Review: Machines Like Me
In Nutshell, Ian McEwan constructed a murder mystery told from the perspective of an unborn protagonist. The narrator of Machines Like Me, McEwan’s latest novel, is not a fetus, but he still somehow comes across as a less developed human being.
Charlie Friend is an aimless drifter who, after many failed schemes, makes just enough to get by through stock market trades. After stumbling upon an inheritance, Friend decides to purchase one of the first androids with human-like intelligence. Of course, this machine being is called Adam.
The book is set in an alternative version of the 1980s in which the technological visions of tomorrow are the reality of yesterday. There’s no subtlety when Friend explains: “The present is the frailest of improbable constructs. It could have been different. Any part of it, or all of it, could be otherwise.“
The compounding differences between this timeline and ours create a path of breadcrumbs through the narrative: America never dropped the nuclear bombs; Alan Turning never committed suicide; JFK was never assassinated, and so on.
The main story revolves around the relationship between Charlie, Adam, and their (mutual) love interest, Charlie’s neighbor Miranda. What could have been a simple love triangle gets a lot more complicated as a secret from Miranda’s past is gradually revealed, and the ethics of both human and AI are put to the test.
Reactions to the book have been mixed. Negative reviews describe McEwan’s alternative history as a gimmick to bring Alan Turing into the narrative. My own impression is that in his later works (inculding Nutshell and The Children Act), McEwan is feeling an increasingly urgent need to voice his political views, and that every part of Machines Like Me serves this larger political purpose
In Nutshell, I found the politics jarring, with the author’s own voice coming through too clearly in the unborn narrator’s observations. In Machines Like Me, the story itself is the instrument of political expression.
In McEwan’s alternative timeline, Britain experiences Brexit-like political polarization and confusion in the 1980s, triggered by an alternative outcome to the Falklands War, and by the unavoidable job losses that come with AI-driven automation. The tribulations of the human protagonists mirror this setting of humanity’s tribalism laid bare. When its political argument turns toward futility, Machines Like Me becomes a lament for humanity.
McEwan is a master storyteller, but while sci-fi is certainly new territory for him, many other talented writers have visited these lands before. In an interview with The Guardian, McEwan gave a save a somewhat disdainful description of sci-fi (“traveling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots”), and promised a more nuanced take on the “human dilemmas” that sentient AI would bring with it.
In truth, Machines Like Me is not a groundbreaking book by any stretch. It’s an aging liberal’s personal reflection on the future of the world around him, cast into a re-imagined past. I also found it to be an engaging story, not as powerful as the author’s masterpiece (Atonement), but certainly entertaining and thought-provoking.