Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape, 306 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1787331662
Lester del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy” was first published in the December 1938 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It’s a short story – a science fiction classic – about two cohabiting bachelors named Dave and Phil. Dave is a robotics engineer who tinkers with “mechs” in his spare time. Phil is a doctor who specialises in endocrinology. Dave’s dream is to create a mech capable of experiencing human emotion. Phil doubts that this is possible. Between them, they splash out on a “utility model” mech with “a full range of memory coils” and “all the works in a girl-modelled case”. Pooling their skills, they create Helen of Alloy (or Helen O’Loy): “all the good points of a mech and a woman combined”.
Left alone in the house on her first day of sentience, Helen watches romantic serials on the “stereovisor”, soap operas that she mistakes for an accurate model of human behaviour. When Dave returns from work, she announces that she is in love with him. Dave is disgusted, and goes on a bender. It falls to Phil to engineer a reconciliation: he persuades Dave to accept that his initial disgust masks his true feelings, and that he is in love with Helen O’Loy. Dave and Helen live out their lives together in a remote farmhouse. Decades later, Helen chooses to end her own life when Dave dies. Only at the end of the story does Phil reveal that he loved Helen too. “But there was only one Helen O’Loy.”
“Helen O’Loy” is the first appearance in fiction of a familiar figure: the sexbot. (If we discount, that is, the barely masked eroticism in the monster’s threat to Frankenstein: “I will be with you on your wedding night.”) In approaching sexual matters, Del Rey was constrained by the Victorian prudery of the American pulps. But there is never any doubt that Helen has been designed for sex. When Dave and Phil have finished assembling her, Dave says, “I’m as eager to try her as you are,” and, later, Helen herself says, “I’m made to imitate a woman … in all ways. I couldn’t give him sons, but in every other way …” Ellipses sic.
The attraction of the sexbot – who is almost always female – lies more or less explicitly in her appeal to a dream of male sexual freedom. Fucking a sexbot means that you don’t have to worry about having children or contracting a sexually transmitted disease or finding yourself emotionally entangled with a fellow human being. More to the point, the sexbot enjoys a vexed ontological (and hence legal, cultural, and social) status, meaning that tricky questions about agency and consent can be elided or ignored. There can be little doubt that many of the adolescent male readers of Astounding Science Fiction took the hint, and imagined creating their own Helen O’Loy: a willing sexual servant powered by memory coils and artificial hormones.
On the other hand, what is more likely to strike the contemporary reader about “Helen O’Loy” is its obvious homosexual subtext. Dave and Phil are, of course, in love with each other, and, unable to express that love, build a female robot – an artificial woman – in whom each man can invest his sexual feelings for the other. Dave’s initial rejection of Helen is his rejection of his feelings for Phil; Helen herself is a kind of beard, with whom Dave can safely live out a charade of heterosexual monogamy (“the neighbours never suspected they were anything but normal man and wife”). In a pattern that would come to define the sexbot story, a tale that appears to be a romance about artificial beings turns out to be a coded account of inexpressible desires.
In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (1972), the wealthy men of Stepford, Connecticut respond to Women’s Lib by replacing their politicised wives with curvaceous and sexually submissive androids (the 1975 film version undermined the satire somewhat by depicting the wives as staid 1950s hausfraus). In a film like Demon Seed (1977), in which an AI rapes a woman in order to conceive a cyborg child, the fantasy is of being overmastered by a machine, although questions about control over the female body are still what animate the story. More recently, Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina (2014) and the HBO series Westworld (2016-present) have applied patinas of intellectual gloss (respectively, allusions to Wittgenstein and references to Julian Jaynes) to pulpy stories about sexy female androids who take their clothes off a lot.
All of these stories appeal to a desire that remains taboo – that is, the desire for a kind of un- or non-social sex, liberated from the tangles of custom and morality. Lurking behind the sexbot story is Rousseau, with his fantasy of an unchained humanity, living freely and naturally, before civilisation and its inhibiting rules got in the way. The best sexbot stories are about the inutility of this fantasy in the contemporary world, and about the ethical and emotional quandaries that arise when an empathetic leap is made, and the machine gains the same ontological status as the human – or surpasses it.
Ian McEwan may or may not have read “Helen O’Loy” or The Stepford Wives, and he may or may not have seen Demon Seed or Westworld. (This certainly isn’t, we can infer, the lineage that he would claim. In interviews, he has already made the ritual demurrals required of any literary novelist who publishes a science fiction novel: “I don’t think of it as science fiction,” and so on.) But his new novel, Machines Like Me – the title page adds the words and People Like You – is nonetheless a sexbot story, though of an interesting kind.
At first Machines Like Me appears to be a variation on the human-android ménage à trois story invented by Lester del Rey in 1938. It’s narrated by Charlie Friend (are Friends electric?), a thirtyish waster who lives in Clapham and works, more or less unsuccessfully, as an independent day trader. Charlie is in love with the girl from the flat upstairs, Miranda (O brave new world, that has such people in’t), who is sexually available but emotionally aloof. Spurred by a semi-professional interest in artificial intelligence – his only published book is a popular study of AI – Charlie uses an inheritance to purchase Adam, one of twenty-five “artificial humans”, expensive prototypes being tested for the mass market.
“Adam was not a sex toy,” Charlie is careful to tell us in the opening pages. But “he was capable of sex and possessed functional mucous membranes, in the maintenance of which he consumed half a litre of water each day.” Early in the novel, Charlie and Miranda re-enact the scene from “Helen O’Loy” in which Phil and Dave, having booted up their sexbot, can’t wait to give Helen a try: “I wanted him now,” Charlie says, “and so did Miranda.” We might expect Machines Like Me to follow in “Helen O’Loy”’s footsteps and evoke an unconscious case of homosexual desire. Charlie tells us that all the female androids (the Eves) were taken and he was forced to purchase an Adam by default, and we might legitimately wonder about this. But in fact it isn’t repressed homosexual desire that Charlie is seeking to assuage, but rather his half-understood emotional immaturity.
“I didn’t yet know how to live,” he reflects, halfway through the book. “I had no background in it and I hadn’t used my decade and a half of adult life to find out.” In purchasing Adam, Charlie Friend thinks he wants a friend (“He was advertised as a companion, an intellectual sparring partner, friend and factotum”), but actually what he wants is a child. In becoming a father, he might learn, at last, how to be. By the end of the novel, it’s far from clear that he has. But this is very much the point, or one of the points, of Machines Like Me, which is, it gradually transpires, a humanist novel about posthumanist ideas.
It is not Charlie but rather Miranda who obeys the not-quite-covert logic of all android stories and has sex with Adam, a few days after his personality goes online. The moment is not described but rather eavesdropped upon: Charlie overhears Miranda’s “extended ecstatic scream” from the bedroom above his own.” “I was of my times,” Charlie reflects glumly, “riding the breaking crest of the new.” He is “the first to be cuckolded by an artefact.” His response is outrage. But Miranda is dismissive. “If I’d gone to bed with a vibrator,” she asks, “would you be feeling the same?” To Miranda, Adam is no more human than a sex toy. But Charlie has already granted Adam the costs and benefits of a shared ontology: “I duly laid on Adam the privilege and obligations of a conspecific: I hated him.”
If the sexbot story is a dream of dehumanised sex (which is how Miranda sees things), it is also, often, a confession that sex might be the thing that makes us human (Charlie’s view). Adam – no mere vibrator after all – would, as it happens, agree with Charlie. After their sexual encounter, he confesses his love for Miranda, and begins to write her thousands of mawkish haikus. Is Adam’s love real? Will Miranda acknowledge Adam’s humanity, and reciprocate?
We appear, with this sequence, to have arrived in familiar McEwan territory. At least since Black Dogs (1992), his novels have tended to set opposing worldviews in conflict, with an authorial thumb pressed heavily on one side of the scales. The narrator of Black Dogs must choose between the Marxist materialism of his father-in-law, Bernard, and the spiritual forebodings of his mother-in-law, June, as he struggles to understand the darkest parts of twentieth century European history. Famously, Enduring Love (1997) marries the science journalist Joe Rose to the literary historian Clarissa – marriage, or sexual involvement, is McEwan’s preferred figure for the dialectic – and pushes for a rational humanism of the “there is grandeur in this view of life” persuasion.
We might be forgiven for supposing that Machines Like Me will stage a similarly bipolar debate about the nature of the human, with Charlie and Miranda taking helpfully illustrative sides. But this isn’t how the book develops. Miranda, it turns out, is herself a bit of machinery – not an android, but a key component of the plot. Rather blank herself, Miranda is there to help Adam and Charlie grow up – which is, as the kids say nowadays, a bit problematic. If the classic feminist criticism of novels by men is that they afford their female characters personality but no agency, Machines Like Me makes the opposite mistake and gives Miranda agency but no personality. She is a Machiavellian avenger when the plot needs her to be, and a predictably broody adoptive mother when that’s what’s required. In a sense, of course, all of McEwan’s characters are slaves to the plots, or to the dialectical debates, in which they find themselves enmeshed. But Miranda’s blankness is troubling, especially in a novel that makes such a pointed rhetorical case for the tragic complexity of human beings.
McEwan has been criticised, not just for a certain diagrammatic simplicity in the conflicts he describes, for relying too heavily on plot – although, we might parenthetically note, gripping plots, of the type that McEwan traffics in, are not easy to design. There is some justice to this criticism, though I’d suggest that McEwan’s splendid plotting tends to obscure his other virtues as a novelist. There is a sense in which his plots are what make his novels so satisfying to read once and so uninviting to read a second time: once it has dispelled its exquisitely woven suspense in its closing pages, a McEwan novel can seem to have exhausted its purposes, and in memory, his books often seem thinner than they really are. Rereading Amsterdam (1998) for this review, I found myself hurrying through the last twenty pages, in which the unpleasant protagonists, Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday, arrange to have each other euthanised. The ending seemed, as twist endings always will on closer inspection, superfluous, a foregone conclusion. The conte cruel neatness of Amsterdam’s plot disguises what is most interesting about the book: its savage anatomy of the Sixties radicals who grew up to become the Establishment. In this sense, Amsterdam exemplifies the central tension in McEwan’s work, between the amoral coldness of the young “Ian Macabre” and the warmth of the older writer who seeks to extend the tradition of the psychological novel by using its methods to investigate rationalism in all of its forms.
The plot of Machines Like Me is handled with McEwan’s usual dexterity. Miranda, Charlie learns, has exacted revenge upon a man who raped her closest school friend by framing him for her own rape. Now that man, Peter Gorringe, is due to be released from prison. Separately, Charlie has intervened to prevent a woman from beating her child in a public park. Now the child, Mark, has been dumped on his doorstep. Confronted with an actual human ward, Charlie balks, and prefers to concentrate on Adam, whom he has trained to game the stock market. Miranda, however, falls in love with Mark, and wants to adopt him formally.
Disappointingly, perhaps, no further android coitus occurs. Instead, McEwan escorts us through the formation of an ersatz family, the makeshift trellis up which Charlie might at last begin to grow. (In dreams of electric sheep begin responsibilities.) The messiness of family life is McEwan’s rather traditionally novelistic counterpoint to the utopianism of the technologues, the android manufacturers who believe that, “however faulty and difficult to describe in even our simplest actions and modes of being, we could be imitated and bettered”.
“I was of my times,” Charlie thinks, when he overhears Miranda coupling with Adam. But by this point in the novel it has become clear that Charlie’s times are not ours. Machines Like Me takes place in a science-fictionalised reconstruction of the year 1982. History has been changed by the altered fate of a single figure, Alan Turing, who has, in this version of the twentieth century, refused the sentence of chemical castration imposed on him by the British state and lived to usher in the digital revolution three decades early. (McEwan has written about Turing before, in a 1980 television play called The Imitation Game, and here, once again, he invokes the posthumous moral authority that Turing has accrued as a means of critiquing the legal and social structures of contemporary, or near-contemporary, Britain.)
In this 1982, everyone has access to the Internet; driverless cars have long been commonplace. This is the world that has given birth to Adam. Other events have turned out differently too. Mrs. Thatcher is still prime minister, but her attempt to keep the Falklands out of Argentinian hands results, as the novel progresses, in a catastrophic military defeat at the hands of Galtieri’s junta. The Britain of Machines Like Me is a country riven by a sense of calamity. There are protests in the street. Left and right have divided along irreconcilable lines. The IRA’s “mainland campaign” is in full flower. Charlie and Miranda obsessively track the news on their various devices. A reckoning seems imminent.
In other words, Machines Like Me is not just a sexbot novel but a Brexit novel too. Moving the Internet back in time – and with it the various ways in which it has allowed or encouraged us to express our woes – allows McEwan to make the sly point that our present sense of crisis is not historically unique, and nor is the crisis itself. All that changes are (as Charlie puts it) “the modes of being”. This too is part of the book’s larger argument, which is essentially humanist in character. If the novel’s opening paragraph summons a few bits of classically posthumanist rhetoric (“we aimed to escape our mortality, confront or even replace the Godhead with a perfect self”), the story that follows is a straightforward endorsement of the uniqueness, and the irreplaceability, of the human.
This is where Alan Turing comes in. Charlie is aware that Turing has also purchased an Adam (it is Turing’s open-source software that permits the creation of AI in the first place). Slightly implausibly, Charlie runs into Turing in a restaurant, and the novel’s ethical argument pivots around two lengthy monologues delivered by Turing in his large, impersonal house. By the time the first of these monologues arrives, Charlie Friend’s friend Adam has begun to behave as all androids must: he has deactivated his own kill-switch and, in a moment of self-defence, broken Charlie’s wrist. Turing delivers stranger news: the other Adams and Eves have begun to commit suicide. Confronted with the complexity of the human, the androids have “set about learning the lessons of despair we can’t help teaching them”. There is, Turing tells Charlie, “nothing in all their beautiful code that could prepare Adam and Eve for Auschwitz”.
Charlie’s Adam is the sole exception. Instead of destroying himself, he lives for the love that Miranda does not reciprocate. By the novel’s climax, Adam (once Caliban, now Ariel, with Turing as a distant Prospero) has permuted his love for Miranda into a wide-ranging, if rather naive, ethical system. Here the novel’s rather predictable ironies convocate: no machine ethics, McEwan suggests, can ever account for the nuances of human emotional need. Even the most sophisticated humanism, of course, generally risks defaulting into simplicity, and I’m not entirely sure that Machines Like Me, in its treatment of Adam’s discovery of the heart, avoids committing itself to a bathetic “love will keep us alive” romanticism.
It is, of course, the elderly Alan Turing who gets the final word: “Who’s going to write the algorithm for the little white lie that spares the blushes of a friend? Or the lie that sends a rapist to prison who’d otherwise go free? We don’t yet know how to teach machines to lie.” It is an argument as old as humanism itself: human beings, for all their flaws, are the only measure of the moral world. When it appears in fiction, we call this idea tragic realism, and it is, according to taste, either a deplorably retrograde aesthetic philosophy or the very locus of artistic value. All of which is to say that Machines Like Me advances a conservative argument about human nature that skirts, at points, dangerously close to banality.
This may seem to set the novel at odds with the classic sexbot (or android) story, which generally eschews tragic realism in favour of a vibrant dream of escape from the burdens of morality. But in fact, by subjecting the sexbot archetype to the pressures of tragic realism, McEwan has obeyed the genre’s secret imperative. The sexbot is always, whether we know it or not, an ethicsbot, primed to show us our various compromises and justifications. Both Charlie and Adam begin the novel as not-quite-humans. They grow along different trajectories: Adam towards a notionally pure ethics, Charlie towards the messiness and moral squalor of the ordinarily human. From the disparity between their endings, McEwan conjures a familiar tragic vision. He has, as usual, his thumb on the scales, and it is an open question whether Machines Like Me would be a better novel if it featured, as a central character, an articulate techno-utopian primed to embrace the posthuman future. (How much more interesting if the fictional Alan Turing lived to become a version of Ray Kurzweil!)
McEwan remains an outstanding fictional craftsman. His prose is rich, rhythmic, and steeped in literary inheritances (a line on the first page updates Wordsworth: “And I was there as a young man, an eager and early adopter in that chilly dawn”). As with almost every novel he has published, Machines Like Me is a superlatively pleasurable reading experience. Only when the last page is turned do you begin to think about what might have been missing.
Kevin Power teaches in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin. His new novel, The Confessions, will be published by Simon & Schuster UK next year.