Ian McEwan rates as one of my absolute favourite novelists who disappoints me more often than any of my other absolute favourite novelists. I read his novel Saturday when it was published 15 years ago, and to which I thrilled endlessly on every page. And he has been disappointing me ever since. It is like the first line of cocaine ever snorted. Thereafter it continually disappoints, until one day, hopefully, you stop.
No, that’s not quite right, is it? McEwan is a master, he will never get so bad as to require a final hit and then painful withdrawal. He is so good at all of the entangled strands of the art of fiction that if he fails on plot, you still have the language, if he fails on the language you still have the dialogue. Something always makes a McEwan novel worth the cost of admission.
And so it is with his latest, Machines Like Me.
Allow me to set it up. It is the soon after the Falklands War, early 1980s. But Britain has lost, been humiliated, lost thousands of lives at sea. Thatcher is hanging on to power. The populace is divided and fractious.
Oh, and Alan Turing, who defined Artificial Intelligence in his famous Turing test in 1950, and helped end WWII with his cracking of German codes, is still alive, having decided not to opt for chemical castration (a punishment for sodomy) which caused he depression that ended in suicide (this was what happened to him in real life). His is now, in this novel, the most famous AI researcher in the world, an icon and and elder.
And in a very clever trick the first 15 human-like robots (Adams and Eves, anatomically functioning males and females) have been produced and are on the market. Why is this clever? It is the early 80s – no cellphones, no Internet. But there are the first possibly sentient robots, so real looking as to be able to move about the public unrecognised. So McEwan neatly sidesteps a whole host of tech issues by concentrating on the robots only, and setting the action in an earlier age.
We start the book with our hero, Charlie who has cashed in his inheritance to buy one of the first Adams. He is also in love with his upstairs neighbour Miranda. He buys the robot out of curiosity – this is a completely lifelike automaton, with what seems to be intelligence, creativity and, well, feelings.
Charlie and Miranda fall in love. Adam does the dishes and engages Charlie in deep conversations about the nature of consciousness and other weighty matters. And he is, of course, extremely good looking. With a working penis. And he falls in love with Miranda, in a robot sort of way. And, um, complications ensue, including badly-written and comic robot love poetry.
And then there is, suddenly, a rape backstory, involving (in a roundabout way) our heroine Miranda. I can’t spoil here, but it is a completely new look at rape and revenge and it picks up steam and drives the second half of the book.
And then there’s a neglected little child, Mark, injected into our character’s lives fairly early on, and an emotional presence and anxiety underlying all of the action.
At this stage of this review you are likely thinking wha???
And that is the problem. There are multiple major, profound and interlocking themes and stories going on – AI, consciousness, sex, the nature of love, a romance, a fictionalised historical character, vengeance, rape and consent, child-rearing, child protective services, UK legal services, suicide, ageing. And more.
It is all a little too much, and it never really hangs fully together, and is sometimes weighed down by long expositions of the nature of morality and existence and happiness and the like. The last few chapters are a desperate attempt to thread it all together and to tie an elegant knot, but alas.
And yet. This is McEwan. There is so much intellect and thought and knowledge and gorgeous language and provocative setups and breakdowns that I must recommend this novel, even though it finally flails somewhat.
No, not the first snort of cocaine then. It’s Ian McEwan. So rest assured he will occasionally get you high along the way to the final page.