pygmalion in Greek mythology. Mary Shelley explored the existential agony of a manufactured being in the early 19th century. The Mechanical Turk — a fraudulent chess-playing contraption — sent minds spinning about the possibilities of artificial intelligence. By the time Czech writer Karel Capek coined the term “robot” in 1920, we were already well acquainted with the promise and peril of being replaced by our own machines. Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics — starting with “A robot may not injure a human being” — feel more naive with each passing wave of layoffs.

McEwan’s special contribution is not to articulate the challenge of robots but to cleverly embed that challenge in the lives of two people trying to find a way to exist with purpose. That human drama makes “Machines Like Me” strikingly relevant even though it’s set in a world that never happened almost 40 years ago. “Everything was rising,” Charlie notes, “hopes and despair, misery, boredom and opportunity.” The age-old rebuttal to the Luddites is wearing thin. Machines capable of doing every job will certainly be capable of maintaining themselves. Amid rampant inflation and permanent unemployment, Charlie notes, “We could become slaves of time without purpose.” Adam cheerily observes, “From a certain point of view, the only solution to suffering would be the complete extinction of humankind.”

But such nihilism is anathema to McEwan. He is not only one of the most elegant writers alive, he is one of the most astute at crafting moral dilemmas within the drama of everyday life. True, contending with an attractive synthetic rival is a problem most of us won’t have to deal with anytime soon (sorry, Alexa), but figuring out how to treat each other, how to do some good in the world, how to create a sense of value in our lives, these are problems no robot will ever solve for us.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.

Machines Like Me

By Ian McEwan

Nan A. Talese. 352 pp. $26.95

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