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Ian McEwan on his “anti-Frankenstein novel”, Machines Like Me

When does a robot become indistinguishable from a human? McEwan’s latest novel offers one answer – when it sleeps with your girlfriend.

“It was religious yearning granted hope, it was the holy grail of science,” begins Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Machines Like Me. The book is set in an alternate version of the 1980s, where artificial intelligence research has far outstripped its current limits. As Britain loses the Falklands war and Tony Benn is elected prime minister, a 32-year-old Londoner called Charlie embarks on two new relationships. He falls in love with his upstairs neighbour Miranda, and spends an £86,000 inheritance on Adam, one of a new breed of humanoid robots “with plausible intelligence and looks, believable motion and shifts of expression”.

Adam is 170lb, looks Greek or possibly Turkish, and is “not a sex doll”, although he can have sex. (The 13 Eves in the original production run sell out before the Adams; seven go to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.) He has access to the entirety of human knowledge – this version of the 1980s has the internet – and he can do the dishes. He sounds like the perfect housemate. He isn’t.

As Adam’s battery slowly charges, there is a longueur familiar to anyone who has bought an Apple device. First, a heartbeat, faintly rhythmic below the realistic skin that nonetheless can’t be left out in the rain. Then breath. Then movement. All these trappings of humanity leave Charlie unable to calibrate his relationship with his new… possession? Guest? Friend? Slave?

Early on, Adam tells Charlie that he has searched the internet and found something terrible, something unforgivable about Miranda: “There’s a possibility she’s a liar. A systematic, malicious liar.” Charlie is furious, as if the toaster had insulted his mother.

His fury twists and blooms, though, when Miranda has sex with Adam one night. The couple’s subsequent argument reframes the question of Adam’s consciousness in a perfectly late 20th-century way. Never mind the Turing test – where an AI is asked to simulate the patterns of everyday speech well enough to pass for a human. What about the cheating test?

Miranda is unrepentant: Adam is a glorified vibrator. Charlie’s wounded jealousy shows that, without having realised it, he disagrees. “I wanted to persuade myself that Adam felt nothing and could only imitate the motions of abandonment. That he could never know what we knew,” he writes. But listening to his girlfriend moaning in the dark, he feels betrayed. “I hated him.”

For the academic Timothy Garton Ash, who has read all McEwan’s manuscripts before publication for the last 30 years, this scene is the defining set-piece of the novel, the equivalent of the balloon accident in Enduring Love (1997). In typically McEwanish fashion, he says, the book offers a grand theme, alongside “intimate observation of personal relations. One would recognise the combination even without his name on the cover, immediately.”

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On a cloudy spring afternoon, I arrive at McEwan’s Bloomsbury mews house burning to ask him one thing: would you buy an Adam or an Eve? Settling down on the sofa with a mug of tea, the 70-year-old answers a subtly different question. He chose to write an Adam because “it got me off many hooks, really”. It was interesting to ask, if there was an object somewhere between a person and a machine, “whether you are actually cuckolded when it runs off with your girlfriend, even only for a night”. Charlie and Miranda’s argument was the scene he wanted to write; all the abstract debates clarified by raw, primal emotion. By contrast, “a man buying an artificial woman just takes me into the realm of the pornographic”.

He is right to think this, depressing as it might be. In 2017, Samantha, a life-size automaton equipped with AI which responded to “seduction”, was withdrawn from an Austrian tech show. “The people mounted Samantha’s breasts, her legs and arms. Two fingers were broken. She was heavily soiled,” engineer Sergi Santos told the Metro. “They treated the doll like barbarians.”

Machines Like Me suggests that c0-existing with realistic androids might change the experience of humanity, too. To live with another presence in your house is to diminish your privacy; one way to cope is to dehumanise the intruder, to reduce them to moving scenery. It’s what drives those hilarious court cases where rich people forget that their servants can hear them (and testify against them). It should feel wrong to keep a sentient being in your home and order it to do the dishes.

For a novel that later features a human rape case, that sex scene also poses an uncomfortable question: did Adam freely consent to have sex with Miranda, given that she was the girlfriend of his owner? Could he even have the ability to do that?

As part of his research, McEwan listened in as parents discussed their children’s relationships to voice assistants such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. “I’m already feeling uncomfortable around these things, and it’s going to throw us back on to all kinds of self-examination, too,” he says. “Should your children say ‘Please’ to Siri? I’ve actually sat in on parents discussing that, because if they don’t say ‘Please’ to Siri and Alexa, how’s it going to affect their relationships to other people?”

Machines Like Me feels like a novel about empathy, and the artificial limits we set on it – by race, by gender, by geographical location – so that we can sleep at night in a world of cruelty and horror. The Adams and Eves lack that quintessentially human knack of caring more about the people around us, or the people we feel are most like us. They care too much, for everyone, and it hurts them.

The book also dallies with theory advanced by the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen: what we call wickedness or cruelty is often, really, a failure of empathy. To commit evil, people must dehumanise their victims, treating them as objects. And since we don’t treat our fellow humans with empathy, what hope is there for lifelike robots?

McEwan calls Machines Like Me an “anti-Frankenstein novel: this idea that our technologies will rise up and consume us is only partially true”. He has been reading about a new version of the “trolley problem”, designed to help programme autonomous vehicles. It asks: under what circumstances should a self-driving car sacrifice the life of its occupants for other road users? People in North America and Europe are keener to save children than the elderly, he tells me. “The Chinese put old people at the top, because they respect their elders. So you might not be surprised that I’m coming round to this Chinese view.”

I’ve taken a version of this test – the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has one online – and it quickly becomes agonising: do you kill seven criminals, or three children? Yourself or a nun? Your own child or a busload of kids on a school trip? This could be the challenge of advanced AI, McEwan thinks, given that “all our religions and all our philosophies and all our daily gossip demonstrate that we know how to be good, but being good is another matter. We might have creatures who are morally uncomfortable to be around, not because they’re wicked, but because they stick to principles.”

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McEwan has come to science fiction late. He is already the author, alongside 15 novels, of three short story collections, and several screenplays. His interest in big themes – climate change, the family courts, surgery – is bolstered by deep research, too much of which occasionally ends up in the finished product.

He now lives between London and a Cotswolds manor with nine acres and a full-time gardener. The latter house is always full at weekends; unusually for the time, he ended up with custody of his sons after his first marriage ended in the 1990s, and the boys now have children of their own. He met his second wife, Annalena, when she came to profile him for the Financial Times (unfairly raising the bar for how well an interview with Ian McEwan can go, I feel).

His politics are liberal and progressive, but not tribal. After he refers wryly to “despised New Labour” at one point, I press him on whether he is now politically homeless. He reels off a list of Blair-era accomplishments – Sure Start, the right to roam, minimum wage, giving control of interest rates to the Bank of England – before acknowledging that the Iraq War overshadows all these. “The collective memory in Momentum and such is that [Blair] is like the Trotsky figure in Nineteen Eighty-Four, you know, Goldstein.”

When Blair recently made a speech against Brexit, he found himself thinking: “It might be better for us if he was on the other side.” He is rueful. “And yet he spoke on it very well, as did John Major.”

He lives, he admits, in an anti-Brexit bubble – but then again, he felt the same during the Falklands War, which was incredibly popular. (The only person he knew who backed it was Christopher Hitchens, who saw it as an anti-fascist struggle.) At least with Brexit, he knows that 48 per cent of the country agrees with him.

The formal innovation of Machines Like Me shows McEwan is “still at the height of his powers”, says Garton Ash. More surprisingly, “apart from the horror of Brexit, which he and I talk about endlessly and hangs over us like a psychological burden, he’s really enjoying himself in life and in art. That comes through in the last two books.”

McEwan was, for a brief period in the 1970s, a writer for the New Statesman. I arrive at his house bearing a present: his articles from that time, which suggest that Machines Like Me has had a long gestation. On 19 May 1978, he wrote about Brian Johnson’s The Secret War, an account of Bletchley Park’s Ultra programme, which cracked the German Enigma code. The undisputed genius of Bletchley Park was Alan Turing, whose early computer was vital to the cryptographic war effort.

In Machines Like Me, Turing is alive in the 1980s, still working on computers – and, like Tim Berners-Lee with the world wide web, making his discoveries freely available, rather than locking them in proprietary software as modern tech companies tend to do. McEwan has also transplanted Demis Hassabis, founder of Google-owned AI company DeepMind, to the world of the novel – payback for the conversations he had with him during the course of his research. Hassabis told me he was “honoured” to have contributed to the book: “I understand it prominently features Alan Turing, one of my all-time scientific heroes, and I’m looking forward to reading it.”

There are many subtle differences between the world of Machines Like Me and ours: my favourite is the election of Tony Benn – Jeremy Corbyn’s political mentor – as prime minister following Britain’s defeat in the Falklands. Only then does the country realise that Benn intends to go through with withdrawal from the European Union, which was mentioned in a single line in the Labour manifesto.

The most tragic difference, though, is again a question of identity. This novel’s Alan Turing, unlike the real one, did not kill himself at the age of 41 in 1954. This Turing did not take the terrible bargain offered by the British state after his homosexuality was discovered: chemical castration with synthetic oestrogen instead of trial and imprisonment. This Turing served his jail sentence, was released, and lived long enough to see a world in which he could take his male partner to dinner in Soho without anyone glancing at them twice.

On the day I meet the novelist, Brunei has just announced new laws that make gay sex punishable by stoning to death. The country is part of the Commonwealth; it owns hotels such as the Dorchester; the Sultan is a friend of the Queen. McEwan and Annalena had been discussing that morning if a boycott of the Dorchester would have any effect. “Its clientele is not one with a great social conscience! – I’m putting it at its mildest.”

As the sky darkens outside, he wonders how the “liberal conscience” is dealing with all this; I suggest it will be no hardship for me to boycott the Dorchester. Personally, he hasn’t visited the hotel since 1996, when Gore Vidal suggested a consolatory lunch after McEwan’s father died. “He said, ‘I’ll tell you what’s the best thing when your father dies: to go to the Dorchester Grill,’ so we went, and we talked about the death of fathers, and it was very nice.”

McEwan’s father David was an army man, who retired as a major. His parents had an affair during the Second World War, while his mother Rose was still married to her first husband Ernest. The affair produced a baby, who was secretly handed over to a childless couple at a railway station in 1942. After Ernest died in the D-Day landings, David and Rose married; McEwan was born in 1948. But they never asked for their firstborn back, and the novelist only discovered the existence of his brother (by then, a retired bricklayer) in the early 2000s.

By his own account, McEwan grew up in a strict household. “At home, there was violence in the air,” he wrote in a 2001 memoir, “Mother Tongue”. That association of masculinity and violence lingers in his work. In 2016, the interviewer Decca Aitkenhead noted that “more than one of McEwan’s earlier novels features an uneducated but dangerously virile man (Tarpin in Solar, Jed Parry in Enduring Love) who imperils the comfortable middle-class world of an intellectually highbrow fellow”.

True to form, in Machines Like Me, Charlie tries to prevent a mother smacking her child at a playground. The kid’s father turns up, swears at him and threatens violence. Charlie turns away from the fight, worrying about the brain damage he could sustain if he fell to the ground. “This was what cowardice was,” he concludes, “a surfeit of imagining.”

Early in McEwan’s career, Philip Roth advised the younger novelist to write as though his parents were dead. Has getting older liberated him as a writer? “No, I never minded much about that,” he says. “And my parents were alive when I published my steamiest fiction.”

In his father’s struggle between pride and “the contents of my actual books”, he is happy to report that pride won. “Parents are really a stand-in for superego,” he adds, as the rainstorm outside resolves itself suddenly into a window-shaking roll of thunder. “There! You see what happens when you talk about fathers.”

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On the liberal left, “identity politics” has now become a deeply contested term. Some contend that movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter are a necessary corrective to centuries of identity-based oppression; others are concerned that fracturing voters into ever-smaller special interest groups chips away at empathy and co-operation. “Identity is a huge pain in the arse,” Zadie Smith told an audience in February 2019, adding that she was tired of being told “a black girl would never say that”, while her husband Nick felt hemmed in by being treated as a “white guy” rather than an individual. She added: “The only thing that identifies people in their entirety is their name: I’m a Zadie.”

McEwan is familiar with the arguments. He reads widely, and not just the kind of Big Men of Literature beloved by his late friend Christopher Hitchens. In our conversation, he praises the young Irish novelist Sally Rooney’s Normal People – “I just was bowled over by it” – and his living room shelves hold Emily St John Mandel’s exquisite sci-fi story Station Eleven. His world has not become narrower, or his positions more reactionary, as he has aged.

He is relaxed about the idea of identity politics – “if it frees people into their desires without hurting anyone else, then I think entirely bring it on” – and can’t wait until the orthodoxies around race, gender and the rest have relaxed, allowing the debates to become less angry. He is pleased that when he goes to gay weddings, “they’re as boring as all the other weddings. It’s not even bohemian any more. And that’s great: that’s where it needs to get to.”

He was caught out, however, a few years ago by the swift advance of terminology around gender. In 2016, he gave a lecture to the Royal Institution which talked about how modern selfhood, “like a consumer desirable, may be plucked from the shelves of a personal identity supermarket, a ready-to-wear little black number”. He added: “For example, some men in full possession of a penis are now identifying as women and demanding entry to women-only colleges, and the right to change in women’s dressing rooms.” In a Q&A afterwards, he was challenged by a woman in the audience who called his remarks offensive. “Call me old-fashioned, but I tend to think of people with penises as men,” McEwan replied.

There was an immediate backlash. Eddie Izzard, who once called himself an “action transvestite” but now says he wears nail polish due to having “girl genes”, got involved, telling ITV’s The Agenda: “I didn’t pull it off the shelf. I knew when I was four and I came out when I was 23.”

McEwan later clarified that the right to change gender “should be respected and celebrated” and that “biology is not always destiny”. Was the row, I wondered, why he included references to a young boy in the novel liking dresses – and still being a boy? “No,” he says, simply. “It’s actually based on two or three little boys that I know.”

And there was his own experience too. When McEwan was seven or eight years old, he waited until his father, an army officer, had gone to the sergeants’ mess. He tiptoed downstairs. Then he remembers “saying to my mum, who was knitting, ‘Listen, I’ve decided: I want to be a girl’. And she said, ‘Get straight back into bed at once, and don’t you ever dare speak of this again, and don’t you dare tell your father what you just said’.” The young Ian went back to bed, “utterly horror-stricken”. The experience made him wonder where he fitted in: with the “rough boys” who tyrannised him in the playground, or the girls who “just stood around having conversations”.

It is hard to imagine the Ian McEwan of today – a twice-married grandfather, unobtrusively masculine in blue jumper, cords and striped socks – feeling such unease. But then, I suppose, that’s the point.

McEwan now believes that “when we’ve got through all the struggle and anxieties about it, the orthodoxies being challenged, and everyone relaxes about it, it’s going to be brilliant. I mean, it isn’t brilliant at the moment; it’s like something being born, but it will just add to the richness of possibility in people’s lives.”

There is also the problem, I say, that for women, masculinity is always trading up: women have worn trousers for a century, but men are still resistant to skirts. These days, boys might well face stricter gender norms than modern girls, and feel less encouragement to break them. “I remember writing this same conversation you and I are having in my first novel, in 1977,” he says, referring to The Cement Garden. (“Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short and wear shirts and boots because it’s OK to be a boy, for girls it’s like promotion,” the main character’s older sister says to him. “But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, according to you, because secretly you believe that being a girl is degrading.”)

He smiles. “But I think we’ve got past that, haven’t we? I know a very working-class family whose little boy wants to be a princess when he grows up: they’re not remotely bothered, and they’re not sort of free-thinking intellectuals driven by some new ideology; they’re just relaxed about it.”

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The chance to address these questions is why we shouldn’t be surprised that one of our greatest literary novelists has turned to science fiction. The plot of Machines Like Me allows McEwan to go back not just to Frankenstein, but to the birth of modern ideas of selfhood in the Renaissance. As he cheerfully admits, the genre is secondary, merely the best vehicle for the ideas. “The science fiction of this bores me rigid,” he tells me at one point. “What I’m interested in is what it would be like to be close-up to this person.”

Just as Charlie leaves his mark on Adam by programming his personality, McEwan has injected some of himself into his creation. Able to access all of world literature, Adam becomes an authority on Hamlet – a play, and a character, to which McEwan finds himself returning again and again. It was at a lecture on Hamlet that he got in trouble over gender, and his last book, Nutshell (2016), retold the play’s story from the perspective of a foetus. In the writer’s first-floor kitchen, a framed black and white print of the Royal Court’s 1980 production with Jonathan Pryce hangs next to the table, above the wine rack.

For him, the play is remarkable because “nothing preceded it, that’s what’s so weird about Hamlet. He just springs into world literature with no precedent.” Shakespeare’s contemporaries – Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe – wrote in a recognisable tradition derived from medieval morality plays. Then along comes Hamlet, a real character. “He was the first person to really express doubt about himself, so I think he is the sort of ur-modern human. When he says, ‘I have of late wherefore I know not,’ etc, he’s got a mental state with no explanation… that’s a very unusual moment in world literature.”

After Shakespeare, he says, you have to wait for decades to see another writer as gifted at tackling the self. “Flaubert, maybe Jane Austen, George Eliot, Tolstoy, and then Joyce, supremely Joyce.”

Involuntarily, I make a face; McEwan is not offended. “You’re sceptical of that.” Perhaps I will appreciate Joyce eventually, I say; people say there’s no point reading Catcher in the Rye after the age of 20, or Proust until you’re 45. “People take up gardening and loving nature and reading Proust in their later years,” he says. “But all of those writers have helped us invent the self, so it’s not as if we just did it ourselves, or we were persuaded as consumers to be selves. Even people who don’t read literature have been shaped by literature, and people who’ve never been to see Hamlet… have in the culture been shaped to have a sense of self and doubt themselves at certain points.”

This is his preferred way of thinking about selfhood. Not the modern focus on sex, race, class and the rest, but “the long lessons that literature has given us on how to be a self, how to be a contested self”. We are fundamentally altered by the existence of Hamlet, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and Stephen Dedalus. “I doubt whether someone in the eighth century could really understand what we were talking about without that literature behind them. It really doesn’t matter whether you read books or not, the culture can carry these things.”

He regrets that there is a censoriousness abroad, where old literature is judged by modern standards and found wanting, where universities take Joseph Conrad off their reading lists. “Literary canons are a form of argument and they need to be challenged, so the challenging is great, and adding to is great, but removing, no.”

Like Adam, then, we are shaped by our parents – our creators – by our surroundings, and by the sum of all the people who have gone before us, full of doubt and angst. “We need to keep the story alive,” he says, “the narrative of the narratives, the story of how we got from Shakespeare through Pope to Virginia Woolf – how that chain lives and exists.” 

“Machines Like Me” is published by Jonathan Cape

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 18 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special