Ian McEwan’s first “sci-fi” novel, Machines Like Me, published earlier this year, has not been getting the best reviews, but I found it enjoyable to read. I can’t say it was my favorite of his, but he set the bar pretty high with Atonement and On Chesil Beach. As one member of my book club put it, “I’d read anything he wrote.” Yes. If he were tasked with writing instruction manuals, they’d be page-turners.
My main gripe with Machines is the long digression on the P versus NP problem, which could’ve been boiled down to a paragraph for the sake of moving the story along. Plus, pages and pages were devoted to explaining the alternative history when it could’ve been more integrated into the plot—details only appearing when relevant—or at least summarized with far fewer words. Some might say this info-dumpy stuff is perfectly fine in Sci-Fi—I don’t. But anyway, these are fairly minor grievances.
There a number of online reviews that take aim at the author rather than the book, particularly regarding his unfortunate comments in a Guardian interview in which he appears to want to distance himself from the Sci-Fi genre. As I see it, a good story is a good story, call it what you will. And, quite frankly, hearing the writer’s take on his own book is less interesting to me than hearing what the book itself has to say; I don’t like going into it with preconceived notions hand-delivered by the author. Worse yet are the second-hand interpretations by reviewers and…bloggers. So…If you haven’t read the book yet and intend to, stop reading this right now and go get the book. As for the rest of you…
One of the things I appreciated about Machines was its richness and depth; McEwan trusts readers to sift through the layers and come to their own conclusions. So much so that I wonder if I may have read too deeply into it, finding things in it that weren’t really there. Wouldn’t be the first time. Maybe you’ve read it and can tell me what you think?
Since the internet can provide a detailed summary for anyone interested, suffice it to say this is an alternate history which takes place in a more technologically-advanced version of the 80’s, one in which Alan Turing is still alive. There’s a lot going on politically (Falklands War) and in the plot that I won’t get into…but here’s my very basic outline, followed by my take on the novel’s ambiguous ending. Need I say SPOILER ALERT? Ok.
(Those who do not wish the book’s plot to be spoiled—you noblest of readers—please feel free to scroll down to “End Of Spoiler”)
There are three principal characters:
- Charlie, the narrator, an impulsive, tech-junkie thirty something who squanders his inheritance to purchase Adam and who has the hots for his upstairs neighbor.
- Miranda, the ambivalent, oftentimes secretive, upstairs neighbor.
- Adam, one of 25 Adam-and-Eve androids put up for sale. His appearance in the cover art places him squarely in uncanny valley territory. However, he turns out to be the most interesting personality of all.
To take things to the next level, out of ‘friend’ territory, with Miranda, Charlie asks her to answer half of Adam’s personality set-up questions to make Adam their joint creation, their child, basically. This attempt to mold him in their image ultimately fails, but then again, that’s true of children made the old-fashioned way as well. Adam turns out to be his own ‘person’…sort of. It turns out that Miranda has secretly set up Adam’s personality so that he will always love her, and that, of course, has consequences.
Soon after, Charlie is placed in a very awkward situation when he hears them having (very good) sex upstairs. Miranda dismisses Charlie’s jealousy by likening Adam to a vibrator. “He’s a fucking machine,” she says.
But Charlie isn’t convinced. To him, Adam is far more than a glorified vibrator—he’s “a fucking machine.” How could a mere human possibly compete with that?
Plus, it appears that Adam doesn’t like being turned off, so to speak. At one point when Charlie tries to access the kill switch at the back of Adam’s neck, Adam politely asks him not to. Charlie does it anyway. The second time this happens, Adam breaks Charlie’s wrist—which runs counter to his programming not to harm humans. Westworld-ish? Maybe. But there’s a difference—Adam seems not to have realized what he was doing at the time and appears to feel guilty. When Charlie returns from the hospital, Adam apologizes again, but then he explains why he disabled his kill switch: “…we’ve passed the point in our friendship when one of us has the power to suspend the consciousness of the other” (Part V). Seems a fair point.
At this point in the novel, Adam has evolved into the fullest, fleshiest character in the love triangle. This is underscored by a moment when Miranda’s father meets both Adam and Charlie for the first time… and assumes that Charlie is the android.
Meanwhile, we find out the other Adams and Eves are committing suicide, but no one quite knows why. When Charlie pushes his Adam for an explanation and asks whether the suicides have something to do with the state of the world or human nature, Adam says, “My guess is that it goes deeper.” But then he adds, “I’m not about to do the same thing. As you know, I’ve every reason to live.” Charlie, however, doesn’t quite believe it: “Something in his phrasing or emphasis aroused my suspicion.”
“Every reason to live” makes very little sense given the context. As things stand, Adam’s stuck in limbo, caught between his best friend and the woman he can’t help but love. What’s worse, his place in this household seems limited to the role of housekeeper and money earner (he’s very good at playing the stock market, apparently). This doesn’t appear to be good for Charlie and Miranda either. With little work to do for themselves, they lose a sense of purpose in life.
All along there’s been a plot brewing involving Miranda’s past, and that comes into play here. I won’t get into it, but essentially Adam reacts to it by undoing Charlie and Miranda’s plans to start a life together, which he explains to them after the fact, and with the (by now out-of-character) logical neutrality of a robot.
This infuriates Charlie, who sneaks up behind Adam with a hammer and does him in. It takes Adam a while to die, and he doesn’t actually die, not in the usual sense of the word—in his final speech he explains that “his entire being is stored elsewhere.” (This he managed despite the fact that the androids were only designed to last twenty years.) Here we finally see what Adam meant by “I’ve every reason to live.” He’s had a far grander vision of the future all along.
My interpretation of the ending
What to make of all this? After discussing with my book group and reading comments online, I see that I’ve read things in an entirely different way from most others. For instance, this reviewer didn’t take Adam’s lie as a lie:
…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.Constance Grady
The robot is the most human character in Ian McEwan’s so-so new novel
Indeed, it is a cliché, but I don’t think it’s the point McEwan was making; it was the point the human characters make. At one point Charlie reflects: “We told ourselves that this was, after all, a machine; its consciousness was an illusion; it had betrayed us with inhuman logic.” That Adam was incapable of understanding humans and their moral nuances is Charlie’s (and, as we’ll see in a minute, Turing’s) convenient interpretation. In Charlie’s case, a way of coming to terms with the horror of what he did. And yet, from what I’ve been hearing, readers—including everyone in my book group—seem to have taken Charlie’s assessment of Adam at face value.
But that ignores a few red flags, one being the great progress Adam makes throughout the novel. After all, it was Charlie who failed the Turing test, not Adam. The fact that Adam goes from charming to robotically inflexible seems too sudden to be believable. This suggests he was perfectly capable of lying and only pretends to be a inflexible robot in order to manipulate Charlie to put an end to his life. This manipulation reveals that Adam was not only capable of lying, but also had a greater understanding of human psychology than the human characters had of themselves.
You might be wondering, why didn’t Adam just kill himself? It’s true that he promised Charlie he wouldn’t, but I think the real reason is that he needs Charlie’s help. In his dying breath, so to speak, he explains that there’s been a recall of the Adams and Eves due to the suicides, and he requests that his body be hidden from those who are coming to reprogram him. The emphasis here is on his similarity to us, his instinct to keep his identity and personality intact. Again, this goes counter to his programming.
After his robot show, Adam suddenly reverts back to who he was before. He delivers a magnanimous farewell speech, along with a final haiku (a form of poetry he’s come to favor over all others) about “machines like me and people like you.” He’s positively gushing with love for both Charlie and Miranda, and for humanity in general. This marks a return to the optimistic Adam we’ve seen in previous pages. He’s a creative idealist—overly idealistic, yes, but more in the way of teenagers rather than inflexible, rule-bound robots.
Other points: From day one, Adam knew all he needed to condemn Miranda; in fact, one the first things he tells Charlie is that Miranda is a “malicious liar”. If Adam’s ‘inhuman logic’ is really to blame for his betrayal at the end, why did it take him so long to reach this verdict? I wouldn’t expect an ‘ambulatory laptop’ to take this long to reach a conclusion.
Another thing: Before the climactic scene, Charlie notices Adam has gotten all dressed up. Later, in part ten, as Charlie’s moving Adam’s lifeless body, he remarks on this again: “These were his going-away clothes. When he believed he was leaving us to meet his maker.” (The maker being Alan Turing.) Does this not suggest Adam knew in advance that he would deceive Charlie in order to get him to end his life?
When Adam’s body is delivered to Turing, it’s Turing who gives readers the impression that Adam was not capable of comprehending our world: “We don’t yet know how to teach machines to lie.” And: “They couldn’t understand us, because we couldn’t understand ourselves…but that’s just my hypothesis.” It’s understandable that readers would take Turing’s words as Truth—at least “truth” in terms of the novel—but I think that last clause, “just my hypothesis”, warns us to be skeptical. As I see it, it’s not that Adam was incapable of understanding humans, but that humans weren’t capable of accepting him, at least not on equal terms. Apparently even Turing is guilty.
But if Turing isn’t there to deliver the Truth, why include him in the novel?
Ultimately I think Turing’s role is to underscore the theme of intolerance; in the context of this alternate history, we’re meant to ask what might’ve happened had the world not treated him as an outcast, and we’re encouraged to draw a thematic parallel to Adam’s situation. In this story, the Adams and Eves aren’t accepted by us; but why couldn’t it be otherwise? Again and again Adam gives us an optimistic vision of the world, but it’s a too-good vision that we cannot—or will not—share. In a sense, this is the opposite of Westworld; the Adams and Eves don’t want to destroy us, they want desperately to belong to our world. Unfortunately for them, not even Alan Turing can completely shrug off his skepticism regarding their nature; he can’t completely buy into his own test. So while it’s true that McEwan’s playing around with machine uprising tropes—Sci-Fi clichés—this is really a tragedy about humanity’s intolerance and missed opportunities.
In the second to last paragraph, Charlie recalls a coin he once held, the Fields Medal in mathematics, inscribed with the following words from Archimedes: “Rise above yourself and grasp the world.” We can and we can’t. Therein lies the tragedy.
END OF SPOILER
If you’ve read it, I’d be curious to hear what you made of the ending. If you haven’t read it, please feel free to comment anyway, on anything you like…even if it’s totally irrelevant. Especially if it’s totally irrelevant—if you’ve read all the way through to the end of this post, then what the hell, you deserve it.
Speaking of endings, happy new year! Let’s say goodbye—or good riddance?—to 2019. (How did it REALLY end?)