Science Fiction Books

Dream about me: Review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Klara and the Sun’

A 100 years ago, a play debuted at the National Theatre in Prague. Written by Karel Čapek, the play featured an inventor who manufactures a race of artificial workers. The play was Rossum’s Universal Robots, the last being an invented word, derived from the Slavic root rabote, to work. The robots promptly rebel and extirpate the human race; the inventor, at the behest of a corporate backer, had unwisely ensured that the robots will be ultra-efficient but also feel pain, “because suffering makes them more technically perfect.”

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This set the stage not just for the word robot to enter our language, but also reaffirmed the highest tradition of science-fiction – to take a screenshot of the zeitgeist. Čapek’s play was a worldwide sensation, with successful runs from New York to Tokyo. A few years later came Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis, with its iconic golden-bronze, eerie-eyed female Maschinenmensch robot, Futura — robots had made the leap to the silver screen, and into our cultural consciousness. Along with their cousins, the androids (who are human-looking robots deliberately designed to resemble the human form), they have summed up the hopes and anxieties of humanity — of predatory corporations, Frankenstein fears of creations turning against masters, mundane fears of our jobs being stolen in the process — forcing us to question what makes us human.

She notices

Alongside this concept of mankind’s unmakers — witness the T-800s in the Terminator films, their metal skulls reflecting atomic fires — there is also another tradition of robots as helpers and friends. The idea of mechanical automata was already millennia-old by the time of Čapek’s play. Ismail al-Jazari, an engineer from what is now Turkey, designed clockwork elephants complete with robotic mahouts, and a “programmable” ensemble of musicians which could play tunes. In his work, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, published in 1206, Jazari acknowledges that he improves on devices built by “ancient scholars and wise men”; one can trace the lineage all the way to the legends that King Ajatashatru had the Buddha’s tomb guarded by giant robot guardians, the bhuta vahana yantra. The Samarangana Sutradhara, a treatise on the dramatic arts composed by Raja Bhoja in the 10th century, mentions in passing “metal dolls” which could dance, sing, and enact scenes from Hindu mythology.

Dream about me: Review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Klara and the Sun’

It is this tradition that Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, Klara and the Sun, draws from. Ishiguro is a doyen of the literary world, while SF, despite its transgressive energies, is “writing on the margins”, at least in the Anglosphere. In Ishiguro’s quietly philosophical cadence, the margin becomes the centre, asking us to judge the novel on par with any classic. Klara is an Artificial Friend, and we follow her from her days in the showroom to her purchase by a teenage girl, Josie. Evidently powered by a neural network, Klara has a distinct personality — the shop manager making the sales pitch says “she notices things no one else does and stores them away.”

However, Ishiguro’s essential concept is far from unique. Isaac Asimov’s very first robot story, ‘Robbie’, published in 1940, is about a robot purchased to act as nursemaid for a little girl. The sci-fi author Cory Doctorow has talked about the “the collaborative spirit of SF” where “tropes are ruthlessly plundered and reworked without apology.” Some of this verve is missing here because of Ishiguro’s literary approach to the theme.

Carefully layered

Josie and her mother live in a mansion in the countryside. The Mother (as she is referred to throughout) is fiercely protective of Josie, and for good reason, as she is not in good health. We soon learn that those who can afford it have their children genetically engineered to be superior, and while it worked for Josie, it also led to some devastating side effects, putting her life in peril.

 

The only neighbour they have is the teenager Rick and his mother. Rick is a precocious talent tinkering with home-made drones, but is lower down the class ladder. He is also an “unlifted”, which means he is denied access to higher education and opportunities. A romance blooms between Rick and Josie, making up a subplot involving his attempts to get into the only college in the world still taking unlifteds.

In trademark Ishiguro style, this exposition is carefully layered so that we see the world slowly unfold through Klara’s eyes, at once terribly perceptive and incurably naïve. After being humiliated by Josie’s brattish friends, she realises “that people often felt the need to prepare a side of themselves to display to passers-by — as they might at a store window — and that such a display needn’t be taken so seriously once the moment had passed.”

Atomised lives

One of the distinguishing features of SF is world-building, where a fictional realm saturated with telling details is intricately built up. There isn’t much on display here on that count but Ishiguro deftly creates the background. There are hints that AI-driven processes have replaced humans: Josie’s father, a skilled engineer, has been “substituted” and now lives in a kind of right-wing commune in the woods with other men who’ve been similarly left adrift. It is apparent that the West has been hit by shrinking demographics.

Children lead increasingly atomised lives, taught by “screen professors”, and scored on ‘social interaction’. Loneliness plagues them — indeed, the primary utility of the Artificial Friends is to provide companionship. In the heroic tradition of SF, robots help humans colonise space or fight off obnoxious aliens — in Ishiguro’s take, the world’s gaze has turned inward and robots have to supply what would normally be left to other humans.

In keeping with this outlook, Klara is no Enthiran. She fears falling into a ditch, thinks that the sun lives in a shed on the horizon, and is inexplicably scared of bulls. This too reflects changes in our relationship with computers. In computer chess for instance, the drive through the 1990s and early 2000s was to build software engines that could beat the best human players. Top Grandmasters pitted their skills against silicone minds. But over the last decade, engines have become way stronger, making this contest between man and machine trivial — even the world champion today would not survive against an app running on a smartphone.

So now we have ‘bots’, which don’t play strongly but assume distinct personas — for example, of Magnus Carlsen, but at the age of 8. The idea is to allow humans to have the illusion of playing against someone their strength, and have a chance to win. Instead of displaying inhuman perfection, machines now strive to make human-like mistakes.

Ishiguro builds on this aspect of robotics which is inspired by Japanese thought. The influential robotocist Shigeo Hirose once said, “People fear robots because they think they will rule human beings... but robots can act unselfishly. Robots can be saints — intelligent and unselfish. For humans, being intelligent is easy, but being unselfish is rather impossible.” Klara is this saintly robot — “intelligent and unselfish”, and, as such, a telling contrast to the humans around her. Far from being immortal, Klara and her kind can only survive a few years before the “slow fade” sets in. Hirose, in his rejection of immortal robots, recalls the “Buddhist emphasis upon the impermanence of all things.”

Broken into grids

As we progress deeper into the novel, our worldview is shaped entirely by Klara’s perceptions. As a machine, she sees the world through image-classification algorithms, which calculate the possibility of an object in an image and then localise this object by enclosing it in a ‘bounding box’. So Klara constantly breaks the world into a grid: “The Mother leaned closer over the tabletop and her eyes narrowed till her face filled eight boxes… and for a moment it felt to me her expression varied between one box and the next. In one... her eyes were laughing cruelly, but in the next they were filled with sadness.”

Klara sees the world like a Paul Klee painting and so do we. It is an effective narrative trick that remakes the world as we know it. As Samuel Delany said, “You can put together more interesting combinations of words in science fiction than you can in any other kind of writing — and they actually mean something.”

The novel falters in the third act, where an attempt to set up a twist goes awry. Still, the characterisation of Klara is an undoubted triumph. In a poignant exchange, Klara’s owner tells her, “It must be nice sometimes to have no feelings. I envy you,” to which Klara replies “I believe I have many feelings. The more I observe, the more feelings become available to me.”

Klara and the Sun; Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber & Faber, ₹699

The writer is a freelance journalist and graphic novelist.


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