Ian McEwan on rewriting the past: ‘it’s not quite a dystopia, it’s something slightly better than reality’

From alternative realities to machine learning, Ian McEwan discusses the questions raised in Machines Like Me and how the dytopian novel is really about the present.

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Machines Like Me is set in a world not quite like this one. Did you find creating an alternative reality liberating as an author?

This is a novel set in 1982. Science is in a different place, and I thought that if the science is in a different place, more advanced than we are now, I might as well make the politics and the social history a little different too. Mrs Thatcher is in quite a bit of trouble because the Falklands War has not worked out. Tony Benn almost won the leadership of the Labour Party back in the early eighties, but in my novel he does win it. And so on: there are many, many departures from our own recollections of the past. For example, we hear in parenthesis that President Kennedy was almost assassinated; we hear that the bomb was almost dropped on Hiroshima; so it’s not quite a dystopia, it’s something slightly better than reality.

And the science of course is much different: Alan Turing is alive and well, having not committed suicide in 1954, and we therefore find ourselves in a much more advanced place regarding artificial intelligence. So it was a liberation, having spent half a lifetime researching my novels in a very detailed way; with this and my previous novel, Nutshell, I really just sat at my desk and freed myself from the necessity of the facts. 

Could an artificial life form ever be as compelling as a human protagonist?

We’re a long, long way from making an artificial human that is just as complicated and faulty and wonderful as we are, but we’re already on the edge of that vast ocean. We are beginning to have to make decisions.  It’s worth bearing in mind the hardware, forgetting about the software for a minute: think of humans and the extraordinary biological brain, the biological computer that we carry around on our shoulders. This is a one-litre, three-dimensional, liquid-cooled bio-computer. It has about a hundred billion neurons, and each neuron has on average 7,000 connections. The interconnectedness of the human brain has yet to be equalled even faintly by anything artificial; and at the same time this whole machine runs on 25 watts, which is the power of a rather dim lightbulb, appropriately enough. We’ve got a long way to go: but I should say that if we can replicate the human brain in a machine then there’s no reason why such a being couldn’t be as interesting and complicated as we are.

If you go online and look at robots that look rather like these creatures around us, you’ll notice that hidden just from view is a great thick power cable. We don’t even have a way of really efficiently storing electricity that would allow a 170lb artificial man to walk around for very long. We haven’t even cracked that simple problem, so we’re a long way off. I’ve just taken that leap of the imagination and decided that in 1982 it was possible for a young man whose mother had died and who had come into some serious money to purchase a completely plausible artificial human who no one can tell apart from anyone else.  

As our experience of reality is altered and augmented, will artists need to re-evaluate the focus of their work?

I think it’s quite likely that artificial intelligence, once it reaches a certain level of sophistication, is going to pose quite interesting – not severe, but interesting – problems for creative artists, just as it is going to pose problems for the medical profession and law profession.

I would say that at the moment a dedicated piece of computer software could write a novel of extended interest and of a compelling nature, in which human emotions, feelings and thoughts are interestingly represented, then we will have reached a crossroad. In particular relation to the novel, more than any other form, that will have to mean that a computer really fully understands the vast complexity of human interaction. And then we’d just take what we call a Turing test: if we cannot tell the difference between a human mind and an artificial mind then Turing says you might as well treat the artificial mind as a human mind. Then, of course, we are before a vast set of branching paths of another set of problems. Such minds, do we give them rights? Do we give them responsibilities? If you buy an artificial human, is it your possession? Therefore, can you destroy it or are you guilty of murder? This is a very important issue in Machines Like Me

When writing about real historical figures, to what degree do you feel responsible towards them and their legacies?

There are novels, of course, which treat historical figures and go into their lives in a very deep and intense way and there I think novelists have a responsibility toward some notion of truth. Machines Like Me is much more playful. Although I don’t deal with the characters of Tony Benn or Mrs Thatcher, their fates are entirely different from the fates they experienced in real historical truth. I feel less of a responsibility to truth because these are figures in the game that I’m playing with both history and politics and society and science. Alan Turing, for example, becomes a very, very famous figure, not only in science but in society. He becomes something of a figurehead in the changing of attitudes about gay men and women. It was rather pleasurable to hand over to a man that I’ve always admired intellectually.

If you were going to write a novel set now or in our very recent past, what major and minor events would you change and why?

I think a lot about a novel that is going to engage with our current reality. There are two directions I would want to go. In 2010 I published a novel about climate change called Solar and I think I’d like to return to that subject. It has become more urgent; we have not been able to marry political will to the encroaching disaster. And then more locally, with less interest to the rest of the world but of great interest here in Britain, is Brexit and how much it’s divided us, divided families, divided friends, heated up discussions around kitchen tables and so on. But that story is incomplete of course: even as we speak parliament is debating it, and there is a difficulty with how one fits both of these subjects, both climate change and Brexit, into the form of a novel which really flourishes through interpersonal relations. I don’t want to write a novel full of facts and figures about backstops and the Irish border being kept open or frictionless trade, but I do want to write a novel about how people can become so thoroughly divided, with everybody working from a gut feeling about something often in preference to anything thought through – and I’m speaking of Remainers here just as much as those who are passionate about leaving the European Union. 

Why do sci-fi and speculative fiction provide such fertile ground for storytelling?

We live in a time where the pace of change is not only fast but accelerating and I think for that reason novelists are drawn to this very fertile ground of where the future might go. It has always seemed to be a matter of enormous fascination that collectively we are making the future as we make our own present, but we are no more in control of that future than we are of our present.

Here’s an illustration of the speed of change. My friend Matt Ridley showed me a picture of two objects. They’re both oval and they fit very snugly into the palm of your hand. One is a stone instrument for scraping meat off killed animals – in other words, a stone flint –and the other is a cordless mouse. The cordless mouse is maybe ten, fifteen, twenty years old; the mouse itself with a cord is thirty years old at most. For the stone flint, let’s say a quarter of a million years old – but for a million years, there’s hardly any formation in its form and shape and function. The mouse probably consists of five hundred separate inventions, from plastics to electronics, invented in a very short space of time. We’re on an incredible curve of acceleration when we put that million years against that thirty years, and that’s why I think novelists are drawn into pitching us ahead.

As to why we tend to imagine the future in the darkest terms, I think it’s simply because our social reality, our political reality, is not giving us a great deal of hope. We’ve now been talking about climate change for about as long as that cordless mouse has been around – I remember thinking about it first in the early nineties. The increase of CO2 and other harmful substances in the atmosphere that cause the temperature to rise has not been deflected. We have not really reached that deflection point – we levelled out for three years but this last year we’re beginning to rise again. It’s a great disappointment for everyone. We don’t see the political will to change this, we do not see our political class really engaging with this. We do not see populations, especially in democracies where politicians have to get themselves re-elected and where they want to do the things that will get them re-elected, so a collusion between politicians and their voters keeps us trapped in a set of short-term considerations. There is a very powerful tendency to distrust the machines that have brought us to this ever since the Industrial Revolution – we count from 1800, that’s our baseline for greenhouse gases. Most people peering into the future see a devastated, used-up landscape in which biodiversity is thinner on the ground and resources are dwindling and populations and culture and civilisation itself are against a wall. So all science fiction and all future-based novels tend to be really about the present - and it’s what you’d expect. 

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