In MACHINES LIKE ME the scientist Alan Turing did not die in 1954 but is instead instrumental to fast-forwarding the digital age. This novel is set in 1982 and Margaret Thatcher’s Britain has just lost – yes lost – the Falkland War. In this alternative version of the universe, our main protagonist Charlie has foolishly squandered his mother’s inheritance on one of the twenty-five first synthetic humans, twelve Adams and thirteen Eves. Charlie would have preferred an Eve, but they were sold out first.
In the course of the novel we see how Charlie and Adam relate to each other. Because Adam is so life-like, Charlie has to remind himself often that Adam’s reactions and actions are based on his programming not on his ability to love, hate or empathise. Charlie is very upset when his girlfriend has sex with Adam. But is it betrayal when it is a machine?
And this is the most intriguing part of the novel, the reader is confronted with the question “what makes us human?” The imperfection of human beings, is what set us apart from robots. It is okay to make a programme in which it is wrong to tell lies, but what about a little white lie? Robots are not meant to harm humans through action or inaction – but when some of us live a life of privilege at the cost of terrible living conditions elsewhere – what is a robot supposed to do?
The storyline in MACHINES LIKE ME is often funny, sometimes academic, but always propulsive: we want to know what happens to our main characters and Adam in particular. But Ian McEwan has written more than a good yarn, he has given us an insight into the importance of the flawed human nature. This book has given me lots to think about.
Machines Like Me, Vintage 2019, $37.00