Love, Death & Robots

Author Ian McEwan imagines an alternate 1980s and confronts artificial consciousness in Machines Like Me

British author Ian McEwan wants to talk about love, death and robots. Yes, robots. Just don't call what he is doing science fiction.

"Science fiction usually sets its scenes in the future and I rather wanted to push things into the past," says the 70-year-old over the telephone from London. "In science fiction, you can have apocalypses, dystopias and space travel, but I wanted to get us into a world which we're already on the margins of."

His latest novel, Machines Like Me, is set in an alternate 1980s Britain in which 25 artificial humans, dubbed "Adams" and "Eves", have been made available on the market.

One of the Adams is bought by the narrator, a Londoner in his 30s who is enamoured of his beautiful young neighbour. The three - narrator, neighbour and robot - fall into a complex love triangle.

This is far from the oddest premise McEwan has invented. His last novel, Nutshell (2016), retold Shakespeare's Hamlet from the perspective of a foetus in his mother's womb.

Nor is science much of a stretch for him - his 2010 novel Solar dealt with a Nobel-winning physicist who moves into solar energy research.

"I have been interested in artificial intelligence for most of my adult life," he says. "In the last 10 years, I've begun to notice how we're beginning to hand over important decisions to machines - autonomous cars, for example.

"It's like we're standing on the shore of this big ocean. I want to attempt to ask the intimate questions of what it would be like to confront an artificial consciousness."

He recalls a conversation with some young parents on whether they should encourage their children to say "please" or "thank you" to virtual assistant systems such as Siri or Alexa, lest their children start treating these entities as if they were slaves.

McEwan is known for meticulously researching his books, of which he has written around 20, but maintains he hardly did any for this book besides reading a few scientific papers. "I take a lot of pleasure in not doing research these days. I like treating my mind as a garden and wandering around it. There are many flowers I've neglected in the past that I can pick."

The matter of Machines Like Me is something he has been mulling over since the 1970s, when he wrote television play The Imitation Game. It had a character loosely based on Alan Turing, the British computer science pioneer who helped break the German Enigma code during World War II.

Turing was never fully recognised for his accomplishments as he was prosecuted in 1952 for homosexual acts, then a crime. He died two years later from cyanide poisoning.

In the alternate history that Machines Like Me takes place in, Turing is alive and renowned for the scientific breakthrough that led to the rise of AI.

In this world, Britain loses the Falklands war, fought with Argentina in 1982 over two British dependent territories in the South Atlantic. Left-wing politician Tony Benn becomes prime minister instead of Margaret Thatcher and sets about removing Britain from the European Union common market through parliamentary majority.

Echoes of Brexit? Certainly, allows McEwan, though he wanted to keep contemporary politics in the background. "I could see how easily it would steal my novel from me." He did base the crowd scenes in the novel on real-life protests that took place in Britain last October and in the past few weeks.

"I feel we're making a tragic mistake," he says of Brexit. "I think people have been terribly misled, betrayed even. We are in the grip of a very powerful wave of English nationalism tinged with xenophobia. Quite honestly, I cannot see a single economic advantage of leaving the EU and it's likely to hit hardest the poorest members of our society, many of whom were Brexit voters.

"There's always the chance it might not happen, I suppose."

In the novel, Adam goes through a phase in which he theorises that once human minds have fully interfaced online, it will be the death knell for all literature except the haiku.

"He thinks the novel thrives on human misunderstanding and so if there was no human misunderstanding, there would be no novels," says McEwan, who is married to journalist and author Annalena McAfee and has two adult sons from his first marriage.

"It's not a theory I would embrace," he adds. "And it is certainly not a utopia he suggests, it's a dystopia."

Human misunderstanding has fuelled much of McEwan's work. In his acclaimed 2001 novel Atonement, a lie by a jealous little sister ruins the lives of a young couple on the brink of World War II. His 2007 novella On Chesil Beach centres on a single episode of bad sex which sinks a marriage overnight.

McEwan, the son of a Scottish army major and a housewife, was ranked by The Times newspaper in 2008 among the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. He has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize six times, winning in 1998 for Amsterdam.

McEwan's peers include the British writers who gained fame in the 1970s, such as Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis. He straddles both literary and popular culture circles, in part because there have been so many screen adaptations of his books - 11 so far, three in 2017 alone.

The best known film based on his work is the Academy Award-winning Atonement (2007), which starred Saoirse Ronan, James McAvoy and Keira Knightley.

Ronan also starred in the 2017 film adaptation of On Chesil Beach, which McEwan wrote the screenplay of. He has just finished another screenplay for his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, but draws the line at adapting Machines Like Me.

"I could see it as a movie, but I'm not sure I'd want to write it. I don't want to spend too much of my time simply recycling myself."

He says the problem that young writers today face is profound connectivity. "That has quite big consequences on solitude, which is the lifeblood of the novelist. It was easy to have it in the 1970s when I was starting to write; it's not so easy to have it now.

"Try and find one hour each day when you're not on the end of a smartphone or looking at a screen or connected to social media. Switch off those devices, walk away from them and have in your hand a notebook and pen. Glory in the possibilities of your own mind."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2019, with the headline 'Love, Death & Robots '. Print Edition | Subscribe