Erik Martiny

Spitting images

Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape, 2019, 306pp, £18.99 (hardback)

The Cockroach, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape, 2019, 100pp, £7.99 (paperback)

For fans of Ian McEwan’s writing, 2019 presented two rough-cut diamonds: Machines Like Me and The Cockroach. Not without their flaws, as some critics noted, they are nonetheless highly enjoyable and sure to leave even the ultra-demanding and fastidious reader hankering for more.

The novels differ in more ways than one. Firstly, there’s size: Machines Like Me clocks in at a reasonable 306 pages, while The Cockroach, a much slimmer work, is novella-length and can easily be read in one sitting. Machines envisages a counterfactual sci-fi world in which AI has advanced to the point where anthropoid robots have surpassed humans. The Cockroach, on the other hand, is a pointed political satire, skewering Brexit and the politicians who orchestrated it. Both novels look to uncanny resemblances – whether android or insectoid – to comment on human nature.

While there is a political dimension to Machines Like Me, politics bubbles beneath the surface, providing moments of suspenseful pause in the main plot. The novel is set in and reimagines the 1980s, in an alternative timeline in which Britain loses the Falklands war and Margaret Thatcher battles Tony Benn for power. Its most compelling counterfactual is the survival of Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, who, instead of committing suicide in 1954, lives on to perfect artificial intelligence to the point where it not only matches, but surpasses human intelligence.

The idea underpinning the novel is not in itself extraordinary – it’s pretty run-of-the-mill as far as alternative pasts and futures go. Losing the Falklands war is hardly as engaging as the Nazis winning the Second World War, as they do in Philip K. Dick’s counterfactual classic, The Man in the High Castle, for example. World-building aside, McEwan puts the most riveting spin on the robot-humanoid story since Margy Piercy’s Body of Glass (1991) and Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2 (1995). These books, like McEwan’s Machines, explore far beyond the dangers posed by highly-developed robots to examine the notion of personhood as well as broader philosophical questions posed by artificial life.

A staple of McEwan’s books is the use of reoccurring parallel scenes; events mirrored between plot and subplot. For example, readers may notice a callback to the partitioning of Berlin as a backdrop to his book The Innocent where a body is dismembered in the foreground – a depiction of a violent rift in the physical body and the body politic. My only cavil is that, in Machines Like Me, this signature mirroring effect is not as effective as it usually is.

Unfortunately, the background to the novel reads like filler and pales in comparison to the main storyline. So taken was I with the robot story that I actually found myself hurriedly skipping pages devoted to background politics, which initially seemed slightly dry and unimaginative between plot points. I should add that skipping pages is something I never do with a McEwan novel. Only towards the end of the book do McEwan’s counterfactual political events seem worth mentioning. Finally, in the latter stages, echoes throughout the narrative begin to resonate in a much more striking fashion following a shocking turn of events. Though the wait is long, ultimately there’s payoff as the novel pulls itself together.

Whatever terrible secret lies at the heart of Machines Like Me, in The Cockroach, it becomes a source of comedy and ridicule. Here, McEwan reveals the nature of his character’s secret from the outset: a cockroach called Jim Sams wakes up one morning to discover he has been turned into a human Prime Minister determined to get things done, ‘do or die.’

As you might have guessed, the novella is a inventive reversal of Kafka’s Metamorphosis parodying the Brexit debacle. A warped Aesopian bestiary – or rather insectiary – for the modern era, the novella joins the ranks of animal parables such as Orwell’s Animal Farm in its political scope and theme.

Early reviews argued the book was less complex than McEwan’s usual fare. This is to misconstrue his intentions. Like Howard Jacobson’s Pussy, McEwan’s The Cockroach accomplishes the difficult task of satirizing a well-known male politician whose demagogic antics are abundantly self-parodic. In this sense, the aim of The Cockroach is not to offer a deep insight into the populist worldview but to entertain and poke as much fun as possible at the tragically laughable events of UK politics.

The plot of The Cockroach centres on a fictional economic concept McEwan calls ‘Reversalism’: a new idea which involves absurdly reversing the flow of money. The idea is as original as anything in the (relatively) new genre of weird fiction. In this topsy-turvy world, people are paid to go shopping but they also must pay to be able to work. The Prime Minister’s mission is to pass this difficult piece of legislation through parliament – indeed, he is willing to do so, even if he has to prorogue it.

With politics the main focus of his attention, McEwan gives it all the pizzazz he possesses and with hilarious results. His mastery of free indirect speech allows you to enter the cockroach’s mind in startlingly funny ways. McEwan’s deadpan humour doesn’t hesitate to draw on the scatological, as he does in this passage describing the cockroach minister’s feeding habits:

But what a mistake, to have eaten between meals. The margherita had left him with no appetite for excrement, however fresh or distinguished, nor any inclination, given his gathering exhaustion, to clamber all the way over it.

If Machines Like Me can easily be ranked among McEwan’s best, The Cockroach is still a refreshing and imaginative contribution to the genre of magic realism.

For more information, visit Penguin’s website.

Words by Erik Martiny.

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