I’m a lifelong McEwan fan, but he has been infuriating me in the last decade with his inconsistency.
I’m glad to say that Machines Like Me finds McEwan right back at the top of his game and it’s clear to me that what is making him write his best work these days is moral ambiguity and his adeptness at turning that ambiguity into superb storytelling. It’s at the heart of what makes this book, and The Children Act, so great.
The moral conundrum here is truth.
Humanity allows us to decide the difference between ‘white lies’ and despicable self- serving perjury. But can Artificial Intelligence be expected to compete?
This novel works on many levels. It’s essentially a sci0fi book about Artificial Intelligence yet it’s set in the past.
A fake past.
1982 to be precise.
A 1982, in which Thatcher has just lost the Falklands War, Alan Turing is alive and kicking, Britain is contemplating a form of Brexit, the poll tax disputes are raging and many of today’s political challenges are being reframed as 1982’s. Most notably the rise of an elderly Labour leader (Tony Benn) has swept to power on the back of an adoring youth.
It’s playful and brilliant.
McEwan plays with the value of things like money. Everything seem so cheap: cheaper than the reality of 1982 prices. (The effect of a global recalibration of worth? It’s unexplained.)
Into a 32 year old dropout’s life (Charlie) arrive, almost simultaneously, a stunningly beautiful but enigmatic 21 year old neighbour (Miranda) and a ‘robot’ of almost perfect physical attributes (Adam – one of 25 AI humanoids – 13 male, 12 female).
Charlie’s bought Adam thanks to an inheritance from his mother and the book explores the relationship between the three main protagonists, but throws in a secondary moral dilemma in the form of a four year old abused boy, Mark, who inveigles himself into their lives.
In Miranda’s past an event of monumental emotional significance has consumed her and the repercussions of this form a significant strand of the moral backbone of the story.
So we have fun (made up history) sci-fi (lite but fascinating in the form of a humanoid robot, whom it turns out is capable of great knowledge – Google, before Google existed- but also a form of moral judgement) relationships (tangled) and simply brilliant storytelling.
The science is interesting, the philosophy just light enough to engage dullards like me and the story so compelling as to turn pages lightning fast.
The whole premise throws up so many genuinely interesting questions that it’s like manna to McEwan who feasts on the riches that his great invention feeds him.
I adored this book. One of McEwan’s best ever and leaves only Nutshell, out of his 17 novels, for me to read. It’s a noughties write, so who knows.