Ian McEwan’s new novel guides us into the foothills of science fiction. The reader is thrust into an alternative vision of the 1980s, ‘the autumn of the twentieth century’. In a parallel dimension more technically advanced than our own, email and the internet have arrived early, Alan Turing is the most famous and influential living Briton, Margaret Thatcher has lost the Falklands War, Tony Benn leads a resurgent Labour Party to victory and realistic androids, or synthetic humans, have just been released onto the market.
Charlie Friend, the novel’s flawed protagonist, uses the last of a family inheritance to purchase one of these strange creations, an almost entirely lifelike robotic simulacrum named, inevitably, Adam (our hero has just missed out on obtaining one of a limited-edition run of female figures called Eve). Charlie brings Adam home to the ‘genteel ruin’ of his threadbare Clapham flat and sets about observing this technological miracle, ‘a self created out of mathematics, engineering, material science’, at close quarters. At first, Adam only sits quietly at the dining table, powering up like a new laptop. He is attractive (‘thuggishly handsome’, his ‘eyelashes … long and thick, like a child’s … he could have passed for a personal trainer from the local gym’) but limited in what he is permitted to do: ‘he couldn’t drive as yet and was not allowed to swim or shower or go out into the rain without an umbrella, or operate a chainsaw unsupervised.’
Matters are complicated by Charlie’s burgeoning relationship with his beautiful upstairs neighbour, Miranda. Initially friends, they soon drift into sex and romance, seemingly one-sided on the part of Charlie, who, at thirty-two, is ten years older than her. Miranda appears cool and aloof, though it soon becomes apparent