Machines Like Me
BY IAN MCEWAN
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2019
333 pp., $26.95
Early on in this novel, the momentous question it raises--what is a human being?--becomes maddeningly opaque, and the anguished vibes that pervade Machines Like Me indicate that Ian McEwan isn't pleased that he can't delineate more profound answers. The ultimate result, I'm sorry to say, is a peculiar and largely unsatisfying book. But worth reading. Surely if a very good, perhaps major, novelist (Amsterdam, Atonement, et al.) can't make sense of that question, there is value in observing him wrestle with the subject. And so prepare yourself for Adam, the star of Machines Like Me. He is ... what? Charlie, the narrator-protagonist of the novel, can't settle on one descriptive term for Adam, his new state-of-the-art sidekick. At one point he tosses off three--artificial human, android, replicate--and at another, he angrily uses "ambulant laptop." (Even terminology becomes surly.) I like the latter, but for simplicity's sake, I'll stick with android.
Machines Like Me takes place in the United Kingdom but in what I believe science fiction buffs call an alternate universe. It begins in 1982. John F. Kennedy and John Lennon have not been murdered and the Beatles have reassembled. Britain has lost the Falklands War with Argentina and suffered too many horrible casualties, and so disgraced Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Tories lose a Parliamentary election to Labour. The new prime minister is Tony Benn (in real life, an MP for forty-seven years), who (at least in this book) is charismatic, popular, and eager to implement a far-left agenda in a very bedeviled Britain. Then he's assassinated by the Irish Republican Army. I must say at this point that I don't believe the alternate-universe trappings add anything to the book's themes. Withal, the most relevant rewritten-history aspect is that Alan Turing, the great computer scientist, didn't commit suicide after World War II because of societal opprobrium prompted by his homosexuality. Turing was--in real life and in this book--instrumental in helping the Allies win World War II through his successful efforts to "read" the codes produced by Nazi Germany's infernally difficult-to-crack Enigma machine. His subsequent scientific tours de force--in the novel--have contributed to the creation of Adam.
As the novel commences, Charlie is a middle-class ne'er-do-well who, at the age of thirty-two, is completely broke...