Sunday, 17 November 2019

"Machine Like Me" by Ian McEwan

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Ian McEwan released his most recent work to a hailstorm of criticism from the SF community after he arrogantly admonished everyone not to call him a “Science Fiction Writer”.  There is a lot to unpack in that little exchange.  The ironies had ironies.  Many offended authors told McEwan “Don’t worry. We won’t”.  The irony lay in the fact that many of those “SF” authors that took umbrage, shouldn’t really be calling themselves SF writers either.  McEwan’s attempt a scientific exposition though modest, was still an attempt.  There were no spaceships taking off in the background of a coming of age story.  There were no loosely fitting tropes masquerading as SF.  All of the things that some of McEwan’s detractors, are painfully guilty of.  What’s worse is most of the criticism centered around the idea that McEwan’s concept was unoriginal.  Many, without ever having read it, had passed judgment.  Though it speaks more about them then it does about McEwan.  In a day and age when the very word “science” is being stricken from submission guidelines, the criticisms are hypocritical. 

There were several things that bothered me right away: 

The manual for the android starts off by quoting the First Law of Robotics: "robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." Adam violates the 1st law with no hesitation or restraint when he attacks Charlie and breaks his hand. What I found particularly troubling and unrealistic about this, was Charlies' reaction to having his hand broken.  Most rational people would have instantly realized that whatever programming that was put in place to protect consumers was no longer working.  Charlie treated the whole thing as a minor industrial accident.  He didn't even consider the possibility that Adam might harm someone else, or the liability he might incur as a result.  Again, it was a crude device to increase the tension in the story.  It lent nothing in the way of authenticity to the overall narrative.

The main character is supposed to be an advanced hobbyist in the realm of computing but often uses some very anachronistic terms when it comes to describing Adam.  If was quaint (not in a good way), and reminded me of the 50s era representations of automatons in B movies.   


The story takes place in an alternate reality where Alan Turing never died.  The author attributes a great deal of technological advancement to that single event.  Too much.  While Turing was a genius, he was still constrained by the supporting technologies of the day.  Materials, miniaturization.  Those are things that were the by-product of the space race and the cold war. Not Turing. 

There is a subplot in the story having to do with a young Muslim woman being sexually assaulted.  This part of the story was easy, unoriginal, and sensational.  It was a cheap trope used to create an ultimately unsatisfying tension.  For lack of a better word, it was cheap, in every sense. 

It also struck me as strange that McEwan insisted on inserting events that actually occurred into the story without giving any credence to the idea that Turing's’ existence might have utterly precluded them.  As an example, he went on at length, more than once, about the Falkland’s War, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Margaret Thatcher.  Aside from the pace at which technology had advanced, apparently the result of Turing having not killed himself, everything else about the world remained more or less unchanged.  The Brits lost the Falkland war thanks to a bit of technology further enhanced by the computer age.  It was stranger still that despite this world of incredible technological advancement, the British apparently enjoyed very little in the way of an advantage over poorer authoritarian countries like 80s Argentina.  I suppose it’s plausible in an alternate reality.  But these small inconsistencies felt brushed on and thin.  Far more attention was given to the more nostalgic aspects of the book.  

Further, the concept was not terribly original.  It’s almost as if McEwan had never read “Bicentennial Man”, or any book written by Asimov having to do with robotics.  Hell, even a brief binge watch of a season of “Humans” might have revealed that many of the dynamics that McEwan touched upon, have been pontificated ad nauseum by the SF community for decades.  In that sense, the SF community was more than justified in their outrage about McEwan’s comments. 

Lastly, the story meandered.  In fact, the robot remained a prop in the background for much of it.  What made it worse is that the story meandered quite a bit at various points.  While I can appreciate the need for world building, a lot of it felt superfluous and repetitive.  After a while, I began to wonder if the alternate Turing universe was just a device McEwan used to avoid having to discuss technology in a more modern vernacular.  At best he simply lacks an understanding of the evolution of technology.  At worst, he may be a dyed in the wool Luddite. 

There were some good points.  If you are a McEwan fan, you will find that his powers of prose are still very much in evidence.  And some of you may be entertained by the idea of McEwan tackling subject matter such as this.  Despite my earlier criticisms about McEwan’s lack of knowledge about the genre, it did seem that he put a fair amount of rigorous research into this novel.  Despite the too frequent relegation of “Adam” to a stage prop, he didn’t avoid some of the more complex aspects of computing by making the technology fantastically inscrutable.  Even though it was painfully obvious that McEwan had no knowledge of SF canon or lexicon to speak of, he made a more than modest effort to discuss the technology that was relevant to the story.  Lesser writers often obfuscate their lack of scientific knowledge, or their unwillingness to do research in extremely generalized exposition, tropes, or by skirting the edge of the sister genre, Fantasy.  In this sense. McEwan’s only real crime lay in breaking the scientific aspects of the story apart with an incoherent narrative.  Yet he still managed to beat the pants off of many SF writers of today. 

The truly interesting thing about the story is it seemed to have layered, nuanced, and concentric themes.  Adam was described as a “Bosphorous Docker”, by which I assumed he meant a Turk.  Or at the least not Anglo.  When you put that together with the persistent reference to the anxiety of the British about having their jobs taken by machines, it struck me that “Adam” may simply be a surrogate for all of the xenophobia and nationalism cropping up throughout the western world.  To further the construction of that dynamic, the main character, during a bout of introspection, begins to realize how useless he already was.  He looks at Adam and sees this machine endowed in every way with the attributes of a human, but he also has a purpose, and not merely one chosen for him by Charlie.  In fact, Charlie hints at this idea that being privileged by virtue of simply being human, he had simply squandered all of his potential.  Conversely, Adam, whose very existence needed to be justified on a perpetual basis, was imbued with purpose and drive.  The juxtaposition of those two dynamics could easily be interpreted as an allegory for the rise of modern nationalism in Europe and the US.  People believed they were special by virtue of their citizenship are essentially being overtaken by people determined to justify their existence and even excel. 

The book was a pleasant read.  And a fast one considering its length.  As an author of SF I would not recommend this to other SF readers unless it was as an instruction manual on how to do some rigorous research for their own works.  However, I would recommend the book to others who are looking for a robot wrapped in some literary prose.  I would also recommend that they have a look at some of Asimov’s work on the subject as well.  If you’re a McEwan fan, it may be a good book to read if you're concerned about not liking SF. 

Shoji Minakuwachu

Mercurial. Mysterious.  Lover of SciFi and Izakayas.

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