Machines Like Me belongs to the genre of speculative fiction, but in its narrow focus on morally ambiguous characters in a bleak cityscape it also owes a debt to film noir, sharing noir’s conviction that nothing is more human than moral inconsistency... Machines Like Me is closer in character to the dark and subversive McEwan of his earlier books than to the stiff and self-conscious one of Saturday, who seemed burdened by the responsibility of finding himself head boy of English letters. The novel is morally complex and very disturbing, animated by a spirit of sinister and intelligent mischief that feels unique to its author.
Any risk of the novel hardening into the diagrammatic is dispelled by the warm alert humaneness with which McEwan conveys the child’s endangered plight. Molested youngsters provided gothic shocks in his callowly sensational early books. In The Child in Time, a pivotal work for him, his attention moved on to tampered-with childhoods and the way they can warp maturity. Since then, sensitivity to the vulnerability of the young has been a significant part of his wide-ranging repertoire as a writer.
Machines Like Me displays that repertoire in all its impressive richness. Excited by ideas and perceptive about emotions, encompassing cutting-edge science, philosophical speculation and lively social observation, it is funny, thought-provoking and politically acute (its divided nation obliquely mirrors Brexit-bisected Britain). In this bravura performance, literary flair and cerebral sizzle winningly combine.
Machines Like Me has the usual virtues of McEwan’s prose. It feels much shorter than it is, and every other page has some felicitous sentence or amusing observation that makes one think (a little)... For all this, the novel feels thin... The pages certainly keep turning, but it feels painfully like the sort of thing a sophisticated robot might have come up with if fed a few thousand pages of McEwan’s early novels (trauma, check; stalker, check; sexual violence, check) and tasked with producing a pastiche... McEwan does well in raising the question, and the fruits of his doubtless copious research appear dutifully on the page. But he doesn’t go very far in helping us to understand it, still less to answer it.
McEwan’s style never lets the reader forget the novel’s topic. Some opening exposition is to be forgiven but it soon becomes McEwan’s modus operandi: baggy, generalised, journalistic sentences. When these sentences riff on the majesty of Adam’s creation – “Before us lay the ultimate plaything, the dream of ages, the triumph of humanism” – they’re rather irritating. When they’re describing scientific concepts, they read like Wikipedia... One gets the sense that McEwan is trying to write two novels at once, or that the novel he began writing – about artificial intelligence and robotics – became superseded along the way by another, more topical, novel: a Brexit novel. In the end, though, Machines Like Me isn’t really either. It’s a bland book offered as an inventive one.
Machines Like Me is an enjoyable, even addictive, read but it’s ultimately disappointing in the way that all Ian McEwan’s novels have been since Atonement. AI matters, and does indeed provoke important ethical questions. The novel is an appropriately moral form in which to confront these and McEwan is in many ways the right person to do so. He’s intelligent enough to understand the science of AI and the philosophy of consciousness. He’s a brilliant novelist, who creates believable characters with ease. From the start, Charlie and Miranda’s relationship has an urgency that makes it easy to care what happens to them. But as with so many of McEwan’s books, it all feels too neat... Machines Like Me reminds us that McEwan is a once-in-a-generation talent, offering readerly pleasure, cerebral incisiveness and an enticing imagination. But we need him to leave his diagrammatic, even robotic comfort zone and trust in the messiness that characterises both human life and the novel at their richest.
...it’s also a “what if?” novel set in an alternative Eighties where the internet and self-driving cars already exist, Margaret Thatcher loses the Falklands War and the Beatles have “recently regrouped after 12 years apart”. To underline that this is also a thoughtful, moral tale, there are subplots involving the nature of violation and revenge, and what it means to be a parent. And a soupçon of juvenile gender-fluidity too. Even for someone of McEwan’s fluency, that’s a lot to pack in.... So, Machines Like Me is a clever, densely worked but sporadically irritating read, throughout which you hear McEwan whispering in your ear. All the various themes are duly brought together in a way that is perhaps too neat but which is also satisfying.
However, having worked hard to configure his world, McEwan seems uninterested in playing with it. Why doesn’t Charlie take Adam to meet his friends? Or play squash? Given there are only 25 such machines in the world, surely the press would be swarming? Adam remains stubbornly stationary in Charlie’s kitchen, a mouthpiece for McEwan’s neat disquisitions on quantum mechanics, the case for war, the future of privacy... I should stress that I found this mediocre McEwan more compulsive than many flawless novels. There’s a lot to chew on here and, as ever, you feel in safe hands. Perhaps, though, that’s the problem. Machines Like Me never unsettles, which is odd given it’s a book about human redundancy, sexual assault, political turmoil and escalating war. The stakes are high, but the danger is remote.
Ian McEwan has always been a generous writer to his readers, his novels bulging with big ideas and rich story-telling. Here, though, he almost seems to be channelling the spirit of Mrs Doyle, the persistent housekeeper from Father Ted — constantly offering us more and more to chew on...By the end of the book, you might feel — like one of Mrs Doyle’s guests — pretty stuffed. But you’ll also find it hard not to admire the sheer scale of McEwan’s ambition. Many literary novels claim to be exploring ‘what it is to be human’. Few carry out this exploration as thoroughly, or as literally, as this does.
When he won the Booker Prize in 1998, it was for Amsterdam, which has its say on modern mores but ultimately deals in the specificities of its individual characters. Machines Like Me does not. It leans on philosophic rumination. Which lives, for example, should an automated car prioritise? It is erudite, open-minded stuff, but it rather demotes the characters to vessels for ideas... McEwan’s willingness to stretch the reader with ideas is precious and unfashionable. When Charlie tracks down a still-living Alan Turing, the old man’s disquisition on how the artificial mind learns is a passage that probably not a single one of the novelist’s British contemporaries could have written. But it could be Miranda, or Adam, or a cipher, who is hearing it. Readers will care less than they might have done about Briony in Atonement or the stalked protagonist in Enduring Love. The character has become a conduit for grand thoughts.