- Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Faber, $32.99.
Klara and the Sun is Kazuo Ishiguro's eighth novel and his first since he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017. Once more, he delves into the speculative fiction genre, as he did in his 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go, in which he examined the implications of human cloning. In Klara and the Sun, artificial intelligence, the nature of consciousness and what it is to be human are the key themes.
The 100 AI stories, dating from 1837 to the present, in an excellent anthology, We Robots (Head of Zeus, $55), edited by Simon Ings, the Arts Editor of the New Scientist, confirm that these are not new fictional themes. In over 1000 pages, authors who include Stanislaw Lem, Ray Bradbury, Australia's Greg Egan and Cory Doctorow, examine the increasingly blurred interface between human and AI.
Ishiguro must have been aware of one of the stories in We Robots, namely Brian Aldiss' 1969 story, "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long", with its similar depiction of human /AI family relationships, filmed by Steven Spielberg as AI: Artificial Intelligence.
Ishiguro's novel begins with, Klara, "an Artificial Friend", a solar powered android, waiting in a shop window, "hopeful a customer will soon choose her".
Klara is ultimately chosen as a companion by 14-year-old Josie, who has become seriously ill after being "lifted", after undergoing gene editing surgery, a process intended to improve her intelligence to get into university.
The super elite have their children "lifted" in order to maintain economic and social supremacy in a polluted near-future America. Josie's sister Sal has died after undergoing the gene-editing process, while her father and mother have divorced after Josie's father loses his job - or has been "substituted" and becomes part of societal "economic serfdom".
Ishiguro has voiced his concerns that because of, "AI, gene-editing, big data...I worry we are not in control of these things anymore...and their implications for equality and democracy". Klara's nonlinear view of the world, initially a tabula rasa, slowly fills as she tries to take in a wider world than one seen from the shop window. She is "Terminator-like in her determination to look after Josie". Klara turns out to be more human and more empathetic than most humans.
The humans she encounters don't quite know where to place Klara. Ishiguro says, "Is she like a vacuum cleaner? Is she like a servant? Is she like a guest? Is she like another child in the family or another adult in the family? So there are these competing versions of hierarchy and class that have come into play in this world, a world in flux."
Ishiguro has often examined the nature of service and duty in his novels, as exemplified by the troubled butler, Stevens, played by Anthony Hopkins in the film of The Remains of the Day.
Ishiguro wonders, "What is the nature of faith and love for an android? . . . What happens to things like love in an age when we are changing our views about the human individual and the individual's uniqueness? ".
Josie's lawyer mother sees Klara as a possible Josie surrogate should Josie remain ill or even die. Ishiguro here ponders if AI will expose "love as a delusion". Klara reflects, however, "I don't think it would have worked out so well. Not because I wouldn't have achieved accuracy . . . I'd never have reached what they felt for Josie in their hearts".
Ishiguro's beguiling simple narrative echoes Klara's slow appreciation of the issues impacting her relationship with Josie. Solar-powered Klara wonders if she makes a pact with her God, the 'Sun", she might be able to cure Josie".
Since Klara has "solar absorption problems," and weakens if there are "four continuous days of Pollution", she believes that the Sun dislikes "Pollution".
She asks her Sun, "Supposing I were able somehow to find this machine (a single polluting factory) and destroy it . . .Would you then consider, in return, giving your special help to Josie?"
Klara's naivete is here exposed and in destroying the factory her cognitive abilities are reduced.
Klara sees Josie's recovery as reward for the pact with her God. She then faces an inevitable machine 'slow fade" and relocation to "the Yard".
Klara takes solace in that "I have my memories to go through and place in the right order". Comparisons here with the slow fade of a human life.
A number of Ishiguro's novels have despair or denial at their core. Ishiguro has said, at the emotional level, Klara and the Sun was "a reply to Never Let Me Go or at least to the overriding sadness of the novel".
Klara and the Sun has a slightly more optimistic, albeit stoic, tone. Ishiguro concludes, "By presenting a very difficult world you can show the brightness, you can show the sunniness".