Machines Like Me, published last year, is Ian McEwan’s first sci-fi book, set in an alternative version of the 1980s where computer scientist Alan Turing is still alive. Instead of dying in 1954, he survives to lead a revolution in computing. This creates an advanced 1980s, which we explore through the eyes of a raggedy young chap who lives in a London flat, scraping a living playing the stock market from his desktop. When not in front of his computer, he pursues an affair with a woman living upstairs. On an impulse our hero decides to spend an unexpected inheritance on Adam, a newly released android companion.
The scenario of Machines Like Me is similar to Happiness For Humans, by P.Z. Reizin, published in 2018. That book was a rom com, a kind of love triangle with a match-making AI at one of the angles. Machines Like Me is another love triangle involving AI, with a fair amount of rom but not much com. The science references are more complicated, there’s a much darker feel, and far fewer laughs. Similar themes are explored. Is empathy a specifically human quality, and can machines show it? Do humans themselves always show empathy? Without human emotional filters, might artificial intelligence actually suffer by understanding too much and being too empathetic? We get a lot of contradictions like this in both books.
Happiness For Humans and Machines Like Me are similar in one admirable way: they both use the basic fact that a novel is an exercise in empathy, to create a worthwhile thought experiment testing the way human nature might interact with artificial intelligence. But I found it much easier to feel for the characters in Happiness for Humans, human, AI or animal. Both books are clever, but Machines Like Me flaunts its cleverness, while Happiness for Humans entertains first, politely leaving its cleverness for those who wish to go looking for it. Reizin’s AI enjoys Some Like It Hot: McEwan’s AI enjoys writing haiku and discussing metaphysical poetry. That sums up the difference really.
Personally, while both rarified poetry and Hollywood rom coms have their attractions, if I were an AI seeking to understand humanity, and have fun whilst doing so, I’d rather start with Some Like It Hot.