Critically acclaimed, award and prize-winning British author, Ian McEwan, is known for his subversive examination of the human condition. His most famous novel, Atonement, is evident of that. In his latest novel, Machines Like Me, McEwan explores the idea of what owning a humanoid robot would be like in a counterfactual Britain in 1982. The Falklands, Margaret Thatcher, Alan Turing, and even the Beatles (all four of them) make appearances in this upside-down world.
The story revolves around Charlie Friend, a 30-something day-trader who loses more than he gains, unable to create any stability in his life. And whenever he does come into money via his ‘get rich quick’ schemes, he loses it just as fast. He is driven by science-fiction and curiosity, lauding Turing as one of his inspirations and even managing to meet the famed computer scientist in person.
When Friend comes into a substantial inheritance he promptly purchases an Adam, one of 25 Adam and Eve humanoid robots built to make human life easier. Curiously, this was the one decision that pushes him into creating more change in his own life, even gaining the courage to ask out his upstairs neighbor, Miranda, whom Charlie decides he’s in love with. In buying a humanoid robot, one which is far more intelligent than him, Friend is able to reflect on what it’s like to ‘be’ human.
What is it about introducing a humanoid robot into our lives that makes us more reflective about who we are? When Friend receives his Adam, he has the ability to set the robot’s personality as one would do for any new machine. Friend chooses to input only half of the settings, leaving those remaining to Miranda, in hopes of bonding with her further. And it works. Friend and Miranda soon begin a relationship with Adam as their proverbial ‘child’ they’ve created.
Unfortunately, things start to go awry for Friend. When he and Miranda have their first fight, she ends up sleeping with Adam. But would that constitute cheating since Adam isn’t an actual human being? On top of that, Adam decides he’s in love with Miranda, writing her haikus espousing his affection. But can a humanoid robot learn to love? Though there have been several dystopian stories about how machines will one day take over, humans have always had the upper hand because we have the capacity to love. Do humans truly understand what it means to be in love though? At many instances Adam demonstrates he has a firmer grasp of love than Friend does.
Which begs the question: if a machine can learn to love, then what do humans have to differentiate ourselves from them? There are moments when Adam seems more human than Friend, especially during a comical moment when Miranda’s father mistakes Friend for the robot when they go visit him. All of this climaxes around the sudden revelation of Miranda’s secret past and Friend’s reaction, which is emotional and fervently human, while Adam responds in a colder, more logical and predictable fashion, which causes more trouble because he follows the law to the letter. How does one decide what is the right thing to do in this case?
Personally, I love science fiction and the idea of androids. It’s fascinating to slot a machine-learning robot into the lives of humans, who are predictably unpredictable. Humans are flawed creatures, as evidenced by the subplot: the losing battle of the Falklands with Thatcher, the IRA bombings, and even Miranda’s secret past which isn’t revealed until partway through the novel. Sadly, as humans are so unpredictable, mixing humanoid robots made up of rationality and logic in is a recipe for disaster. And it shows when other Adams and Eves robots start committing ‘suicide’ after spending time with humans.
Stories like Machines Like Me can make us question what it might be like to have a humanoid robot in our lives, and what those consequences may be. When the idea of “love” itself becomes indistinguishable from programming it begs the question whether the concept even exists. McEwan seems to question not whether robots can live amongst humans seamlessly – or if they will take over – but whether the humans themselves will be able to handle the reflection of the world they’ve created. Having never read any of his stories before, I have to say he captures the human condition quite well – even when presented against a mirror version of itself.