I was try­ing to get it so that peo­ple would feel gen­uinely split, not among them­selves but within them­selves. That’s re­ally the heart of the mat­ter.

Au­thor Ian McEwan on his novel Ma­chines Like Me


Ma­chines Like Me

Ian McEwan Pen­guin Ran­dom House Canada

Oc­ca­sion­ally, Ian McEwan will be asked what he does for a living.

The ques­tion might come from a cab driver or some­one else he has come across dur­ing in his day-to­day life. Some­times he will sim­ply lie and say he’s an ac­coun­tant “just to close the ques­tion down,” he says.

But other times, when he’s in the mood, he will ad­mit to be­ing a writer. That in­evitably leads to the next ques­tion: What do you write about?

“I say: ‘I write about love, mu­sic, physics, math, his­tory —’” McEwan says with a laugh, in an in­ter­view with Postmedia from his home in Lon­don, Eng­land. “That’s not a help­ful line at all, but it cer­tainly closes the con­ver­sa­tion down.”

The line may not be help­ful, but it is true. McEwan is one of mod­ern fic­tion’s most beloved and ac­claimed sto­ry­tellers, but it is still dif­fi­cult to sum­ma­rize what ex­actly it is he writes about when look­ing at his 45-year body of work. It has ranged from his sprawl­ing gen­er­a­tion-span­ning 2001 clas­sic Atone­ment to 2016’s Nut­shell, a mod­ern-day retelling of Ham­let through the point of view of a fe­tus.

Even sum­ma­riz­ing a sin­gle novel by McEwan can prove dif­fi­cult. Which brings us to his lat­est, the in­trigu­ingly mind-bend­ing, poignant and funny Ma­chines Like Me.

It’s a multi-lay­ered tale that in­volves most of the above ar­eas of in­ter­est. That in­cludes a strange love tri­an­gle. Sci­ence and math play a role since McEwan is spec­u­lat­ing on the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of asyet un­re­al­ized ad­vances in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. It also takes place in 1980s Lon­don, al­beit in an al­ter­na­tive his­tory in which Eng­land lost the Falk­lands War, Mar­garet Thatcher is fight­ing a los­ing bat­tle for power against Tony Benn and Alan Tur­ing didn’t com­mit sui­cide in 1954, but in­stead has gone on to be­come a celebrity sci­en­tist and gay icon who helps cre­ate syn­thetic hu­mans.

It’s such an ex­hil­a­rat­ing mish­mash of ideas that it’s hard to know where to start in speak­ing with the au­thor.

It turns out, the com­plex­i­ties of the tale have been build­ing piece by piece in his mind since his uni­ver­sity days in the late-1960s, even if he didn’t re­al­ize it.

“It’s odd how these things can be ly­ing around in your mind and you don’t even think about writ­ing a novel about them,” he says. “They are just part of the white noise of your own thoughts. It’s al­most in­vis­i­ble to you. I’m just im­pelled to these kind of top­ics. Sud­denly I thought I wanted to write a novel about it. It all started to co­here. Partly be­cause I think it has pressed in on the cul­ture quite strongly with the de­vel­op­ments in soft­ware in the last few years. I’ve al­ways had an in­ter­est in sci­ence any­way.”

At the Uni­ver­sity of Sus­sex, McEwan be­came fas­ci­nated by a course he took on the so-called mind-body prob­lem and par­tic­u­larly the ques­tions it posed about whether a ma­chine could think. In the late-1970s, he wrote The Imi­ta­tion Game, a Sec­ond World War TV drama partly set at Bletch­ley Park. That was the se­cret fa­cil­ity where Tur­ing made his code break­ing break­throughs and be­came the fore­fa­ther of com­puter sci­ence. (Al­though it has the same ti­tle and some sim­i­lar sub­ject mat­ter, McEwan’s story is not the ba­sis for the 2014 movie star­ring Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch as Tur­ing.)

Around the same time, McEwan was moon­light­ing as a fea­ture jour­nal­ist and one of his as­sign­ments was to in­ter­view a pro­fes­sor of ro­bot­ics at the Uni­ver­sity of Ed­in­burgh, who also hap­pened to be at Bletch­ley Park dur­ing Tur­ing ’s hey­day.

Later, McEwan be­gan fol­low­ing the work of his friend Daniel Den­nett and other philoso­phers, be­com­ing par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nated with an area of study in the 1990s that looked at the re­la­tion­ship be­tween con­scious­ness and neu­ro­science.

“These things have been in my mind a long time,” McEwan says.

At the heart of Ma­chines Like Me is a love tri­an­gle be­tween a drift­ing would-be in­tel­lec­tual named Char­lie, his young but mys­te­ri­ous neigh­bour and girl­friend Mi­randa and a syn­thetic hu­man named Adam. In this al­ter­nate uni­verse, much of the tech­nol­ogy we have to­day ex­ists as of 1982 thanks in part to Tur­ing, who has also over­seen ad­vance­ments in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence that far ex­ceed what we have to­day. Adam is an in­trigu­ing creation. He is po­ten­tially lethal, at times in­suf­fer­ably moral­is­tic but deeply in love with Mi­randa and prone to writ­ing end­less haiku po­ems in her hon­our. But he also has knowl­edge of a dark se­cret in her past of which Char­lie is not ini­tially aware.

Be­cause Eng­land lost the Falk­lands War, Lon­don circa the 1980s makes for a chaotic back­drop full of un­em­ploy­ment, po­lit­i­cal up­heaval and ri­ot­ing. But McEwan says set­ting the tale in an al­ter­nate 1980s was more prac­ti­cal than any­thing else. He didn’t want to write a sci­ence-fic­tion novel set in the fu­ture and he needed a time when Tur­ing could still be alive. In real life, Tur­ing was charged with in­de­cency in 1952 un­der Eng­land’s anti-ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity laws. Rather than face im­pris­on­ment, he chose to un­dergo bru­tal hor­monal treat­ment. He com­mit­ted sui­cide a few years later. Like so much of Ma­chines Like Me, the char­ac­ter of Tur­ing was based on a sim­ple what-if sce­nario.

“He could eas­ily have gone down an­other route,” McEwan says. “Imag­in­ing (him as a) rather chubby, con­ven­tion­ally dressed man who would have con­fronted the ’60s ... that ex­pe­ri­ence be­came a sort of puzzle. What would his life have been like? Would he have been al­tered pro­foundly by the 1960s? Would he have come out as gay? Would he have be­come a fig­ure, a sym­bol, an icon? Might he, in his bril­liance, be­come a fig­ure in the cul­ture like Ein­stein was or Stephen Hawk­ing ? It’s al­most like send­ing a let­ter back to him say­ing how I wish you had lived. How I wish you had lived where you could have been openly gay and proud of it and use­ful to oth­ers.”

The novel ex­plores heady themes of con­scious­ness and hu­man­ity and how his­tory is con­tin­gent on a mix of events, choices and chance that could eas­ily have gone dif­fer­ently and led to a sig­nif­i­cantly al­tered present. It’s trippy stuff.

But McEwan says the real core of book is a moral dilemma that Char­lie, Mi­randa and Adam even­tu­ally face and come to op­po­site de­ci­sions about.

This may prove to be the most con­tro­ver­sial as­pect of the novel, par­tic­u­larly in the con­text of the #MeToo move­ment. We dis­cover that Mi­randa’s past in­volves a sex­ual as­sault and a trial. While it would be a spoiler to give too much away, the sit­u­a­tion poses un­set­tling ques­tions about jus­tice, re­venge, moral­ity and truth.

McEwan ac­knowl­edges the #MeToo move­ment means Ma­chines Like Me will be emerg­ing into a cul­ture much dif­fer­ent from the one in which even 2001’s Atone­ment was re­leased. Among other things, Atone­ment ex­plored the long-term ram­i­fi­ca­tions of a false ac­cu­sa­tion of sex­ual as­sault

But the au­thor says the sex­ual as­sault as­pect in this novel serves a spe­cific pur­pose in the plot. He wasn’t think­ing about the #MeToo move­ment at all.

“I was look­ing for a dilemma and one that was re­ally strong. Not just a mi­nor fact, but one where a life was in­volved and a ter­ri­ble cru­elty,” he says.

“Adam takes one view, which is also Tur­ing ’s view, and Char­lie and Mi­randa take an­other. I was try­ing to get it so that peo­ple would feel gen­uinely split, not among them­selves but within them­selves. That’s re­ally the heart of the mat­ter.”

As for any other sim­i­lar­i­ties or the­matic threads be­tween Atone­ment and Ma­chines Like Me, or be­tween any of his nov­els, McEwan says he will leave that for oth­ers to find.

At 70, he ad­mits he doesn’t give much thought to his body of work as a whole. Re­cently, his pub­lisher sent him new pa­per­back edi­tions of all of his books. All of them — from his 1978 de­but The Ce­ment Gar­den to 1998’s Man Booker Prize-win­ning Am­s­ter­dam to his crit­i­cally ac­claimed 2014 novel The Chil­dren Act — are cur­rently piled on top of each other on his fil­ing cab­i­net.

“When I walk past them, there’s a very com­pli­cated feel­ing about it,” he says. “That pile can only get so high. That’s the me­mento mori feel­ing about it. How many more have I got? That’s one thought. The other is, yeah, if I put my fin­ger on the spine of any of those books in this 12-inch pile, I know ex­actly where I was, what my cir­cum­stances were, how life was when I was writ­ing it.

“So it is a curious thing. It gives off a sort of ra­dioac­tive heat. And some­times I think I ought to put them out of sight. I don’t like be­ing dis­turbed ev­ery time I walk past. But I leave it to oth­ers to draw the lines be­tween them.”


“It’s odd how these things can be ly­ing around in your mind and you don’t even think about writ­ing a novel about them,” Ian McEwan says. And then he did.

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