I’ve not read enough of McEwan’s work, something I’ll try to remedy after reading Machines Like Me. This is ostensibly a robot novel, and it has a lot to say about identity and the ways we look at our historical moment. More thoughts below:
- I’m currently reading Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, and it’s making me rethink how I think of historical fiction, and history in texts in general. In Machines Like Me, McEwan creates a novel that I think might well be called ahistorical, as he intensely winds the narrative up in historical events that are actually sort of the opposite of what actually happened.
- I had to keep looking up events to make sure that I remembered history correctly. For instance, in this version of the Falklands War, The Exocet missiles do far more damage to British ships than they actually did, and the British navy turns around and heads home rather than risk more losses. Thatcher is weakened politically, and starts a long decline that results in her resignation, a wee bit different than actual human events.
- Even the artificial people are a result of this novelistic approach – a breakthrough happens because Alan Turing (yep, that one) refuses the chemical castration that he actually took to reduce his sentence in real life, does his jail time, and comes out on the other side to become an entrepreneur whose genius combines with the work of a couple of Stanford labs to produce actual robots that are marketed to the general public.
- I won’t talk about it here, but the alternative history that McEwan creates fits neatly with the arguments in Berlant’s book, ones I hope to address in this blog before too long.
- McEwan hints at his narrator’s approach to history in this passage (one that neatly , in which the narrator listens to his girlfriend complain about her graduate work in history:
It was no longer proper to assume that anything at all had ever happened in the past. There were only historical documents to consider, and changing scholarly approaches to them, and our own shifting relationship to those approaches, all of which were determined by ideological context, by relations to power and wealth, to race, class, gender and sexual orientation (35)
- McEwan’s narrator both shows a familiarity with the work of historians, especially academic ones, and rejects them as being too politicized, neatly lining up with his view early in the novel that our technology is apolitical and ahistorical. He will probably change that opinion by the end of the novel.
- The narrator also has an odd relationship with his own masculinity and humanity. At one point, for instance, when he is introduced to his fiance’s father (who knows that they’re bringing Adam, their robot, along), the father is convinced that the narrator, and not the actual robot, is the robot.
- Unlike the robot, however, who tries to accept reality as he perceives it, the narrator constantly identifies his world in a sort of Dickensian best of times/worst of times way, with long internal monologues that start with how everything is going to shit and then end with how good things actually are, and vice versa.
- He lacks the surety that characterizes masculine opinion, the need to promote oneself as having the answers and not needing to consult other sources.
- This cultural need for certainty, meanwhile, runs headlong into the robot’s attempts to reconcile what being human means – having feelings – with being a product of software. The narrator constantly reminds us that Adam is a robot by wondering just what subroutine is running when Adam makes a certain gesture, reducing Adam to a cypher.
- Adam, though is trying to figure out his purpose, as are the other 23 robots released in this first version from the factory. Like them, his own attempts to be human do not end well.
- Machines Like Me offers a fresh take on the problems of robot identity, one that is immersed deeply in character (unlike many others in the genre, which tend to look at how robots try to figure themselves out), and one that I appreciate.