Reading Note:
6 May 2019

¶ On Saturday, I think it was, I was overcome by a desire to be done with Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me without enduring the unpleasant surprises at the end, which I was sure lay ahead. So I peeked. And they did. The new friend took the money that he had earned. The girlfriend got into legal hot water for having perjured herself. And Alan Turing — in this fictional world’s intriguing and often painful alternative history, Turing is still alive in the Eighties — gave the narrator a dismissive talking-to at the end. Will I read the fifty-odd pages in between these disclosures? I’m not sure.

It’s not at all unlike me to have a look at the end of a novel when the suspense becomes uncomfortable. I don’t really care for suspense as such — that sense, usually planted by very careful foreshadowing, that something unpleasant is about to happen. I can bear it in the time-frame of a feature film, but over the days that it can take to read a novel, especially an unappealing novel, the itch is hard not to scratch. 

And Machines Like Me is unappealing, because McEwan tells the story through a first-person narrator who drops quickly from unlikable to detestable. It is not that Charlie Friend does anything detestable in itself, but rather that his clueless narcissism (for which his girlfriend scolds him, that’s how obvious it is) becomes insupportable. He is wholly unsuited to be the owner/comrade of an artificial, persuasively life-like, human being. For one thing, Charlie cannot decide (and doesn’t seem to be aware of his indecision) whether Adam, the new acquisition, qualifies as a human being. The novel is very good about teasing out the philological paradox of “man-made human being,” but Charlie, who gushes at the start about his interest in the possibilities of artificial humanity, tends to treat Adam like yet another home appliance. He sinks to the occasion. 

As if that were not bad enough, Charlie speaks like — well, not like Ian McEwan. Charlie is a guy you meet at a party who, wanting to make himself interesting to a complete stranger, hews to low common denominators. He speaks like an insincerely educated man, capable of big phrases every now and then but incapable of sustaining their implications, and in any case not much interested in doing so. He is the sort of person who regards his lust for a girlfriend as a badge of honor. I couldn’t believe that Adam’s manufacturers allowed Charlie to make the purchase. If nothing else, Machines Like Me is a passionate argument against any free market in robots. 

At first, I thought that McEwan had made a mistake in opting for first-person narration — an unusual choice for him. However, as an omniscient observer, or just as the teller of Charlie’s tale, it would have been impossible for McEwan to avoid “editorializing” on Charlie’s bad choices, which garner what drama they generate from their being uncontested. So I would suggest that the novel would have been far more agreeable to read if it had been told from the point of view of a wise old neighbor, endowed with a voice not unlike McEwan’s and placed to pass along Charlie’s garrulous chitchat while providing a protective barrier from Charlie’s moral halitosis.

I don’t expect artificial human beings to appear within my lifetime, or, to be perfectly honest, within the lifetime of anyone alive today. The intelligence is not the problem, and only geeks would think that it was. The problem is the fabrication of bodies. I predict that the uncanny valley between robots capable of all human actions and robots capable of deceiving intimate companions into thinking that they, too, are human beings will be immensely broad and mortally arid. With this in mind, I did not read Machines Like Me as a cautionary note from which to pluck useful insights for dealing with coming attractions. Nevertheless, I never went for more than two pages without having to put the book down and think. The contemplative richness of Machines Like Me unfortunately made its narrator look all the more rubbishy. 

I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book.

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