Klara and the Sun: Depths of humanity in artificial intelligence | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 08, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:55 PM, April 08, 2021

FRESH OFF THE PRESS: FICTION

Klara and the Sun: Depths of humanity in artificial intelligence

Despite Klara and the Sun (Faber, 2021) coming out on my birthday, and soft science fiction being not only a genre I regularly read but write, I found myself with no real connection with the Nobel Prize-winning author's latest work. Kazuo Ishiguro, for me, has always been one of "those writers"; the kind who you're sure write perfectly good stories, but the sheer amount of praise they receive from just about everyone leaves you a little sceptical. (Novel titles like Never Let Me Go surely didn't help). Or maybe it's just me. What I have found, though, once I actually leafed through the pages—and I'm sure this won't come as a surprise to any fans of the author—is that my opinion, one might call it bias, was completely unsubstantiated.

What I found in the 307 pages was indeed the deep meditation several reviewers promised. What I found were the exact many qualities the writer has always been celebrated for, that this particular reviewer had always dismissed with a shrug. The prose, elegantly simple, is as efficient and to-the-point as is Isaac Asimov's, though nowhere near as soulless. The spirit, the "heart" that the book's back cover takes great space to write of, was not unlike the humanity you find in a Bradbury or a Le Guin—but its focus, centred so fixedly at the base of human existence, is its own. What I found was a work of  science fiction with no direct analogue, no immediate referent, save for its own maker's.

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"To some extent as a writer you're always in dialogue with your earlier books", Ishiguro told TIME. "Part of me wanted to reply to Never Let Me Go (Faber, 2005), which is a very sad book. It's not pessimistic exactly, but it's very sad. I wanted to reply to that vision". With a story similarly examining the hypothetical, and not wholly unrealistic, future rounded out by artificial intelligence, both novels approach and ultimately deal with the subject in their own ways. If you are anything resembling this reviewer, please do not conceive any notions based on the insipid film adaptations of Never Let Me Go (2010) and the thoroughly fine, if unremarkable, Remains of the Day (1993).

Don't be dissuaded, either, by the platitudes surrounding this novel's release. "What does it mean to love?" is a quote you'll find tied around its marketing. The back of the first edition pulls out the quote, "Do you believe in the human heart?", which sounds more like a Cher song than the circumstances in which the question is asked in the novel—in the middle of a taut, confused conversation the protagonist has three-quarters of the way through, spoken more literally than may seem without context.

The novel, which follows the narration of "Artificial Friend" Klara, far exceeds the sum of its parts. At its core, the story doubles as a Toy Story-coming of age tale, with central figure Josie, the terminally-ill adolescent, kicking the plot into gear. Klara, who is from the start more human than human, is our moral compass and audience surrogate. In pulling off this age-old SF trick, setting the parameters of the narrative around the android's naivety, Ishiguro transforms what might have been "sick lit" under lesser hands into a fully realised humanistic portrait of our modern, digitally-enhanced life.

Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro told Publishers Weekly, originally began life as an illustrated children's book, "about a child who isn't well; confined to her room. She and her doll watch the sun go down until one night they are able to leave the room and visit outside". It was when his daughter, writer Naomi Ishiguro, interjected that he changed courses. "She said, no way. You cannot tell this story to children; you would traumatize them".

Indeed, there is material enough in the novel to cause tremble to the most seasoned adults. We find out how in this world children are "lifted", an uncertain process involving genetic modification, and schooled thereon only through phones and tablets ("oblongs", as Klara identifies them); parents hold "interaction meetings" to ensure socialisation; and those families that can't afford their children's "lifting" are seen immediately as members of different society.

There is little attempt to mask the technophobia present in the writing, but all the cruel things and cruel people that appear in the book appear in full three dimensions. Characters will often seem hateful, and they will later seem full of love. The advancement of technology is more hindrance than blessing, but Klara, who observes and absorbs humanity, is often the most compassionate in any given situation. Ishiguro has said in the past how in his writing he seeks to make a universal statement, and Klara and the Sun, his first novel in six years, is just that. There is nothing grandiose about it. He doesn't approach it with kid-gloves, nor does he yank our shoulders blaring his message. There is a gentleness to his writing, an assured sense of direction, that makes me regret, above all, my neglecting of his work.

 

Mehrul Bari S Chowdhury is a writer, poet, and artist. His work has appeared in Kitaab, Sortes Magazine, and Marías at Sampaguitas, among others.

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