- 11 May 19
In an alternate Britain where Alan Turing survived to usher in the computer age decades early, and the reunited Beatles are on the radio, Charlie blows his inheritance on Adam, the first android endowed with artificial intelligence. What follows is a meditation on life cloaked in a sci-fi ménage à trois, referencing Asimov’s laws of robotics, the computer science conundrum of P versus NP, and Erwin Schrödinger’s Dublin lectures where he tried to answer the question, “What Is Life?”
That’s the question at the core of the novel. By welcoming automation and robotics into every aspect of our lives as Charlie does – the electronic dustmen are breaking down - how are we changing what it means to be human? When Charlie finds himself in a good mood one morning, singing along with a new Lennon song, he puts it down to “the unaccountable brew of hormone cocktails, endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin and all the rest. Cause or affect or association – we knew next to nothing about our passing moods.” What is the difference between his emotions and Adam’s programming when “a mood could be a roll of a dice… chemical roulette”?
Alan Turing, a voice of reason within the narrative, is in no doubt that one life is as valid and valuable as another, “he is sentient, he has a self. How it’s produced, wet neurons, microprocessors, DNA networks, it doesn’t matter. Do you think we’re alone with our special gift? Ask any dog owner. Here is a conscious existence. “
Physically, the new arrival is vastly superior. He injures Charlie’s wrist with ease and Charlie in turn is reassured by Adam’s presence when there’s a possibility of violence from a third party. Adam also proves his advanced physicality with Charlie’s partner Miranda in an incident that none of them can get past. On the other hand, Adam’s mental state is as precarious as the rest of us. He copes with heartache by writing bad poetry like a spurned teenage boy, or today’s all too common why-don’t-you-like-me-I'm-special adult male. He also shows that most “human” of instincts, self-preservation: he disables his own kill-switch shortly after attaining self-awareness.
Back to Schrödinger. The living systems in his paradox maintain order despite the second law of thermodynamics’ expectation that isolated systems fall apart, but the scenario at this story's centre certainly cannot hold. Adam can’t handle the contradictions of the human condition and seeks to expose the lies in Charlie’s partner Miranda’s past, while Britain’s shock defeat in the Falklands echoes Charlie’s fear of losing his place in the quickly-evolving natural order. It might not be the most original of concepts – and the character of the young boy Mark feels particularly shoe horned in - but McEwan’s entertaining novel does at least set you thinking.