Anil Menon’s review of Ian McEwan’s “Machines Like Me”

Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me is set in the past in which England lost the Falkand War and Alan Turing was still alive. The story is about Adam, an android, and its relationship with its owners. It is also a novel about Alan Turing and laying down of the theoretical principles of artificial intelligence. Ron Charles writing for the Washington Post ( 17 April 2019) says “…Mc­Ewan…is not only one of the most elegant writers alive, he is one of the most astute at crafting moral dilemmas within the drama of everyday life. True, contending with an attractive synthetic rival is a problem most of us won’t have to deal with anytime soon (sorry, Alexa), but figuring out how to treat each other, how to do some good in the world, how to create a sense of value in our lives, these are problems no robot will ever solve for us.” Sadly though this is a novel that has received a mixed reception. It also generated quite a hue and cry when Ian McEwan said in an interview that Machines Like Me was “not science fiction“. Nor did he have time “for conventional science fiction”. A month later in The Wired ( 19 May 2019) he clarified, “…actually I’ve read a fair amount of science fiction over a lifetime…I’d be very happy for my novel to be called science fiction, but it’s also a counterfactual novel, it’s also a historical novel, it’s also a moral dilemma novel, in a well-established traditional form within the literary novel,” he says. “I’m very happy if they want to call my novel science fiction, even honored. But it’s much else, that’s all I’m trying to say.” But by then articles such as “‘It drives writers mad’: why are authors still sniffy about sci-fi?” by Sarah Ditum ( Guardian, 18 April 2019) had been published. As Ron Charles says, “McEwan, who won the 1998 Booker Prize for Amsterdam, is a master at cerebral silliness. His previous novel, Nutshell, was a modern-day retelling of Hamlet from the point of view of an indecisive fetus. In that book and in this new one, McEwan knows just how to explore the most complex issues in the confines of the most ridiculous situations.” Author and computer scientist, Anil Menon, says in his review of the book:

It doesn’t help that McEwan’s alternate world is an implausible mess. Partly this is because McEwan gives many details, unwisely and often carelessly, to establish plausibility. For example, we learn that Charles’ car, a mid-60s’ vehicle, is a “British Leyland Urbala, the first model to do 1,000 miles on a single charge.” Since the novel’s 1940s more or less mirrors our 1940s, it means that in 20 years, McEwan’s world has gone from cars that run 15-20 miles/ gallon to a 1960s’ electric car with almost twice the mileage of a 2018 Tesla! On the other hand, we’re also told that Adam takes 16 hours to recharge on a standard 13 amp socket. Since Charles has already told us that “At thirty-two, I was completely broke,” it can only mean electricity costs next to nothing.

The real technical problem is that McEwan does not want to use a near-future setting. So he sets his novel in an alternate 80s’ world similar to our world, except for an accelerated development of technology after World War II. Turing is trivialised into a totalising genius responsible for practically every advance in computer science. The robot’s existential dilemmas were new in the 1940s, when Asimov wrote his tales, but McEwan seems to think they’re brand new. Turing sombrely informs Charles that “we don’t yet know how to teach machines to lie,” but didn’t robots supposedly pass the Turing test in the 1960s?

My criticism is not about “getting the science right”. It is about getting the psychology right. The Great Chain of Servitude — slave, serf, servant, employee and devotee — now includes a new subaltern: the robot. The stories we tell about robots are stories about our evolving understanding of personhood and servitude. History matters. By disrespecting history, McEwan reduces this understanding to a caricature.

Alas, Machines Like Me, is a dull book. In all likelihood no publisher would have taken it, if it hadn’t had McEwan’s name on it. Oh well!

15 June 2019

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