Brow Beat

Ian McEwan Should Read Some Science Fiction

He thinks his literary novel about A.I. is superior to a genre that surpassed him long ago.

Ian McEwan in front of a starry view of space.
Novelist Ian McEwan.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash and Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images.

Every so often, a literary novelist offends the community of science fiction writers and fans. They can be touchy, given that their genre is often misrepresented by outsiders. For example, despite having, by her own account, written, read, and enjoyed many science fiction novels, Margaret Atwood once described the genre as “talking squids in outer space,” a statement that has reliably fueled outrage for a decade and counting. (Although, with admirable humor, the science fiction novelist Vonda McIntyre created a web site, Talking Squids in Outer Space, dedicated to enshrining examples of the genre using just that motif.)

The latest and most egregious example is Ian McEwan. In an interview with the Guardian, the author of Atonement asserted that his new novel, Machines Like Me, takes the motif of artificial intelligence into new territory by addressing it “not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you.” As many commentators have pointed out, this absurd statement exhibits ignorance of a huge swath of well-known science fiction, from the writings of Philip K. Dick to films and TV series like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Westworld, all of which do precisely what McEwan claims is groundbreaking about his own novel.

If McEwan had read some of the genre’s best treatments of this theme, Machines Like Me might have been a better book. The novel is set in an alternate version of the 1980s, one far more advanced technologically than the one we’re familiar with. The narrator, Charlie Friend, is a day trader with a shabby London flat and a rattletrap car, but when he gets a small inheritance from his late mother, he blows 84,000 pounds on a robot, a newly released model nearly indistinguishable in appearance from a young man. At the same time, he falls in love with his upstairs neighbor, Miranda. Over time, a romantic triangle between man, woman, and android develops.

McEwan has often been celebrated for his interest in science, but the alternate history he has created for this fiction is even more rickety than Charlie’s car. Charlie’s world surpasses our own, posits McEwan, with such impressive advances as “brain-machine interfacing” and organic-seeming androids, because Alan Turing, instead of committing suicide at 41, has survived into old age. Brilliant as Turing was, this vein of Great Man sentimentalism is silly. For example, if McEwan thought about it a bit, he’d have realized that creating a product like Adam, Charlie’s robot, would require advances in many more fields than artificial intelligence. It would take chemical, engineering, and industrial genius to create a material that looked, felt, and functioned like living human skin.

Any writer asking his readers to enter into an imaginary world different from the one around us faces a challenge: how to ease the reader into this altered reality without resorting to long passages of exposition. Over the decades, science fiction writers have developed a sophisticated range of narrative tools to help them do this. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle—set in a counterfactual history in which the Axis powers won World War II and are occupying the former United States—opens his novel with a scene in which a shopkeeper selling Americana caters fawningly to a stylish Japanese couple. Everything about the interaction, including how the shopkeeper tries to suss out the rank and influence of his new customers, conveys what the reader needs to know about the world Dick’s characters inhabit. Part of the pleasure of reading novels like this comes from surmising the rest.

Real people don’t spend a lot of time musing on the broader historical context of their everyday lives. But in Machines Like Me, they do, and the novel is larded with long, tedious passages of potted history:

Nothing proved more vividly the maxim that technology renders civilisation fragile than the great traffic paralyses of the late seventies. By then, autonomous vehicles comprised seventeen per cent of the total. Who can forget that roasting rush-hour evening of the Manhattan Logjam? Due to an exceptional solar pulse, many on-board radars failed at once.

McEwan might have decided that he didn’t want to bother with concocting a rationalized, convincing world in which to set Machines Like Me. Science fiction writers do that, too! For example, time travel is the only unrealistic touch in Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and in his first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem makes no effort to explain the technology behind procedures that allow animals to become as intelligent as people or couples to trade erogenous zones. The “science” in this type of science fiction either serves as a handy device (transporting a girl from the 1970s to an antebellum slave plantation) or as a metaphor for the disjunctions and perplexities of contemporary life.

McEwan seems to be after the latter effect—he’s not really interested in how a machine like Adam could be engineered—but he also seems to have fallen in love with the half-baked historical scenario he’s come up with as a backdrop for his robot love story. (In addition to Turing’s survival, this alternate 1980s has got a Beatles reunion and Britain losing the Falkland Islands War.) The result works neither as a parable of free will and selfhood nor as an experiment in imagining the quandaries waiting in our future. If only McEwan could strap on those antigravity boots and travel at 10 times the speed light back into the past. Then he could start this lazy, flimsy novel over, only this time with the humility to learn from those who have boldly gone before.