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The robot is the most human character in Ian McEwan’s so-so new novel

Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me is perfectly fine. Coming from McEwan, that’s disappointing.

LFF Connects: Ian McEwan - 61st BFI London Film Festival
Ian McEwan at the 61st BFI London Film Festival on October 8, 2017.
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for BFI
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

At the center of Ian McEwan’s at times disappointing new novel Machines Like Me is a triad: Charlie Friend, our narrator; Miranda, his girlfriend; and Adam, their personal robot. That the robot is by far the most interesting of the three is the point.

Our trio is living in an alternate version of the 1980s, one where Alan Turing didn’t die, and as a result, their technology has far outstripped our own. The streets are filled with self-driving cars; Charlie fritters away his days on the internet using an old 1960s computer; and human-looking robots called Adams and Eves have just hit the market. Charlie isn’t wealthy, but he decides to sink his inheritance into the purchase of an Adam just the same.

Charlie’s plan in part is to use Adam to woo Miranda, who is his distant upstairs neighbor as the novel begins and with whom Charlie hopes to share the responsibility of caring for Adam. It will be “erotic,” he reasons, because they will be creating a new form of life together. And in part, his plans are more exalted: He wants Adam to give him a purpose in life. Charlie has washed out of all the professions and interests and hobbies he once pursued — tech, anthropology, real estate — and now he spends his time buying and selling stocks on his computer, barely scraping by. But with Adam, he hopes he’ll make his life more meaningful.

Adam, Charlie rhapsodizes, “was the beginning of the long lesson we would teach ourselves that however complicated we were, however faulty and difficult to describe in even our simplest actions and modes of being, we could be imitated and bettered. And I was there as a young man, an early and eager adopter in that chilly dawn.”

There’s more than a hint of egotism to Charlie’s grand plans, though. Charlie rapidly reveals himself to be a callow fool who is more interested in gratifying his own sense of self than in lofty ideas about bettering mankind. Miranda, meanwhile, is a cipher, a woman with some dark secrets in her past who is mysteriously receptive to Charlie’s clumsy courtship.

But McEwan is having fun with Adam. Adam’s an embarrassingly earnest try-hard of a character, always ready to launch into high-minded conversations about art and ethics but seemingly incapable of reading the room to see if his audience wants to talk about them.

“I’m bound to conclude that I’ve a very powerful sense of self and I’m certain that it’s real and that neuroscience will describe it fully one day,” Adam tells the doubtful Charlie. When, in the novel’s best scene, Charlie is taken for the robot and Adam for the human, you’re not surprised: Charlie’s so boring and two-dimensional that his dull small talk is easily read as programming next to Adam’s dynamism and intellectual curiosity.

At this stage in his career, McEwan can write a pretty good novel in his sleep. Like nearly all of his books, Machines Like Me is elegantly constructed, the sentences are consistently lovely, and the character dynamics — especially as Adam falls in love with Miranda, and even more so as Charlie and Miranda unite to betray him — always compelling.

But Machines Like Me never rises above the level of “pretty good.” It reeks of wasted potential.

In interviews, McEwan made much of the fact that his book marries literary questions of character psychology and morality to sci-fi tropes — but despite this boast, at no point in the book itself does he seem to do so in an innovative or original way. “If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest,” he told the Guardian, dismissing the rest of the genre as books about “travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots.”

Given that you can pretty well summarize the past 50 years of robot books as “books about whether robots have rights and responsibilities and all the rest,” you would be forgiven for assuming that McEwan has never actually read any science fiction on the basis of this quote. In actuality, Machines Like Me explicitly references Asimov’s laws of robotics, and it’s set during the same year as Blade Runner in what appears to be a deliberate tip of the hat, so McEwan is at least passingly familiar with both Asimov and Philip K. Dick.

Still, the idea of a robot who seems more human than the humans surrounding him, to say nothing of the question of what those humans might owe him as a result, is hardly new or groundbreaking. And the idea of a robot whose inflexible virtues make him incompatible with naturally corrupt humans (Adam cannot bear the idea of a lie) is a downright cliché. It’s been done so often that it’s at the center of the worst Avengers movie.

There’s nothing wrong with playing out old or familiar tropes if you do them well, but Machines Like Me seems to avoid delving into new ideas with an almost willful obstinance. While it is overwhelmingly concerned with questions of sexual consent (which loom large in Miranda’s highly guarded and tragic past), and also concerned with the practicalities of robot sex (Adam gets erections from a reservoir of distilled water in his right buttock), never once does it appear to consider the potentially interesting question of whether or not robots can consent to sex.

Machines Like Me is a perfectly fine book. It is smart, and it is thoughtful, and it is fun to read. But from a novelist of McEwan’s caliber, and with material that has been worked over this often, it is disappointing.

It’s almost like a cyborg itself: The skin of this book is perfect, but when you look below the surface, there’s no soul there.

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