Ian McEwan. Picture: WWW.IANMCEWAN.COM/ANNALENA MCAFEE
Ian McEwan. Picture: WWW.IANMCEWAN.COM/ANNALENA MCAFEE

By conjuring a 1980s that is more technologically advanced than our present, Ian McEwan has established a promising new genre of fiction: futurist nostalgia.

Machines Like Me evokes Falkands-era London, except the internet is already commonplace and artificial intelligence (AI) is available for retail in android form. There are other counterfactuals — the war is lost, the left is rampant — but these amount to so much circumstantial dressing for the rise of the machines.

It is in this old-new world that Charlie, a drifter and online trader, takes delivery of a synthetic human. He is called Adam. What the robot lacks in banter he redresses through good, ethnically ambiguous looks, a way with chicken tarragon and formidable sexual competence. He is, without drawing you a diagram, very giving.

A romantic triangle is briskly formed with Charlie’s girlfriend, Miranda, at which point jealousy and other human vagaries drive the story. Is AI, wonders the book’s promotional material, the “triumph of humanism” or its “angel of death”?

Never didactic, McEwan takes care to leave that question intelligently explored but more or less unanswered. His work has always suggested a certain techno-optimism and an impatience for spiritual hokum against the clarity of science. But he is too circumspect a writer to impose his view on the audience. And too aware that technology run amok makes for a better story than technology purring nicely.

If McEwan does not have Don DeLillo’s genius for making technical jargon sing, he knows when to leaven it with a joke. Charlie admits to being “the very latest in cuckolds”. Adam subsists on a “plain diet of electrons”. In fact, McEwan knows all the novelistic rules: of pace, of scene-staging, of when to withhold and when to release information.

This is a book you can set your watch to. Such is his command of the plumbing and architecture of fiction, you forgive the occasional bloodlessness. The central characters in Machines Like Me become emotional — including the android — but never as emotional as the circumstances seem to demand.

There are lapses into prim, Famous Five-ish dialogue when things get heated. “Adam. Enough! Really. What nonsense!” said no 22-year-old in urban Britain, then or now. What vitality there is plays out in the background events of the day, which include street protests and a political assassination in the book’s hectic ending.

As so often in McEwan’s recent work, the reader is spoilt by his technical mastery, if never quite moved by it.