By Ian McEwan

Nan A. Talese


352pp/$26.95/April 2019

Machines Like Me
Cover by Alex Janson

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Ian McEwan's Machines Like Me takes a look at how artificial intelligence, and more specifically humanform androids, can impact society. Set in an alternative 1982 following an Argentinian victory in the Malvinas, McEwan explores the life of Charlie, whose life is focused on the woman he loves, Miranda, and his new robot, named Adam. While Charlie and his companions form the entry point for this new world, one of the key differences is that Alan Turing was able to initiate a computer revolution in the United Kingdom many decades earlier than the introduction of computers in our own world.

McEwan's 1982 seems oddly familiar. While Margaret Thatcher might be battling for her political life against Labour leader Tony Benn in the aftermath of the British defeat, the common person has access to personal computers, smart phones, and social media in a way that makes the setting feel more like 2019 than 1982. At the same time, the setting makes it clear that more than politics separate Charlie's word from our own.

The story is told through Charlie's point of view, but his social distance from everyone else in the story makes it clear that despite Adam's presence and an automaton, Charlie is the real machine in the novel, unable to emotionally connect with any of the few people who move through his sphere. Charlie decides that Adam, who he has only just acquired as the novel begins, as a way of connecting with Miranda, the woman who lives in the flat above his. Each of them become Adam's foster parents/owners by selecting half of his personality traits.

While Charlie is the focus of the novel (and of his narrative, the character is extremely self-centered), he is also the least interesting character. Miranda, a doctoral student ten years Charlie's junior, has a secret tied to her former life in Salisbury, takes on sinister tones as Charlie tries to learn what it must be. Charlie has no difficulties against turning Adam off, especially when Adam begins to show signs of sentience that Adam can't control, partly due to Miranda's programming selections. Even Charlie's moment of altruism, standing up for a young boy named Mark who he saw being abused by his parents demonstrates the difference between a moment of heroism (or, perhaps, nosiness) and Charlie's inability to make an ongoing commitment.

While McEwan raises many intriguing issues regarding human-AI interaction and an individual's role in society, Charlie's distance and character flaws make his character unsympathetic and overshadow the rest of the novel. When McEwan allows other characters to intrude on the narrative, they speak in the same voice as Charlie, although that may simply be a side effect of Charlie's narration. Despite Charlie's dampening effect on the narrative, Adam, has its moments of shining through, revealing the robot's growth from the inert automaton that needs charging when Charlie first opened it to the nascent person encoded with Charlie and Miranda's personality choices, to a fully functioning person whose depth only drives home that he is, in many ways, less of a machine that the human narrator.

Machines Like Me offers an interesting look at the relationship between humans and the machines and artificial intelligences upon which we've come to rely, with a nice does of discussion of the anthropomorphism that happens even when the machines don't directly emulate the form of humanity. Unfortunately, McEwan's story and explorations are hindered by the distantness of his protagonist, even if that coldness is implicit in the message McEwan is offering.

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