The British author’s latest novel concerns a triangle formed by two humans and one android in an alternate version of England.
The year is 1982, the British are about to lose the Falklands War, and Alan Turing is not only still alive, but his work has helped give rise to a line of androids almost indistinguishable from humans. The narrator, Charlie Friend, an aimless 32-year-old, inherits enough money to buy one of the pricey robots. He and Miranda, the younger woman living above him, each supply half the “personality parameters” required to push Adam past his factory presets. Before long, as things between the humans seem to be getting serious, Charlie finds himself the first man “to be cuckolded by an artefact.” They all survive the fling, although Charlie imagines he detects “the scent of warm electronics on her sheets,” and Adam turns lovesick, composing 2,000 haiku for Miranda (namesake of the Bard’s character who famously utters: “O brave new world, / That has such people in’t”). Early on, the android has told Charlie that Miranda is a liar and might harm him without providing details. These statements flag a fateful backstory comprising a teenage Miranda, two schoolmates, and a death threat. Along the way to a busy and disturbing ending, Charlie makes a connection with Turing that allows for some nerd-pleasing kibble like “non-deterministic polynomial time.” McEwan (Nutshell, 2016, etc.) brings humor and considerable ethical rumination to a cautionary tale about artificial intelligence. But his human characters seem unfinished, his plot a bit ragged. And why the alternate 1982 England, other than to fire a few political shots about the Falklands, Thatcher, and Tony Benn? Does the title make sense as either clause or complete sentence? Are we meant to imagine the “real” author as a present-day Adam?
McEwan is a gifted storyteller, but this one is as frustrating as it is intriguing.