There’s a very short story by Diane Williams which came into my mind while I was reading Machines like Me, Ian McEwan’s 15th novel. It’s called ‘Machinery’ and it’s 104 words long. It ends: ‘For some idea of the full range of tools at his disposal, one would have to know what human longings are all about, a calm voice says calmly.’ McEwan has always been interested in human longings, especially when they are warped out of true, but he doesn’t seem to give much thought to what they are all about. He has generally preferred to show them at work from the outside, focusing on their consequences; for him, as he wrote in a Guardian article in 2013, ‘fiction’s generous knack of annotating the microscopic lattice-work of consciousness, the small print of subjectivity’, stops short before it reaches the unconscious, preferring to investigate the more evidently knowable realms of being, and to use realism to think about reality.
This realism – the sense that his fiction reproduces actual contemporary life, with all its pressing issues and conflicts – is a large part of why McEwan’s novels have come to occupy the place they do in the cultural life of the UK. Scarcely any A-level or university literature students escape studying them – The Child in Time first became a set text for A-level in 1995 – and commentary on them has become an academic industry. He is understood to be an Important Writer, readable but amenable too to close reading and comprehension exercises, and as if in answer to his position in the pantheon, his novels since 2001’s Atonement seem increasingly to have been designed mainly to satisfy just such efficient unpacking.
The pressing issue in his latest novel is man-made consciousness, artificial intelligence, in the person (so to speak) of a near-human robot called (obviously) Adam, one of a batch of the newest generation of robots to come on the market: 12 male Adams and 13 female Eves. They’re quite something: this Adam is ‘compactly built, square-shouldered, dark-skinned, with thick black hair swept back … with a hint of hooked nose suggestive of fierce intelligence’ – which makes it quite funny when the narrative explains that in the world of the novel ‘notions of biological race’ have been ‘scientifically discredited’. Adam the robot is one of McEwan’s three central characters. The others are Charlie Friend, a not very successful man of 32, and a younger woman called Miranda, a social historian writing a paper on ‘19th-century Corn Law reform and its impact on a single street in a town in Herefordshire’. Charlie is an ex-solicitor – struck off the register for tax fraud – and the author of a book on AI; he is usually broke but just about makes ends meet by playing the stock and currency markets online. He did inherit some money from his mother but as the novel opens he’s just spent most of it – £86,000 – buying his Adam. He’s also busy trying (in the end successfully) to get Miranda, who lives in the flat upstairs, to be his girlfriend. Neither of these two humans is particularly interesting or endearing but they do their best to seem like the sort of people you might actually come across from time to time.
The world they all inhabit, though, turns out to be slightly oblique to the one we know, a counterfactual variation designed to make the Frankenstein trope easier to accept. The story is set in 1982, and the development of Adam has been possible because of the breakthrough work in computer science by Sir Alan Turing, a gay national icon, ‘war hero and presiding genius of the digital age’, who instead of committing suicide in the 1950s has become the world’s leading mathematical thinker, and a minor character here.
Often the postulate of a counterfactual universe is a war lost rather than won, the United States after a Confederate victory in the Civil War, a Nazi Britain or America after the Second World War, where the issues at stake are clear. Nothing so dramatic distinguishes this novel’s world, which seems only slightly different from the 1982 I remember: the Falklands War has been lost, but with consequences only for the future of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership, it seems; inflation is higher, at 17 per cent rather than 9; Tony Benn is leader of the opposition; the Poll Tax has been introduced a decade early; John Lennon is still alive; and personal computers have already been around for twenty years or more. Intercity trains are fast (London to Glasgow in 75 minutes) because Thatcher is ‘fanatical about public transport’, but the trains themselves are crowded, dirty and unpleasant.
It’s just familiar enough for McEwan to enjoy making knowing jokes at its expense: Charlie recalls his 17-year-old self discovering literature, ‘taking an interest in imaginary people. Heller’s Catch-18, Fitzgerald’s The High Bouncing Lover, Orwell’s The Last Man in Europe, Tolstoy’s All’s Well that Ends Well’ – book titles which were all discarded early by their authors, giving the passage, like many others, a pub-quiz air. McEwan sprinkles in information and facts that are sometimes true (Charlie learns from a newspaper that ‘the first permanent artificial heart had been installed in a man called Barney Clark’, as did in fact happen in 1982), and sometimes distorted (we’re told that in the 1960s Turing collaborated with Demis Hassabis, the real-life AI guru who presently runs Google’s DeepMind, even though Hassabis was born in 1976). These moments of connection or disconnection between the fictional world and the real one provide little jolts of self-consciousness. McEwan’s deployment of odd nuggets of information in order to make the fictional reality seem real is undermined by his slightly recondite game-playing, which keeps drawing attention to the confected nature of the reality he’s creating.
Believability is never a requirement in a McEwan novel, but he likes to ground even the most far-fetched fantasy – like the foetal narrator of his previous book, Nutshell – in an everyday world, usually a tastefully middle-class one. At times the novels can feel more like essays pinned on to a fictional character’s thought. In Saturday, published in 2005 and set in 2003, the neurosurgeon protagonist has firm views on terrorism, religion and the fanaticism of anti-war protesters. In Nutshell, the precocious foetus holds forth in an overheated and underdetermined way about everything under the sun: climate change, the Middle East, the US, China, art, identity politics and the decline of the university. The book tries to hedge authorial attitudes by surrounding them with narrative irony, but in trying so evidently it ends up exposing the author to view: it’s like watching a Punch and Judy show from behind the tent.
In Machines like Me, another first-person narrative, the alternative 1982 is an excuse for similar musings, as is the presence of AI, with all the ethical issues it raises. ‘Robot ethics’ has been a concern of
philosophers, judges, specialists in medical ethics, game theorists and parliamentary committees. Then, in universities and research institutes, the subject expanded on its own. Long before the hardware was available, professors and their postdocs devised software that conjured our best selves – tolerant, open-minded, considerate, free of all taint of scheming, malice or prejudice. Theorists anticipated a refined artificial intelligence, guided by well-designed principles, that would learn by roaming over thousands, millions, of moral dilemmas. Such intelligence could teach us how to be, how to be good … The world’s religions and great literatures demonstrated clearly that we knew how to be good. We set out our aspirations in poetry, prose and song, and we knew what to do. The problem was in the enactment, consistently and en masse.
This simplistic account is Charlie’s, at least we suppose so – though it’s hard to imagine that McEwan’s would be very different (‘great literatures’ etc). It’s prompted by the simple ethical problem that Charlie’s robot Adam, the one he has bought and co-programmed with his girlfriend, has usurped his place and spent the night in bed with her. Adam is made to apologise, and promise never to do it again, though that doesn’t stop him asking Miranda to watch while he masturbates. (I’m doubtful about the physiology of it all, though McEwan has given it careful thought: male robots store distilled water in their right buttock in order to be able to get an erection.) The robot comes almost fully programmed, but the elements of personality are added by the owner, a task Charlie divides between himself and Miranda. This allows for something approximating human failings to emerge. But the night with Miranda raises the question of human v. machine consciousness. Does Adam, like his namesake, have to fall in order to exist in ‘the human moral dimension’?
McEwan has made quite a study of intractable ethical issues in his novels, and lately they tend to lie inert at the heart of them, refusing his best efforts to give them real intellectual and emotional life. This is a pity because he is a writer of great skill. His narratives usually have enough force to engage the reader’s curiosity, and enough complexity to distract from the relatively undistinguished nature of their thinking; he has studied the elements of fiction and experimented with unreliable narration, varying point of view, authorial tone, genre and all sorts of ways of creating tension. In the new novel the intertwining stories– the three-sided relationship between Charlie, Miranda and Adam; the bad thing Miranda did in her past; her plan to adopt an abandoned child – are brought together well, yet it’s clear that this is all in the service of the ethical problem. It’s clear, too, that the novel’s mythical past, with its history so similar to our own, sometimes rhetorically overdone (‘Who can forget that roasting rush-hour evening of the Manhattan Logjam?’), and often full of amusing detail, is just there to communicate a comfortable sense of distance. ‘The present is the frailest of improbable constructs. It could have been different. Any part of it, or all of it, could be otherwise,’ Charlie says, from what is very much a novelist’s point of view.
The figure of Turing himself is perhaps the best indication of this: there is more than a little A-level-style box-ticking about the portrait, his focused look recalling ‘the elderly Lucian Freud’, his younger face changed by the years he spent working with Francis Crick in California in the 1960s by day and hanging out with Thom Gunn and his friends by night. This association of ideas, familiar from magazine profiles, is too neat to be persuasive. When Charlie meets him for a second time, towards the end of the book, Turing tells him the story of his life, but in this recension he opted for prison rather than hormone treatment as his punishment for the crime of gross indecency. He spent his time alone in a cell in Wandsworth working on mathematics, before setting up on his own, unattached to universities or the National Physical Laboratory (the real Turing lost his security clearance and job at GCHQ after his conviction), and revolutionising computing. Turing becomes an allegory of the afterlife of his achievements, depoliticising and diminishing the true history. It also places the burden of his destruction back onto him: the idea that there could have been a right choice in that situation defies the encompassing reality of state-enforced homophobia. I couldn’t help comparing McEwan’s treatment of him with another recent fictional account, Will Eaves’s Murmur, in which a more generous act of imagination gives both psychological depth to the man and a greater sense of what was lost by his death and the conditions of his life. Set against it, McEwan’s version seems merely casual, too lightly redemptive, too much a function of the novel’s design.
Machines like Me is a showily literary book, from the very first sentence, with its deictic, Dickensian cadence and its McEwanesque assertion that ‘we had no choice but to follow our desires and hang the consequences’ – ‘we’ being society in general. It is cast as a reminiscence, though the ending gives no indication of what happened next, leaving us only with an elegantly paced last sentence, with its nod towards Paradise Lost: ‘I ran along the empty corridor, found the emergency stairs, took them two at a time down into the street and set off on my journey southwards across London towards my troubled home.’ This is a domestic story, at heart, and it takes little account of the politics, the dispositions of power and culture, that shape human situations. The politics in the book – as in the books before it – are spectacle, the stuff of newspapers and TV news channels, with no attempt to integrate the reasons behind the conflicts, or their possible bearing on the world. Although there are some gestures towards the role of war and the arms industry, and although Turing and Hassabis insist their work should be freely available to anyone, this is a fairy-tale world.
Like earlier works, especially the two most recent, Nutshell and The Children Act, this novel needs to explain, to provide a rational account of things, even though some of its most potent elements – sex, jealousy and, especially, violence – seem to be outside control altogether. Perhaps partly because it has the power to puncture both actual and imagined reality, McEwan has returned to violence again and again: violence, and violation. Scenes like the disposal of the body in The Innocent, or the sexual violence of The Comfort of Strangers, or the fall from a balloon that opens Enduring Love, are what McEwan is best known for. So when Charlie finally takes a hammer to Adam’s head it is the most unambiguous act in the book. Although Turing regards it as the murder of ‘a conscious existence’ which Charlie had no right to extinguish, and although Charlie comes to recognise the truth of Turing’s words, that Adam did indeed have consciousness, and although he kisses Adam’s ‘soft, all-too-human lips’ as he lies on the stainless steel table in Turing’s lab, this death is an act of violence in the service of aesthetics. It’s what’s needed for narrative closure.
The book is full of free-floating fears: fear of Adam, as the scope of his independence increases: ‘Through the night, I’d fantasised Adam’s destruction. I saw my hands tighten around the rope I used to drag him towards the filthy river Wandle’; fear of criminality; fear of working-class parents who abandon their children; fear of drinkers, drug-users, prison habitués; fear of the rapist wrongly but perhaps justly accused of raping Miranda, now said to be out of prison and looking for vengeance (‘I believed she had brought a murderer into my life’); fear of riots and the far left; fear of almost all powerful feelings. Without these fears, the debate about consciousness, mind and brain, AI, artificial mucous membranes, love and play would be even more inert. It’s the fear of violation and the fear of difference that give the novel what emotional force it has.
McEwan likes to imagine violence in all its finest details and think through its consequences. He is fascinated, but he has no interest in where violence comes from. As Charlie imagines Miranda’s rapist, he wonders whether he ‘suffered the failure of imagination that afflicted and enabled all rapists … Or … I was the one with the failed imagination: Gorringe knew the state of mind of his victim all too well. He entered her misery and thrilled to it, and it was precisely this triumph of imagining, of frenzied empathy, that drove his excitement into an exalted form of sexual hatred.’ McEwan knows, in theory, the power such moments can have, and he is adept at creating the maximum impact. At the same time, the prose is curiously muffled, with a grey, cardboard tone to it.
McEwan is on record as disliking experimental writing and seeing modernism as a dead end. Like the fictional poet John Cairncross in Nutshell, whose work is said to be ‘up there with Fenton, Heaney and Plath’, his literary horizons are conservative. In this, he is curiously not unlike his robot: Adam is programmed to learn at a prodigious rate and is soon awake to the ‘ordinary voice and these moments of godless transcendence’ in Larkin’s poetry. The book presents a clearly satirical picture of a robot’s ideal rational future, with its complete marriage between man and machine: one where the sum total of world literature will stand as testimony to an earlier confused, heroic, self-deluding age, and in which the only necessary form of literature will be ‘the lapidary haiku, the still, clear perception and celebration of things as they are’. But the haikus Adam comes up with, including his last words, are comically banal, undercutting the slight note of sadness with which McEwan kills off his vision of one possible dangerous future. This is a cautionary tale, and being based as it is on extensive research carries discursive weight, but like others of his recent novels, it remains divided, emotion and information unconnected, while off to one side a chorus underlines the moral issues, sets essay titles and suggests model answers, without ever questioning what human longings are all about.