What if it were possible to walk into a store and buy a best friend with artificial intelligence – a humanoid robot able to love you and serve your best interests? That is the central premise behind a novel that rocketed up close to the top of my personal “favorite book” chart. And that was before I’d even finished it.
The novel, KLARA AND THE SUN, is the latest work by Kazuo Ishiguro. As with his novels NEVER LET ME GO and THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, Ishiguro puts us inside the mind of central character that is in a servile position to others. I wrote about
NEVER LET ME GO in a guest blog post on shepherd.com yesterday, along with four other sci-fi books that I most admire. The site is an amazing resource, featuring authors who discuss their favorite books on all kinds of topics. The folks behind Shepherd have created an environment that’s like browsing in a bookstore. After your read this post, you should head on over there. It’s a gold mine of good reading ideas.
But back to Klara, who is the solar-powered humanoid narrator in Ishiguro’s latest masterpiece. She may be an artificial friend (AF, for short), but she’s a kind, extraordinarily perceptive being. The girl who bought her, Josie, is seriously ill and is expected to follow her sister into the grave.
While parents can have their children “lifted” into states of higher intelligence, Josie’s parents chose not to do so. That makes her a bit of a social misfit. Josie’s in love with the boy next door, who also bears the same “unlifted” stigma.
Faced with emotional devastation, if her daughter dies, Josie’s mother concocts a secretive plan that I won’t divulge here. But it raises the stakes and huge questions as the story unfolds.
More tension and questions arise as Klara attempts to save Josie’s life through a seemingly naïve and bizarre series of actions. But you can’t help rooting for her, anyway.
As with NEVER LET ME GO, Ishiguro paints a futuristic picture that is nevertheless very realistic, from the standpoint of how the various people in it react to their circumstances and each other. That style, which is conveyed so quietly, is the book’s most powerful element. For example, not all of the characters feel comfortable interacting with a humanoid. Some don’t like artificial friends. And how the people express those feelings is very believable.
Klara has an extremely devoted, gentle “voice.” She says formal names, or descriptive names, in an odd manner. For example, instead of referring to the housekeeper as Melania or the housekeeper, she calls her Melania housekeeper. And pearls of perception drop into her narration from time to time, such as:
“What was becoming clear to me was the extent to which humans, in their wish to escape loneliness, made maneuvers that were very complex and hard to fathom.”
She also experiences commonplace events in remarkable ways. In an early chapter of the book, she goes outdoors for almost the first time in her entire existence. This is how she describes a driveway and surroundings:
“We walked onto the loose stones area, which I supposed had been kept deliberately rough for the car. The wind was mild and pleasant, and I wondered how it was the tall trees up on the hill were even then bending and waving under its push. But I soon had to concentrate on my feet, because the loose stones area contained many dips …”
In sharp contrast, Josie’s voice is loose, and like a typical teen’s. Every time Josie speaks, it’s like I’m listening to Elisabeth Moss in THE WEST WING. You know, when she was the daughter of Martin Sheen, the President.
I also was struck by the fractured images that Klara sees when anything tense or emotional happens, as her computer controls try to handle the stress.
There are many reasons to love this novel from the standpoint of technique and structure. But people who don’t care about those things, and just love to read and imagine what the future holds, are in for a moving, thought-provoking treat.