I cannot recall this ever happening before, Machines Like Me lost to a series, or rather the android in said series. McEwan introduces us to Adam, a near-human robot, and forces us to ponder on the impact near-human robots can have on society. He cannot help the fact that Data, the fabulous android in Star Trek: The Next Generation, showed us that impact many years ago. Everything that could have made Adam brilliant, endearing and incredibly annoying had already been shown by Data.
Machines Like Me furthermore suffers from a lack of focus. McEwan wants too much. Somewhere around World War Two history takes a different path. Brilliant scientist Alan Turing does not commit suicide but proudly announces his love for his male lover to the world. As a result he sets out on a course of discoveries leading to a society in which self-driving cars have become normal. The development of robots the next step. When the novel starts Great Britain has just lost the Falklands War, providing an opportunity for a new Labour leader to take control of the country. Nice, this other path of history, it distracts however. I was wondering at a certain point what story McEwan had set out to write.
The novel is written entirely from the point of view of Charlie, Adam’s owner. The tricky thing in this case being the fact that Charlie kind of seems unfinished. He looks at things, ponders a lot, has himself carried away, it just does not make him a convincing personality. From a certain point of view a brilliant choice: the undeveloped man set against the near-human robot developing day by day. Charlie becomes the ideal example of man having a robot earn his living, not having to work himself, just enjoying life. Unfortunately McEwan does not leave it at the dilemma of the impact of artificial intelligence on our life, he adds girl-friend Miranda and her quest for revenge. Another moral dilemma.
Miranda turns out to have had her revenge on her best friend’s rapost. A young Pakistani who commits suicide after having been raped. Thema three has been introduced: how do you deal with such a situation, what impact does it have on your life? Add to this a child that has been literally left on Charlie and Miranda’s doorstep and the lack of focus becomes evident. The rape story line in itself could have led to a beautiful novel. In Machines Like Me it has to compete with the robot story line and some world history taking place.
Moving on to Adam. As I said at the start of my blog, Data already showed us the humanity of an android, and the small matter of his perfection being absolutely annoying. Data was given the chance to develop during the many episodes of The Next Generation, Adam’s development takes place in only a few pages. To make matter even more complex McEwan has added a bonus. The Adams and Eves that have been produced do not seem to be able to cope with the absurdness of reality, their factual brain cannot handle non-logical reality. More and more of them commit suicide, in their own way. Charlie and the reader are therefore constantly on the lookout for signs showing Adam is about to do the same.
Conclusion: Machines Like Me could have been a brilliant novel if McEwan had chosen focus. The impact of robots, of artificial intelligence of mankind, the moral dilemmas of Miranda, those topics by itself could have been written down in beautiful novels of their own. Machines Like Me unfortunately suffers from abundance.