FICTION: BEING HUMAN

Published August 15, 2021

Nobel Prize-winning writer Kazuo Ishiguro has said that he tends to write the same story again and again. On the surface, each of his novels appears quite different, but as we go one layer deeper, it is easy to find similar themes across many of them. Such is the case with Klara and the Sun, his first book since he received the Nobel Prize in 2017.

The titular Klara in Ishiguro’s eighth novel — long-listed for the 2021 Booker Prize — is an “AF”, or artificial friend. She is a high-end humanoid robot who has been created to keep a young child company. In the world sketched out in the book, most children live a lonely existence at home once they have been “lifted”, or genetically modified to highlight their intellectual abilities and improve their career prospects. They are educated via online tutors they see on gadgets called “oblongs”, and have little to no physical meetings with peers outside of organised “interactions” with other teenagers like them, in which they must learn the nuances of social behaviour.

This fictitious world is perfectly recognisable, even with the presence of androids that have not just become replacements for friends, but have also taken over many jobs. Not everyone is happy with these changes, but society has primarily accepted this next step of modern life, and has normalised it.

As we get to know Klara and Josie — the teenage girl to whom Klara belongs — and their world better, it becomes clear that the risk of lifting is quite great. Children can become very unwell as a result of the genetic engineering, and not all of them make it past the illness. It also becomes clear that the majority of parents will take this risk in order to give their children a fighting chance in society.

All Klara has ever wanted is to be the AF of a child — it is her sole purpose. When she meets Josie at the shop where artificial friends are available for purchase, she becomes devoted to the idea of becoming Josie’s AF, even though Josie does not return to the shop for a long time. Ultimately, Klara is bought and moves into Josie’s home. She is single-minded in her devotion, going out of her way to “give privacy” when it is needed, watching over the sickly teenager as she sleeps and keeps her company through the lonely days of online learning.

Klara’s narrative is, of course, simplistic — not just because the entire story is written from the perspective of an artificially intelligent (AI) being, but also because Ishiguro is nothing if not understated in his storytelling. The author, as always, is casual and brief with how he imparts information about the world in which the story is set and, consequently, the prose is, as expected, sparse yet full.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel since his Nobel Prize is a meditation on intelligence, loneliness, empathy, faith and, perhaps, parenthood

But Klara is also capable of something very similar to human emotion; perhaps not straight up visceral sadness or love, but devotion, hope, anxiety, fear and empathy. It is this empathy that makes her different from other artificial friends. Klara’s ability to imagine herself in someone else’s place makes her a far more interesting narrator than the voice of an AI may have been: she is able to understand the non-binary nuance of human emotion.

But Ishiguro also delves into the idea of AIs evolving independently. Klara has her own personal belief system — call it superstitions, or even faith. She is powered by solar energy and so believes the sun to be the ultimate saviour: her God, if you will.

However, Ishiguro does not let us forget that, despite all this, Klara is not actually human. He reminds us of this in various ways — sometimes Klara is left alone for hours in a storage space, but she has no complaints. Once, she is asked if she should be treated like a household appliance. Sometimes her vision glitches, breaking into pixels and boxes. It is an interesting dynamic for a reader to be emotionally invested in an inorganic narrative voice until it feels human, yet know that it is not, in fact, human.

And because Klara does not know much about the world, or what this society requires of humans — because her own frame of reference is so limited — the reader, too, does not fully grasp why Josie is ill, or why her mother bears guilt over it, or why no one wants to explain what happened to Josie’s elder sister Sal, or why it is so important that Josie have a “portrait” made.

The book feels very much like a companion piece to Ishiguro’s earlier dystopian science fiction novel Never Let Me Go (shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize), with undercurrents of something dark always present and the author, as usual, skilfully dropping breadcrumbs to help guide his readers to some frightening conclusions.

“Let me ask you this. Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual? And if we just suppose that there is. Then don’t you think, in order to truly learn Josie, you’d have to learn not just her mannerisms but what’s deeply inside her? Wouldn’t you have to learn her heart?”— Excerpt from the book

Ishiguro’s fear is not that of the ‘Singularity’ — a fairly well-documented concept in theories related to AI and Futurism, of a hypothetical point in the future when technology and artificial intelligence become out of control and irreversible. Frightening as that concept may be for many people, the author’s fears have more to do with how easily we may accept artificial intelligence into our lives, and just how seamlessly AI beings may take over many functions in human society — calmly, perfectly and without any aggression.

So perfectly, that there is no reason to fight against them, to revolt or complain. Will this sort of situation allow humans to move on to better, different ways of living? Or will it create further loneliness? Will our emotional capacities as humans evolve or diminish?

The idea of being rendered completely redundant once you have served a very specific purpose is a constant theme in the book, just as it was in Never Let Me Go, where humans are cloned to serve as organ donors and then left to die when their donations are complete. In Klara and the Sun, it is not just the humans who fear being replaced by artificially intelligent beings; the AI also fear being replaced with new, better models, or even simply being put out to pasture once they have fulfilled their main purpose.

Much like parents, perhaps.

Is Klara and the Sun about artificial intelligence? Is it about parenthood, about raising a person more suited to the evolving world than you, and then being left alone to sift through your memories once the persons you have raised no longer need you? Loyalty, love, sacrifice and the deals we make with God — Ishiguro, as always, reminds us of what it is to be human, to have an impact on another, and eventually return to the pulse.

The reviewer is a book critic, editor of The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories and hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com

Klara and the Sun
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Knopf, US
ISBN: 978-0593318171
320pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 15th, 2021

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