The pronoun ‘me’ underscores the debate at the core of the novel about the benefits and dangers of Artificial Intelligence, a debate which becomes quite cerebral at times. We are invited to reflect on a taxing question: when does sentience become cognition and, when cognition evolves an identity – ‘me’ – does a robot become subject to human morality? Should we begin to treat it-him-her as we would a fellow human?
However, McEwan doesn’t preach at us, which is just as well because, as Charlie, the narrator, tells us towards the end of the novel, we do not, at this current point in history, know enough to answer the question. That is as true of our time as it is in the alternative history of Charlie’s world.
Charlie uses the proceeds from the sale of his deceased parents’ home to buy a state of the art robot called Adam. He is one of a strictly limited edition (the females are called Eve). Clearly, McEwan is playing a witty Edenic counterpoint to his main theme. Charlie expects to play God with his purchase but as Adam’s circuits fire up, he learns from his environment and experience at such a rate that his identity goes beyond his programming. Arguably, he acquires free will (or at least the illusion of it – which is perhaps as much as we can say for ourselves).
Charlie plans to share Adam with his girlfriend, Miranda, but the ménage à trois soon becomes a darkly funny parody of the classic love triangle, which is not without philosophical as well as emotional problems.
As with some other McEwan novels, the principal characters are hard to like. Charlie is an egoist who is low on empathy and emotional intelligence. Miranda, outwardly buoyant and intellectually bright, has a grim secret relating to a friend who was raped. We may sympathise with the vindictive neurosis which follows but it is not attractive. What might redeem them is Miranda’s plan to adopt a misused child, called Mark, who attached himself to Charlie in a public park. I will say no more about the plot except that it is tight, full of surprises, and intellectually stimulating.
Towards the end, Charlie makes certain decisions which are foolish, as well as shallow and selfish. Adam makes a monumental decision which is catastrophic for Charlie and Miranda. And yet it is humanitarian and selfless. It is also logical. It raises a final existential question. We are forced to ask where the ethical superiority lies: with the humane robot or the immature human? A telling moment is when the three of them visit Miranda’s ailing father, Max, and he mistakes Charlie for the robot.
It is Alan Turing who provides a complex response. His devastating shaming of Charlie is one of the high points of the novel. Yes, you read that right: Alan Turing is alive and well in the 1980’s in this alternative world and did not commit suicide. Instead he is at the forefront of the global development of AI. His response to Charlie is complex and edifying – but not, perhaps, what you would expect.
This divergent history, where Britain lost the Falklands War, where Tony Benn became Prime Minister and was blown up in the Brighton bombing, and where Denis Healey became PM, is, for me, the least successful part of the novel, fascinating as it is in its own right. I couldn’t see where it fitted in. Perhaps, McEwan’s point is that the macro world of affairs of state has less to do with defining our humanity than the micro world of our quotidian lives. Or did it just evolve from the plot’s need to have Turing (and his brilliantly-realised character) alive?
McEwan’s prose is, as ever, lean and erudite, with the sharpness of a gemstone. A rewarding, if rather alarming, book.