When Charlie Friend blows his inheritance on a first generation humanoid robot, he is unsure of his motives. Curious about computer science, he’s also bone idle and lacks direction. Perhaps the lab-produced “intellectual sparring partner, friend and factotum” will provide one. Too slow to get one of 13 Eves, he picks up an Adam—a handsome, muscular, “fairly well endowed” android not unlike a highly polished version of himself.
Ian McEwan’s latest novel finds its author once again gamely taking on the zeitgeist, exploring the near horizon of technology. Machines Like Me, a sci-fi thriller and thought experiment, is occasionally darkly comical, and rich in its ruminations. How will humans respond to living with beings who look, speak and appear to think like them? How do you program robots with morality? Will they be able to understand the value of play, since they have no childhood?
If all this is intellectually satisfying, the vehicle for its exposition—Charlie, our narrator—is not human enough. Almost nothing about him rings true. He has no substantive past, no friends, no important exes. He bores us with descriptions of corkscrew design and divulges his Wiki-knowledge of the world à propos of nothing. While listening to his new girlfriend, Miranda, have sex with the Adam, he considers Victorian city planning. The robot’s shaky affect is logical; Charlie’s seems arch and odd. McEwan further undermines verisimilitude by locating the story in an alternative 1980s. Tony Benn is prime minister. Britain loses the Falklands War. Alan Turing is still alive. Quirky and ironic, it leads to no clinching insights. Plot twists on rape and adoption feel like digressions.
It’s a measure of McEwan’s craft that he rescues from this mire a novel of ideas that will please his many fans. The strength of his previous work will also ensure decent sales. Otherwise, this is a textbook example of an essay trying to become a flesh-and-blood novel; but the flesh never quite sticks and the blood is as cold and lifeless as engine oil.
Machines Like Meby Ian McEwan is published by Jonathan Cape (£18.99)