The year, strangely, is 1982.
McEwan rewrites the history of technology, and innumerable other things, to make an A.I. masterwork like Adam plausible back in the Thatcher era. Frankly, he could have set the novel in 2040 with less hard labor. The reason he’s gone to the trouble — this is conjecture, but it reflects well on McEwan so let’s go with it — is that he wanted the story to unfold at a time when the great mathematician and World War II code-breaker Alan Turing might still have been alive had he not eaten a cyanide-laced apple in 1954 after the government prosecuted him Oscar Wilde-style for being gay. McEwan bestows on Turing the career, and knighthood, he deserved. He even makes him a minor character as the conscience of the digital age. Turing, in turn, puts his extended lease on life to use and makes advances like Adam possible decades early. In recent books, McEwan has sometimes been too showy with his research, and “Machines” is one of those sometimes: His explication of the world’s revised timeline is disruptive and atonal. Still, there’s something moving about a novelist assiduously reconfiguring history just so one good man can live.
Having said all this, “Machines Like Me” is no more out-and-out science fiction than Kazuo Ishiguro’s elegiac novel about clones, “Never Let Me Go.” In fact, “Machines” is about what most literary novels are about: the godawful messiness of being human. Though his feelings for Miranda are genuine, Charlie is otherwise lazy and selfish. He becomes agitated the instant he’s brought Adam home and plugged him in to charge. He’s intrigued by the creature, but clearly threatened by how good he looks naked. He chastises himself for squandering money (“My foolish infatuation with technology! Another fondue set”) even as he fantasizes about raising Adam like a son with Miranda: “My schemes generally fell apart. This was different. I was clearheaded, incapable of deceiving myself.”
Falser words were never spoken. Adam regretfully informs Charlie that his online research has revealed that Miranda cannot be trusted — “There’s a possibility she’s a liar. A systematic, malicious liar” — and then the robot, at Miranda’s request, joins her in bed.
As the novel progresses, Adam rebels in various ways, like any automaton wanting a little autonomy. But by and large he is a threat only because he comes to insist on a higher ethical standard than his human hosts can manage. Charlie has an almost comic fit of pique over Miranda’s sexual betrayal (“Our lovemaking was constrained. I was distracted by the thought of Adam’s presence and even imagined I detected the scent of warm electronics on her sheets”), then conscripts Adam to do all his investing for him so he himself can focus on cracking the enigma code that is his girlfriend.
It turns out that, before meeting Charlie, Miranda orchestrated an astounding campaign of vengeance against … someone. Now, when she and Charlie attempt to expand their futuristic family by helping a troubled little boy named Mark, her past boomerangs back, and “Machines” starts edging toward tragedy. It’s a surprising but welcome development in a novel that had seemed preoccupied with things that sci-fi writers have already asked and answered: What constitutes a consciousness? Is it a good idea to invent stuff that could handily eat your lunch? Soon, it’s obvious that some sort of life-altering violence is in the offing. Again: This is an Ian McEwan novel. But the author, being a deft hand at suspense, delays the revelation of who will suffer and how badly.