There are certain authors I read no matter what they write. Ian McEwan is one of them. Over the course of more than 40 years and some dozen and a half books—including Amsterdam, Atonement, and The Children Act—his generally realist, propulsive work reveals an abiding preoccupation with both the repercussions of deceit and how life can change in an instant.
His most recent novel, Nutshell (2016), a clever twist on Hamlet narrated by a near-full-term baby still in utero, pushed the borders of possibility. Now, with his latest, Machines Like Me, he ventures into science fiction and alternate history territory to explore the moral ramifications of AI and the creation of machines that can outsmart humans. His story involves a man "cuckolded by an artefact," which leads to a newfangled ménage-à-trois.
McEwan is not the first to broach these issues, and his dismissal of "conventional science fiction" in a recent Guardian interview—coupled with a failure to acknowledge his many sci-fi forerunners—has raised hackles among some sci-fi aficionados.
But what McEwan brings to the table is crossover appeal to readers who don't usually gravitate toward sci-fi. Machines Like Me, like his other novels, is a thought-provoking, well-oiled literary machine. It is set in an alternate 1982 London which has already surpassed us technologically. Its streets are crowded with self-driving electric cars, and the first batch of pricy, eerily life-like artificial humans—12 Adams and 13 Eves—have just been sold to private buyers. McEwan's narrator, a 32-year-old electronics and robotics buff named Charlie Friend, decides to sink his recent inheritance into one of the Adams. (He misses out on the Eves, seven of which land in Riyadh—one of many wry editorial comments embedded in the book.)
Charlie is, he confesses, a "culturally undernourished" wash-out who, after running afoul of the law for tax fraud, has decided that full-time employment is not for him. After various losing "schemes," he currently plays the stock and currency markets (on his ancient 1960s computer!) from the "genteel ruin" of his two-room, ground floor flat in south London.