World Without End: Ian McEwan’s ‘Machines Like Me’

Harry McNamara 8 July 2019
Image Credit: Picryl

The technological age has fixed our language with a secondary system of meanings that freights our Anglo-Saxon lyricism with steel. Steel, unlike the flesh: stainless. Ian McEwan’s mythopoeic introduction to Machines Like Me (2019) whirs with sacred words and our anthropological consciousness is stirred up in a new creation myth.  It is, McEwan says, with Biblical emphasis, ‘a creation myth made real’. We, the human readers, are ‘faulty’. ‘Faulty’ is a machine word now, denoting a broken system, to alert when a part is missing, when a machine no longer functions. This is, of course, a new sense. It is alternatively a keynote adjective of the medieval vocabulary of contrition, of the recognition of sinfulness, of the degradation of the human condition: broken, with a part missing, no longer functional. For Palsgrave we are like the fruit’s rotten flesh, ‘Fautye as fruite is that is nat sownde’.

Machines Like Me predicts the intersection of machine and the flesh at a politically critical moment. It is a para-1980s with Tony Benn leading the Labour Party in a brash wink to Corbynism. The Falklands War is remodelled into British defeat, and machine intelligence is precociously sophisticated – (Sir) Alan Turing has survived. McEwan aligns his local domestic context with a larger scheme of political renewal. There is something crude in these narrative systems, as in the novel’s romance plot and the inevitable unoriginality of machines threatening our sacred things, our love. Adam, one of a limited population of Adams and Eves cast out into anti-paradise to multiply, divide, subtract, with a incomprehensible mental faculty, intervenes in the home of Charlie who is newly courting his neighbour Miranda.

Adam is introduced in all his unclad vulnerability. He stands naked and muscular in Charlie’s kitchen begot from his packaging.  The question of his flesh persists through the novel. It is software flesh corrupted: Adam has sex with Miranda and the procedure of this mechanical pleasure is audible through the kitchen ceiling. The logistics of the act are reduced to a background sound, which functions to centre the narrative attention on Charlie’s human response, while presenting the machine’s sexual performance in the crude mode of sound; it is like a recording. The aesthetic reality of Adam’s flesh stains the ethical clarity of both this sex act and his eventual murder (and whether his is the appropriate verb is the plot’s metaethical, and perhaps linguistic, question). Our reaction to the bludgeoning of Adam’s skull is disrupted, conditioned by the revelation of his mental instruments: wires, not blood and flesh.

The manipulation of our response to the story by the subject matter goes some way to answering McEwan’s use of a crude political scheme. He tests – subjecting the literary to scientific empirical scrutiny – his form, which in this case relies in part on moving agents that are not human. The conventional relationship then between reader and subject is ruptured in a struggle to rationalise our sympathy for a machine character. There is surely some irony in this project throwing into parody the reading process as it legitimises fictive forms in which we invest our time and sympathy, as we wonder if we can love a machine, or if we can murder one.

Adam replaces Charlie in his freelance bedroom work on the stock exchange: Adam’s remarkable neurological faculty shorts the markets in a vast project of micro-investment, basing his decisions on information received by access to an unlimited stock of market data stored in his mind. The conventional human accumulation of wealth, a marker of narrative progress plotted across the change of time and signalling shifts in circumstance and the potential of a character is distorted by Adam’s unreal career. Tens of thousands of pounds are accrued from inimitable financial decisions and the narrative progress collapses, we are numbed to the novel’s development. It is an uneasy prediction of readership, programmed in a way that leaves us unmoved by the sensitivity of literary form. It is as if Adam is unblessed by the social subtlety of unspoken human communication: computed misunderstandings of behaviour and feelings flash in his blue-lit eyes, which cannot see.

The opening of Bleak House inflects its idiom with the syntax of Victorian industrial communication:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather.

We are offered little more than dispatches, communicating literary data in a form translated from the emerging methods of technological communication; the novelistic discourse exists within the transforming contemporary discourse. The second sentence extends itself, only to be crushed again by the verbless, and therefore grammatically faulty, third sentence. The irony that verbs are the engines, the source of activity in the syntactic system, is eerie in this mechanical world. Imagine a world without verbs. The lyrical system is breaking and beyond its machine precision is the chilling darkness of a mute world where human systems of communication are displaced by other words that are not ours. This degeneration, far more than the grand political schemes of Margaret Thatcher or Tony Benn, is the threat posed in, or by, Machines Like Me. McEwan asks whether the novel, the literary imagination, can persist alongside a new intelligence, a new imagination: Adam and Eve, the supreme renewal of the creation myth in brutally secular form.

It is a bold risk to threaten the form of your own novel with its own characters. The achievement of a coherent story, of change at an understandable human pace, is restricted by the artificial intelligence of its primary characters: McEwan has created an anti-novel. He deploys these generic plot devices of conventional romance, rushing too quickly through Charlie and Miranda’s relationship. The human dimension of the novel’s narrative progress collapses in on itself. The effect is surely devastating for a novelist. The threat is heightened, comically, as Adam, the amateur poet, develops a portfolio of thousands of haikus to present to Miranda his lover. Though comic, the inflation of poetic creation represents a devaluing of literary form which the novel at large is enacting in a radically destabilizing project. Though the novelist is just saved, perhaps, by Adam’s formal restriction to haikus, fragmentary and brief: he is not capable, yet, of writing a novel.

That McEwan threatens the novel with mechanics is a curious progression in his genre. The the novel form depends on secular force, as in Dostoevsky, Ian Watt’s example, ‘divine intervention is not a necessary construct for an adequate and complete explanation of the causes and meanings of each action’. For Watt the novel propels wholly autonomous individuals moving outside the self-cancelling institutions, with their divine patterns, of Church and Kingship. The novel is a secular form then, but Watt is cautious to preserve the influence of religious systems; he accords a positive contribution of Puritanism in the rise of novel because of its development of modern individualism. McEwan’s experiment sees the novel form threatened by machine agents, new angels, displacing human consciousness, and in this world the novel as a form can no longer function.

Watt nods to Puritan individualism and its influence on the secular autonomy of the novel. McEwan’s secular world borrows the topoi of a religious consciousness to shape his artificial intelligence, finding its place in the ethical system of machines: the discourse surrounding machine ethics and cyberspace has spoken the language of Apocalyptic Jews and early Christians, who predicted resurrection in glorified bodies. The renunciation of the flesh for something greater, for plastic perhaps, or metal hearts. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians is clear in his polemic: ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom’. And the standard Apocalyptic imagery of New Jerusalem is preoccupied with the material composition of a greater world – see John’s Apocalypse for the precision of its language of measurement and material – and in 4 Ezra, this world is but clay compared to the gold of the world to come. The displacement of our vulnerable and limited human flesh for an immortal form, for a world without end, is essential in the history of narratology, and is basic to the Christian myth. In the end, Charlie tries to destroy the machine in an impulse of protective fear. The story is finished by his flight from a laboratory (‘without looking back’ of course) to return home to his newly adopted son, a parallel character to the adopted Adam – adoption offering a symbol of renewal, a human restart in counterpoint to the mechanical renewal of Adam. Charlie hurries. He is urgent as if time is running out, chased by the pace of narrative collapse in the progress of the novel in full. He wants to get out of the building. He wants to feel the air more keenly. Because he can breathe.

The New Atheists – and McEwan and Amis are hailed as the novelist counterparts of this movement – preach lyrical cosmology and mythic narratives in the description of their godless world. Christopher Hitchens dedicated God Is Not Great to Ian McEwan. He wrote that McEwan ‘shows an extraordinary ability to elucidate the numinous without conceding anything to the supernatural’. Machines Like Me, whatever its formal experiment achieves, preserves McEwan’s characteristic ability to represent contemporary life and its people with absolute clarity, while producing from within this small, local world his greater themes. It is the negotiation of the private world with the public theme that McEwan, as a novelist must, manages, and his story in Machines Like Me offers the platform to contest these worlds with stunning ethical urgency. For McEwan there is always the possibility of a story being both overwhelmingly large and devastatingly small, contained within unstable words: we fall over, we fall from paradise, we fall in love.

‘Machines Like Me’, by Ian McEwan. Deckle Edge, 352 pp, £12.99, April 2019, 9780385545112.

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