Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels tend to linger in the minds of the people who read them. Klara and the Sun—his eighth and latest—is no exception as it looks at human love through the eyes of Klara, an Artificial Friend. That’s “artificial” as in Artificial Intelligence. Klara is the opposite of insincere.
When we first meet Klara, she’s in a store display, hoping to be chosen by the right young person. This doesn’t happen right away. For one thing, she’s competing against newer models. For another, not every parent can afford an AF for their child. The store Manager has taken a particular liking to Klara because of the AF’s empathy and exceptional powers of observation. Nevertheless, she admonishes Klara for discouraging a girl interested in buying her. Klara believes that another girl named Josie needs her more. Josie had spoken to her twice through the storefront window and promised to come back for her. The teenager does come back with her mom, who suggests she might want a newer model AF, but Josie is sure in her choice. Before the sale is official, the mother asks Klara to imitate walking like her daughter, which seems like an unusual request. Only later do we realize its significance.
Klara and the Sun is set in a dystopian future, but it’s a future that we can recognize because we are already living with parts of it. The store is located in a big city, and Klara, gazing out the storefront window, worries that the “Beggar Man” and his dog in a nearby doorway are dead. There’s much pollution, a deteriorating urban landscape, and—as the novel progresses—we’re aware of extreme disparities in wealth.
While reading the novel, I happened to listen to an Ezra Klein@NYTimes podcast that was a discussion on Artificial Intelligence, a somewhat surreal pairing of the fictional world with the real one. AI is a subject I’ve never thought much about, except in an abstract way. However, not only is AI already affecting our lives, it has the potential to revolutionize mankind for the better or send us into a dystopian future—or maybe some of both. AI is a subject worthy of everyone’s attention.
One of the things that’s both fascinating and frightening about AI is that the humans who input the data are, well, human. They makes mistakes. Or, they fail to fully understand the way an AI machine will process all the data, leading to unwanted outcomes. I listened to an example about a woman killed in 2018 by a self-driving Uber car while she was crossing a street in LA. Although she was technically jay-walking (and there was no training data on jay-walking), the bigger problem was that she was walking her bicycle across the street. The AI recognized the bike but assumed the person would be riding it—and presumably would make it across the road at a faster speed. But by the time AI computed that she was walking the bike across, it was too late and she was struck and killed.
You won’t find a scene like that in Klara, but you will find other instances where human fallibility combined with programming mistakes in AI lead to serious, if not deadly, repercussions.
Josie and her mother live outside the big city in an area that seems more country than suburb. We don’t meet any men until late in the story. The parents of both Josie and Rick—her best friend and quasi-romantic interest—are divorced. Josie’s mother goes off to work every day, while she stays home and studies on her “oblong.” It’s a lonely existence, made more so by the fact Josie isn’t well. She suffers from some sort of illness, and it takes Klara a while to compute what’s wrong. Josie is a privileged child, which means that her mother has a well-paying job and chose to have her “lifted,” a euphemism for gene-edited. The “lifted” children are the ones who go off to college. The kids who attend public school usually don’t. Klara’s learning curve is steep. Everything she observes she converts into knowledge. Soon she’s more than just a companion for Josie. She’s a savior in search of a cure; if that’s not possible, she’ll try instead to save the mother from heartbreak.
To say much more about the plot might spoil the reading experience. Klara is our guide, and we learn about this futuristic world at the same time she does. She’s powered by the sun (thus the title) and regards it as a deity. Was she programmed that way? Not necessarily. That’s one of the fascinating qualities of Ishiguro’s writing style. He leaves the reader space for interpretation. About a third of the way through, the plot picks up speed and tension with a stream of new revelations that continue to surprise but make sense in retrospect.
Ishiguro’s third novel, Remains of the Day, garnered him international fame, a Booker Prize, and a critically acclaimed movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. The novel was published in 1989 when he was thirty-four. It seemed British in the extreme: an English butler realizes he’s given the best years of his life to a Nazi sympathizer. Yet Ishiguro has said he wanted to write a novel that could cross borders in its appeal, including for those who had never been to Britain. How did he manage it?
“One of the things that’s interested me always is how we live in small worlds and big worlds at the same time: that we have a personal arena in which we have to try and find fulfillment and love, but that inevitably intersects with a larger world, where politics or even dystopian universes can prevail.” Kazuo Ishiguro in an interview posted on the Nobel website, after he won the prize for literature in 2017
His first novel was set in Nagasaki, where he was born, and where his mother was living when one of two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. At age five, he became an English boy in a Japanese-speaking household. His oceanographer father was offered a job in a London suburb, and the family never left. He was the only foreign boy in the neighborhood, and yet he’s said that less than twenty years after WWII, he was treated kindly, with respect and curiosity.
In his Nobel address in Sweden, Ishiguro spoke about a turning point in his writing life. He was, he explained, from a generation inclined to optimism. Born almost a decade after WWII, his generation saw colonial empires crumble and liberal democracies rise. There was a great clash between capitalism and communism and a happy conclusion. But later, he felt like he’d been living in a bubble as he observed acts of terrorism, the emergence of far right ideologies, extreme inequalities in wealth, and the challenges posed by breakthroughs in science, technology and medicine. (His 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go, is about three childhood friends from an English boarding school who are actually human clones raised to be organ donors.) As a man in his 60s, he told the Nobel audience, he wondered if he could still “find energy to bring emotional depth to those subjects,” and he’s looking to a younger generation of writers from around the globe to widen our common literary world.
“Good writing and good reading will break down barriers.” from Ishiguro’s Nobel address, 2017
Ishiguro’s novel Klara and the Sun makes the case that great literature is a form of Artificial Intelligence for humans. The more we read, the smarter we get.