Book review of Machines Like Me: No country for both
Ian McEwan has a history of picking up unusual subjects and turning them into themes of his novels. The English author has been nominated for the Man Booker prize on six occasions, winning it once for the modern-day classic Amsterdam.
Machines Like Me is a counter-factual novel set in 1980s London. The narrator is Charlie Friend, a lethargic 32-year-old who dabbles in stock markets from his scruffy London apartment and avoids fulltime employment. Charlie has made many bad decisions in his life. He spends his substantial inheritance on an android, "The first truly viable manufactured human with plausible intelligence and looks, believable motion and shifts of expression." The android is one of the 12 male androids named Adam. And 13 Eves, created in the same batch, have been sold out already. Charlie's neighbour is Miranda, who he is in love with. The two of them design the personality of the android, followed by consequences neither could have foreseen.
Incapable of writing a single lifeless sentence, McEwan creates interesting characters and produces twists readers won't expect. In the alternate world, England has lost the Falklands war. Alan Turing doesn't commit suicide by eating a cyanide-laced apple after being prosecuted for his homosexuality. Diehard fans of the Beatles will be surprised at the mention of Love and Lemons, a reunion album supposedly created by the band twelve years after they split. Of course, these fans would soon realise there is no such Beatles album. It is, like many other things, a reality of a fictional world.
Adam, the android, is fascinating to observe. The author explains its origin: "Electronics and anthropology - distant cousins whom late modernity has drawn together and bound in marriage. The child of that coupling was Adam.
McEwan's agenda goes well beyond telling a simple story with an android as one of the main characters. He asks profound questions as the story progresses. Can a machine, for instance, understand a human being? Adam's creator, a renowned scientist, explains that the android and his siblings, "Couldn't understand us because we couldn't understand ourselves. Their learning programs couldn't accommodate us. If we didn't know our own minds, how could we design theirs and expect them to be happy alongside us?"
Machines Like Me, despite the presence of Adam, Turing and technology, isn't science fiction. The narrative is complex, partly because McEwan, who has invested a lot in research, lets it show as well.
Charlie is not a particularly interesting person to know. Miranda, who has had a dubious past, makes us observe her closely. The novel is immensely readable also because of Mark, a four-year-old child who appears in a few sequences and has a back story that holds our attention.
Ian McEwan is one of the most distinguished stylists at work today. Several of his novels have been adapted into films. Machines Like Me, one believes, will be made into a gripping film someday.