Our siris, ourselves: how intimate have so many of us become with our myriad personal devices — the buzzing smartphones we cradle in our palms like firstborns, the soothing disembodied voice of the GPS that guides us home? And how close must we already be in 2019 to mass-market, fully realized artificial life?
In his uneven but intriguing new novel, England’s reigning man of letters imagines a speculative world in which that reality has already come to pass, albeit only in prototype. One of these brand-new androids belongs to an aimless Brit named Charlie Friend, and though his “Adam” can’t stand in the rain or operate a chain saw unsupervised, he’s still a marvel: bright-eyed, square-shouldered, able to absorb the works of Shakespeare in a single evening, pen his own haikus, and play the stock market with steadily spectacular results. At first, Charlie and his girlfriend are entranced by their new toy. But then Adam begins to manifest major glitches — among them an unmistakably human penchant for sadness, duplicity, even romantic love.
Readers have come to expect certain things from Ian McEwan (Atonement); master of the streamlined novella, eternal enemy of the wasted word. He goes on longer and shaggier here, digressing into tech-manual esoterica and secondary dramas. For reasons that never become entirely clear, Machines Like Me is set in an alternative 1982 London: Classic Tolstoy novels have new titles; the Beatles have cozily reunited in midlife; JFK survived a long-ago assassination attempt in Dallas. And maybe most germane to this story, the brilliant code-breaker and computer logician Alan Turing has, instead of being chemically castrated for his homosexuality and dying in obscurity, survived and thrived as a sage of the modern age. But when the narrative clicks, it hums; a searching, sharply intelligent, and often deeply discomfiting pass through the Black Mirror looking glass — and all the promise and peril of machine dreams. B