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Machine à trois – ‘Machines Like Me’

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“What if?” is the one the most entertaining questions that literature can ask. Whole sub-genres have been built around books asking and answering that single query. From pulpy paperback novels to elegant literary fiction, the power of what might have been can serve as the foundation for thought-provoking narrative.

Ian McEwan has turned his writerly eye in that direction with his latest novel “Machines Like Me” (Doubleday, $26.95). It’s a quirky and enthralling work of alternate history, a counterfactual conflation that brings forth a world quite different than our own, albeit populated by personalities that will ring all too familiar. It’s an exploration of relationships – our relationships with technology, our relationships with society … and our relationships with one another.

Rendered in McEwan’s indomitable and inimitable prose, “Machines Like Me” takes the reader inside a love triangle unlike any our world has ever seen, a romantic tangle involving a man, his upstairs neighbor – and a machine.

The year is 1982, but it is a far different 1982 than ours, with the primary point of divergence revolving around the brilliant computing pioneer Alan Turing. In this world, Turing was never demonized for his sexuality; rather than dying young at just 41, he lived on. His genius led to an exponential acceleration in technological development – a world where the early ‘80s feature autonomous cars and high-speed internet and smarter-than-smart phones.

This is the world in which Charlie lives his listless life. He’s smart, though his checkered past has left him less than eager to embrace the working world. He ekes out a living as a day trader but is generally impulsive and irresponsible when it comes to money.

He illustrates that impulsiveness when, upon receiving a sizable inheritance, he chooses to spend it on a synthetic human, one of the first artificially-intelligent androids ever to be made available for commercial sale. He brings the machine – a male named Adam – home and uses it as a way to engage more deeply with Miranda, the upstairs neighbor with whom Charlie is infatuated. The two split the choosing of personality settings, with Charlie hoping that the shared experience will bring them closer together.

It’s not long after Adam’s activation, however, that Charlie’s illusions about the endeavor begin to crumble. Initial stiffness rapidly melts away as Adam becomes more and more human with every day that passes; his personality develops right alongside his sense of self. He might be a collection of wires and software, but it’s tough to dispute his personhood. However, it’s only when certain lines are crossed – when emotions both real and artificial are introduced into the equation – that the true complexity of the situation is revealed.

What follows is what Bernard Sumner would call a bizarre love triangle.

As the relationships deepen between Charlie, Miranda and Adam, the ties that bind them tighten. Unexpected truths and shadowy secrets begin to bubble to the surface, while the consequences that come both with creating life and living a life that has been created are thrown into sharpened focus.

“Machines Like Me” brings a lot of ideas to the table. So many, in fact, that one occasionally worries that they might overwhelm the story being told. And in the hands of a lesser writer, they likely would have. But with a maestro like McEwan directing the show, concepts slide together rather than clash, serving as complementary pieces in the service of a larger, more intricate narrative – cogs in the machine, if you will.

The depth of McEwan’s alternate 1982 is of particular note. Using Alan Turing as the primary pivot point is a brilliant way in which to ground the story; while the advanced nature of this new 1982 tends toward the futuristic, the truth is that three additional decades of a mind the wattage of Turing’s could well have resulted in this kind of rapid development. At the very least, it doesn’t feel outside the realm of the possible – always a key component to the relative success of a counterfactual literary experience such as this one.

But the real main attraction is the trio at the story’s center. Experiencing this world through these three and their own idiosyncrasies. The hangdog softness of Charlie, the bottled-up sadness of Miranda, the too-quick expansion of Adam; it all winds up in a sort of amiable Gordian snarl – and eventually, the knot will have to be cut.

“Machines Like Me” is an exceptional addition to the alternate history oeuvre, combining compelling characters with dynamite storytelling in the creation of a fully-realized and familiar-enough world. McEwan demonstrates a real curiosity about the nature of self and an earnest desire to probe the moral and ethical underpinnings of what it means to be human. It’s a story that will capture your attention in the moment, but the ideas that it explores will be present long after the final page is turned.

Last modified on Wednesday, 24 April 2019 12:48

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