Machines Like Me

What? Ian McEwan writes science fiction?

News to me, but I had to give this book a chance. It’s Ian McEwan, after all.

Machines Like Me falls into the alternative-history subgenre, in which the author postulates that one or more historical events didn’t end up the way it really did. The most popular books of this sort assume that Germany had won the Second World War, or the South had won the American Civil War, or the like… and then they follow up the more-or-less natural consequences of this event that didn’t actually happen. In McEwan’s case, he adds several other tropes that might or might not follow from… well, what? What was the precipitating event? Was it that Alan Turing didn’t commit suicide in 1954 but was still alive in the early 1980s, when the action of Machines Like Me takes place? Or was that merely the consequence of some other earlier event? It’s not clear. I can’t — or won’t, at any rate — tell you all the other changes that slip through in this novel, because they would be spoilers, but let’s just say that Britain lost the Falklands War and that Artificial Intelligence and related technologies have made much greater progress in this imagined world than in the real world of the ’80s — or the real world of today, for that matter. In the ’80s we have self-driving cars, the widespread Internet, and course the development of convincingly human-like robots, as the title suggests. I had to keep pausing, to think about various philosophical issues like what it means to be human (again as the title suggests). Random other ideas keep intruding, like how to talk to children, and whether the earnings of an artificial intelligence belong to its “owner.” And can we actually own another intelligent being, or is that too much like house elves — or slaves?

McEwan pays homage to many earlier writers who have wrestled with related ideas without the alternative history aspect: Mary Shelley, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and the aforementioned Alan Turing (who ends up developing a spectacularly successful anti-AIDS drug). Of course McEwan also has to have a love story, and Brexit has to appear (yes, it’s 1982, but still…). There are loose ends that are never resolved — but hey, it’s a novel, not an academic treatise. Reviews were mixed, but mostly very favorable. Count me in the latter group. Read the book!

Categories: Books, Technology