A slightly less paranoid android: Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan

June 30, 2020 Adam Sell

A slightly less paranoid android: Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan
By Adam Sell

white ops bot book review

The Bot Book Review is an occasional series of short reviews of robot-themed books as written by White Ops team members.

I have long been vaguely fascinated by fiction that’s built on a “what-if” scenario. Years ago I read 43*, a novella that supposed that had Vice President Gore won the 2000 election, the attacks of 9/11 might actually have been worse than they were in our actual timeline because of his singular focus on making the infrastructure of travel in the United States more efficient. That efficiency would have, in turn, resulted in the fourth plane crashing into the Capitol building, rather than in a field in Pennsylvania.

And despite the discrepancies between the Hulu show and the original book, I enjoyed 11-22-63, the Stephen King thriller in which a high school English teacher travels through a portal in time to save President Kennedy.

But what those two stories did—and which Machines Like Me does not do—was commit the cardinal sin of creating a wildly unbelievable alternate universe. For example, and this is a spoiler alert for the King novel, George Wallace is elected President within a cycle or two in that timeline, resulting in an armageddonesque dystopia for the penultimate chapter.

To Ian McEwan’s (best known for Atonement) credit, Machines Like Me finds its jumping-off point shortly after the Second World War, and with the British government’s choice to demonize, chemically castrate, and drive Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing to suicide. In this alternative, Turing is allowed not only to continue his mathematics work after the war, but to grow his studies into the burgeoning field of computer science. As a result, fully-realized artificial intelligence becomes available to the masses by the late 1970s and early 1980s. 

Charlie, our protagonist (I decline to call him a hero because his character is alternately shiftless and irresolute), uses a small fortune to purchase Adam, a member of the first generation of fully artificially intelligent robots. Adam’s personality and quirks are carefully chosen and crafted by Charlie and his would-be lover and neighbor Miranda, but the choices appear to have little functional impact on the android within a matter of a chapter or two. The artificial intelligence that powers Adam’s raison d’être allows him to fairly quickly develop his own identity.

It’s a classic fate vs. free will exploration: even if your “parents” raised with certain traits in mind, if you have your own curiosities and are permitted to explore them, those traits will fade fast.

Complicating matters further is Adam’s eventual affection (both platonic and romantic) for Miranda, and Charlie’s resentment toward both for their feelings. The bizarre love triangle reaches a tentative conclusion only when Charlie directly orders Adam to leave well enough alone, invoking an Asimovian law in principle if not by name.

Adam’s siblings’ intelligence eventually leads to each android in the generation committing a slow and strange suicide after becoming disenchanted by their realities as mechanical second-class citizens. This loss of kinship puts Adam in the unlikely position of becoming one-of-a-kind not through design but attrition, and Charlie’s periodic conversations with Turing himself suggest that artificial intelligence was not indeed ready for a deployment on this scale.

There’s a secondary plot of Miranda’s fear over and confrontation of a sexual predator about which I won’t go into detail, save to say that Machines Like Me marks the second time in my life a fictional character has used the act of vomiting as an odd act of aggression or revenge.

On the whole, I found the story to be an interesting look at the change in character that humans might experience in the presence of a sentient robot. The alternate history aspect of everything was a compelling hook: Turing’s survival is a great branch to explore. What might we have been capable of with a mind like his active during the early years of the electronic computer? But gratefully, the history element was incidental - Britain loses the Falklands War, MP Thatcher is politically dispatched without much ceremony, and riches are won and lost in milliseconds by algorithmic day trading. These deviations, while less criminal than the election of George Wallace, still distracted enough from the novel’s focus that I found myself putting the book down to dive into Wikipedia, researching Tony Benn and his positions relative to his real life opposition.

The real story centers on how artificial intelligence and natural intelligence interact with each other when presumed to be equal by an outside observer: are they genuinely equal, or do they merely pretend? The answer, naturally (or artificially?), isn’t simple, and McEwan makes no pretense that it is. Many strings are left untied-off, suffusing the last third of the book with a healthy tension. Without the benefit of an Alan Turing-led 1950s, does this future still await us, or is it lost entirely?

Machines Like Me
By Ian McEwan

Bot Book Review Rating: 3/5 stars

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