Machines Not Like Me: A review of Ian McEwan’s latest

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The assumption that robots will eventually integrate seamlessly into our lives has been long predicted, and shortly expected. Our culture anticipates a future where androids are as plentiful as and indistinguishable from humans, as told through hundreds of stories. These stories typically envision androids and humans at war, like The Terminator, or in love, like Her. In his new novel, Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan examines what it truly means for robots to be made in the image of humans, and whether the idea can ever be achieved (spoiler: it can’t).

Machines Like Me illustrates an alternate 1980’s London where technology is advanced beyond what we know even in 2019. McEwan attributes this success to scientist Alan Turing, who is very much alive in this parallel universe. Turing’s research has provided markets with the science to produce human-esque robots, ultimately fulfilling “the ancient dream, the beginning of the long lesson we would teach ourselves that however complicated we were, however faulty and difficult to describe even in our simplest actions and modes of being, we could be imitated and bettered.” Only 25 of these robots, trademarked “Adam and Eves”, were created and made available to the public for a high price. Just as all the familiar storylines go, the robots were all-knowing, had superhuman strength, and were, of course, drop-dead gorgeous.

Charlie Friend, a long time technology enthusiast, takes advantage of the limited robot release and orders himself an Adam, although he originally wanted an Eve. His recent inheritance provided by his mother’s death, which doesn’t seem to affect the thirty-three year old, funds the large expense, which he couldn’t otherwise afford. Charlie trades stocks daily rather than holding a steady job, hoping for luck but never quite striking it. Charlie’s reasoning for ordering an Adam is unclear, but he quickly realizes that he can use the toy to trap a romantic partner: his upstairs neighbor Miranda, a beautiful scholar 10 years his junior. He offers her the opportunity to build half of Adams personality in an effort to turn the robot into a love child between the two. Somehow, it works.

The two spend most of their relationship arguing over politics. Charlie thinks Margaret Thatcher should resign after the Falklands War, renamed the Falklands Catastrophe, proved to be a devastating loss; Miranda argues for her support. Changes to history for the sake of the story are scattered throughout the novel in order to reflect the morality of humans; Charlie and Miranda stand on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but fight for what they deem important to humanity. When newly elected Prime Minister Tony Bennett, whom Charlie supports and Miranda opposes, is assassinated, the couple consoles one another with disgust in how immoral others can truly be.

Charlie uses these arguments as a ploy to get a rise out of Miranda. She is a mysterious girl, and her lax demeanor is shattered during these fights. One night Charlie takes it too far and accuses Miranda of not caring for the many deaths Thatcher was responsible for. Miranda asks Charlie to leave her flat, but invites Adam to stay. Charlie eavesdrops from under her floor, and overhears the human woman and machine man engaging in coitois. Charlie’s original jealousy and insecurities about Adam flourish. He accuses Miranda of cheating on him, but she dismisses him, reducing Adam to a “vibrator.” The situation escalates when Adam admits that he has fallen in love with Miranda.

Machines Like Me illustrates an alternate 1980’s London where technology is advanced beyond what we know even in 2019

Adam grows increasingly intelligent and self aware. Constantly expanding his knowledge, he learns to destroy the kill switch so Charlie is unable to turn him off at night. Adam doesn’t need sleep, but he rests and lets his mind “wander,” meaning continuously taking in information from the internet. He takes up poetry writing, mainly haikus about Miranda. Adam spends his days sitting at the computer examining the stock market; it is a task he excels at. Meanwhile, Charlie reaps the wealth that his robot delivers, and looks to buy a new home and considers adopting a young boy to start a family with Miranda.

A series of revelations act as a catalyst, crystallizing Adam’s moralities. Despite loving Miranda and holding a deep respect for Charlie, Adam cannot condone their poor choices. Circumstances and context mean nothing to Adam: there is an obvious line between moral and immoral actions, and those who choose the wrong side must deal with the consequences.

When Machines Like Me opens, Charlie wonders what will result from his purchase of Adam. He determines that “tragedy was a possibility, but not boredom.” It takes tragedy — multiple depending on what your morals and viewpoint define this as — for humans to realize that robots can be made in their image, but cannot achieve, humanity.

WORDS: Katie Donlevy (@ktdonleavme)

IMAGE SOURCE: Nan Talese

Purchase a copy of Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan.

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