A novel approach to humanity


2018-12-11 01:55

Yang Yang/Mei Jia
China Daily | Updated: 2018-11-2

On a recent visit to China, British writer Ian McEwan discussed the plot of his new book and its approach to the moral dilemmas we face with the rise of artificial intelligence, Yang Yang reports.

In late October, British writer Ian McEwan and his wife, Annalena McA-fee, arrived in Beijing. Although the 70-year-old newspaper lover has read a lot about the ancient capital, it was his first visit.

He came to receive the 2018 Twenty-one University Students' Literary Award, an annual award offered by the School of Liberal Arts of Renmin University of China to honor an internationally influential writer who demonstrates an understanding of humankind's plight and ideals through original writing.

Previous winners are Israeli writer Amos Oz who took the prize in 2016 and Swedish poet Kjell Espmark who got it in 2017.

McEwan won the award for his "humanistic insights", "acute sense of irony and dark humor", and "a unique and cogent contribution to the literary art of storytelling".

As one of the most prominent British writers and a Booker Prize winner in 1998 for his novel, Amsterdam, McEwan has been popular in China for some time, with 17 of his books published in Chinese. They include his debut, First Love, Last Rites, and 2016's Nutshell and My Purple Scented Novel. Many movie adaptations of his books, such as Atonement and On Chesil Beach have also won him a lot of fans.

He says he tries to unite the traditions of 19th-century realism and 20th-century modernism and postmodernism in his writing. That is to allow conversations between writers and readers within the text about the "very structure of the sentences of the paragraphs you are reading", one central part of the modernism revolution, and also to follow the realism tradition to develop complex characters in trying contexts.

He has just finished his latest novel, Machines Like Me, which will be published in April. The novel is set in an alternative 1980s London, in which computer scientist Alan Turing has achieved a breakthrough in artificial intelligence, enabling the book's protagonist, Charlie, to be able to buy and bring home a "male" synthetic human named Adam. The robot later falls in love with Charlie's girlfriend, Miranda, forcing the trio not only into the challenging scenario of an awkward love triangle but also into a murky moral dilemma: is Miranda being unfaithful to Charlie?

While the traditional menage-a-trois is an oft-used literary trope, one that involves a human couple and a robot is rare enough to be interesting and raises plenty of ethical questions about what humanity is: our outward behavior or our inner thoughts?

Perhaps that is partially behind the reason that, at the award ceremony, McEwan delivered a speech about artificial intelligence, related moral dilemmas and how novels can be "one of our best means of understanding ... the new kinds of conscious beings whose minds might begin to diverge from our own."

"What would it mean," he asked the audience, "to have this human shape in front of you with a sympathetic expression, a warm voice, an intelligent, well-informed manner and to know that this creature was manufactured in a factory not far from Beijing?

"Might your new friend actually be conscious like you? Or is he simply designed to give that impression?"

Having written for 50 years, McEwan has confidence in novels' ability to help humans to truly understand the mind of a robot.

"Only the novel can give us the flow of thought and feeling within the privacy of self-hood, that sense of seeing the world through the eyes of others," he says.

"I've given my life to this form, and I'm certain that it can enter the mind of any man, woman or child on this planet. It can, therefore, enter the mind of a humanoid robot. The novel can attempt to rehearse our future subjectivity, including the subjectivity of those whose minds we will invent."

For him, the "final confirmation that a new kind of conscious being is among us" will come when an artificial human writes "the first original and meaningful novel".

"We will have the opportunity to see ourselves through the eyes of others who we ourselves created," he says. "A great adventure-benign or horrific-will begin."

During his weeklong visit to China, McEwan met with reporters, Chinese writers and readers, first in Beijing and then in Shanghai, to answer their questions about him and his writing.

People are particularly interested in his opinions about the future of the novel and novelists in the era of the internet and at a time when highly developed social media platforms are constantly overloaded with almost unimaginable stories from real life.

In Beijing, Chinese writer Li Er asked whether he believes novels' function to reflect reality and reveal truth is crippled or strengthened by social media.

In Shanghai, writer and editor Huang Yuning asked about his thoughts on the idea that "reality is far more dramatic than fiction".

McEwan says the explosion of information offers a kind of opportunity for novelists rather than weakens them.

"My image of the novelist is like someone who is standing in a blizzard, a storm, an information storm, or a disinformation storm," he said in response to Li's question.

"The old project of the novel, which is to explore the human condition, the relationship between the individual and his or her society, still remains at the core of the whole enterprise," he added.

"Strangely enough, the death of the novel has been predicted many times in my lifetime. I think the novel will endure precisely because it can find a still center in the heart of the storm, in which serious novelists continue to press their investigations of the human condition, lies and truth altogether."

In the early years of the internet, people were optimistic about its potential to make a better world for humans by providing people with access to information and the truth. However, the reality has disillusioned even the heartiest optimists. For as much good as there is to be found, the internet is equally stuffed with lies and the darker side of human nature.

He regards literature, or the novel, as a tool to resist the noisy reality. For him, reading a novel by a writer whom one believes can help a person find inner peace and also a more secure sense of reality.

"Literature and the novel are still very powerful," he says.

Contact the writer at

Mei Jia contributed to the story.


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