Kazuo Ishiguro: Klara and the Sun (Knopf 2021)

Do you believe in the human heart?

Every review of this book mentions it’s about Artificial Intelligence. And it is, of course. But to my surprise, I found it to be very much about the spiritual realm as well. I may add it to my under-construction Five Books list of Books about Relgion for People who Don’t Do Religion (to go with my existing list of Books about Math for People Who Don’t Do Math).

Our first-person narrator is Klara, an Artificial Friend available at the local department store. On the plus side, this allows us access to Klara’s reasoning process. On the minus side, it gives the novel a YA feel (we are dealing with a teenager, teenage love, teenage decisions, coming of age stuff) and it’s sometimes hard to understand what’s actually going on. I’m still not sure of the overall environment; it seems stratified by genetic manipulation, but some people have been “substituted” and there’s mention of fascism and white gangs and I’m not really clear on all that. However, I didn’t try very hard. I get enough of that on the news.  

Klara is not one of the intellectually-brilliant-but-socially-inept androids science fiction so loves to throw into human chaos; in fact, it’s somewhat the opposite. She has what contemporary education theory might call emotional intelligence, the ability to read cues from people’s words and actions and know what they are feeling, what they want, what is expected of her. She’s quite attuned to relationships, to love and loneliness, and to motivations. But her logical processes are far less sophisticated when analyzing how the world works, showing – sometimes – a strong predeliction for post hoc ergo proptor hoc.

The pace of revelation is carefully controlled, allowing several important threads to develop both consecutively and simultaneously. Part 1 takes place entirely in the department store where Klara is for sale, allowing us to understand her view of the world. Yet it also introduces Josie, the teenager whose mother will  buy Klara, and it will introduce two events Klara observes on the street: a woman and a man – the Coffee Cup woman and the Raincoat Man – meet coincidentally after what Klara surmises is a very long time, showing both joy at the reunion and sorrow at the time gone by; and the Begger Man and his dog seem to die (though they merely went to sleep in a doorway), but are brought back to life by the Sun.

The Sun was pouring his nourishment on to the street and into the buildings, and when I looked over to the spot where Beggar Man and the dog had died, I saw they weren’t dead at all – that a special kind of nourishment from the Sun had saved them…. They were both hungrily absorbing the Sun’s special nourishment and becoming stronger by the minute, and I saw that before long, perhaps even by that afternoon, Beggar Man would be on his feet again, cheerfully exchanging remarks as always from the blank doorway.

This can only be called Sun Worship: the attribution of both power and the will to use it to a Being who is out of the range of communication. Klara is dependent upon solar energy (as are we all) so assumes everyone is likewise energized by its rays. This becomes central to the overall story. I find it fascinating that, in a world that seems quite done with humanism, it’s a machine that re-invents God and faith, and that acts out of self-sacrifice for the benefit of another. Is that because she is not fully rational, or is it something programmed into her? A great deal of research is showing how algorithms that are supposed to be unbiased show precisely the bias of the people who wrote them; in a world where people are abandoning not just God but their own humanity, is it possible they have subconsciously re-recreated God through AI?

This religiosity goes beyond merely seeing the Sun as a god. To save Josie, Klara prays to the Sun, offering to perform a service she thinks will please It. It turns out this involves a rather large sacrifice on her part, but she gives it willingly. Alas, she discovers the task was a waste of time (very faulty logic, but a human joins her in this and he isn’t any wiser, while I’m shouting “There are other machines!” from my living room), so she prays again, this time relying on faith in the power of human love. This is in line with the Protestant catechism: we are not saved by anything we can do, for our actions are always insufficient; it is only by faith that we can please God and receive His salvation.

There is another course of action, and as we learn more about it, we come into the discussion of whether people have a soul. The word soul is never used, but it seems clear to me that’s what they’re talking about.

‘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?…’
‘The heart you speak of,’ I said. ‘It might indeed be the hardest part of Josie to learn. It might be like a house with many rooms. Even so, a devoted AF, given time, could walk through each of those rooms, studying them carefully in turn, until they became like her own home.’ ‘But then suppose you stepped into one of those rooms,’ he said, ‘and discovered another room within it. And inside that room, another room still. Rooms within rooms within rooms. Isn’t that how it might be, trying to learn Josie’s heart? No matter how long you wandered through those rooms, wouldn’t there always be others you’d not yet entered?’
I considered this for a moment, then said: ‘Of course, a human heart is bound to be complex. But it must be limited. Even if Mr Paul is talking in the poetic sense, there’ll be an end to what there is to learn…’

So even Klara, the most soul-conscious of the bunch, sees the heart, the soul, as finite. What if it isn’t? That Mr. Paul, an outcast in this society by virtue of having been substituted out of his job, is the advocate of an infinite human heart, which I am  calling a soul, seems telling. This conversation takes place in a context that makes this more than just late-night dorm room stoned gab session, by the way; it’s central to the story, but I’m trying to be discreet about spoilers.

Several other powerful threads run through the book. The process of lifting apparently is only possible for children. There are benefits for both the child and the parents who make the decision, but there is also a significant risk. This brings guilt and forgiveness into the equation, and makes some interesting reading as we in the here and now struggle through the pandemic.

Then there’s the whole issue of Klara’s status as an AF. As readers, we naturally form an attachment to her, but she isn’t a person. Or is she? Forgive me if I lapse into ST:TNG for a moment (you knew I’d go there): “Data is a toaster.” There’s a reason art keeps creating machines and daring us not to care about them. Again, the question comes up: Can a person care about a machine? Does Klara have a soul? Can she even be likened to a service or sporting animal who is eventually retired? Do we owe her anything in that case? We just saw great outcry about military dogs in Afghanistan; does Klara, as a machine, earn that level of respect, or is she a toaster, to be thrown out when she’s no longer needed?

I was surprised by the book; it was less than I’d expected, even though I found the religious aspect compelling. I think I was put off by the voice. The only other Ishiguro I’ve read is The Consoled, and a short story “A Village After Dark” which turned out to be a practice piece for the dream-grammar of The Consoled. I wasn’t going to read Klara at all; I’d just read a Ted Chiang novella about AI and wasn’t really eager to read another. But I read a review or a comment somewhere that caught my attention, so I put it on my list; alas, I can’t remember what it was that interested me, or where I found it. I’m guessing it had something to do with religion.

But, in addition to thought-provoking threads already mentioned, it does have these drop-dead moments: the trip to Morgan’s Falls, which has all sorts of foreshadowing;  the interaction meeting, a sort of social therapy group since no one goes to school any more, which gives a better idea of what kind of society this is; and, perhaps less importantly in the grand scheme of things, but just as dramatically, Klara’s impression of a bull in a field:

I was so alarmed by its appearance that I gave an exclamation and came to a halt. I’d never before seen anything that gave, all at once come up so many signals of anger and the wish to destroy. Its face, its horns, its cold eyes watching me all brought fear into my mind, but I felt something more, something stranger and deeper. At that moment it felt to me some great error had been made that the creature should be allowed to stand in the Sun’s pattern at all, that this bull belonged somewhere deep in the ground far within the mud and darkness, and its presence on the grass could only have awful consequences.

I crammed this in to this post where it doesn’t belong because it gives me the chance to use the word chthonic, something that doesn’t come along every day. Where there is God, there must be Evil.  

It might not be the first book I’d recommend, but with all the threads it contains, it’s worth reading.

* * *

A Very Particular Risk: Aimee Bender on Jane Campion and Kazuo Ishiguro at Literary Hub (lithub.com)

Another Literary Novel About Androids Passing for Human – post by James Wallace Harris

9 responses to “Kazuo Ishiguro: Klara and the Sun (Knopf 2021)

  1. Thanks for analyzing this book – it was reviewed in a bunch of places and I was considering about picking it up. I finished a book by Ishiguro, “The Buried Giant” just a couple weeks ago, and was on the fence the whole way through it. As you say, “it’s worth reading,” but it’s not something I would recommend to somebody.

    On the topic of AI, I agree with you. It’s a subject completely beaten into the ground. Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy is one of the deepest stories about AI’s that I have read, and it was still just kind of…eh.

    • Hi Jon – It’s funny, this year I’ve found several of the most highly touted books to be… not bad, but not as toutworthy as others thought they were. I wonder if I’m just in a bad mood or distracted and not reading well. Then again, I’ve found others to be wonderful.
      What’s interesting about this AI character is that she’s not an intellectual genius and an emotional klutz; quite the contrary. So that deserves attention.

  2. Oh, Karen. I am torn, frustrated. I am thinking I SHOULD read this book, that it SHOULD give me …something…pleasure, enlightenment, learning, a new way of looking at the world…that I am copping out by not reading it, not allowing myself to feel The Sun that transforms Klara, that makes her well. Aimee Bender is one of my biggest crushes, and I love her essay on it. Yes, I HAVE to read the book. And I won’t. Hahaha. I can’t do it. I am getting old, wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. My attention span is almost non-existent. Short stories, yes, a 320-page novel, no. I can’t do it. I feel I am failing myself, failing the world, failing my intelligence. But I also am not. Because it’s OK to make the decision NOT to read something, not go in a particular direction. It’s OK. I have become addicted to a TV show. I am reluctant to name it. I love it. Each episode presents moral issues, riffs on them in various ways in the interactions between a set of characters, and at the end a voice-over brings us a resolution, a wrapping-up. And I lap it up. I think about the three or four ways in which the problem was presented, nod, satisfied. It is pablum, sort of, but not really. It is well-written by a woman who thinks, ponders, examines. Every day I get a new instalment (there are 18 seasons, I am on season 2, I have a year’s worth of enjoyment to go. I can handle this, equivalent of many 320-page books, because it is presented to me visually, in an hour, and places little demand on my attention span. Perhaps it is an old man’s cop-out. Aimee Bender would be ashamed of me. You, perhaps, are ashamed of me. I don’t think I can read the Ishiguro.

    • Hi Andrew – hey, nobody should ever read a book because the feel like they “should” read it (that has an unintended irony in it). Given all the books on your shelves, and all the books in all the bookstores and libraries, you read the ones that call to you. Leave it, maybe later it will be something you’ll want to read. In fact, my wrap-up post for this year’s in-between reading period will express a great deal of regret.
      You must, however, tell me about this TV show. I am going to hound you by email until you reveal it! I thought I might have an idea, but then I realized I was off by a year. I might join you in watching it, if it’s somewhere I can access. And don’t worry, I have quite a few TV guilty pleasures I hesitate to reveal.

      • Ishiguro puts a lot of work into the voice of his novels; I discovered that when I looked into the dream-grammar i mentioned above. You’re right, he has a very specific speech (and thought) pattern for Klara, and sticks to it.
        The question of gender is interesting. I wonder if it’s unavoidable – people creating beings in their own image – or if it’s a matter of what the market wants.
        I also wondered what Klara looks like. It seems they’re easily recognized as AFs, but beyond that, Ishiguro gives few cues.
        I think their purpose is as stated in the name – to be friends. To assuage loneliness, which seems to be a problem in this world where people are separated by work, by lifting, by lack of community in general. The society Josie speaks of, it’s illusory – much as the meeting she had was. The society one has with people you run into in stores isn’t friendship. Then again, I got stuck on the issue of loneliness because I read something about Ishiguro’s books all being about loneliness.
        Klara seems to recognize emotions – at one point she says she feels anger, I think – but it’s not that she gets angry, more like she recognizes a situation in which anger is an appropriate reaction. Her only genuine emotion came from the bull. and the Sun.
        I’m talking myself into liking this book more and more 😉

  3. Pingback: Another Literary Novel About Androids Passing for Human – Auxiliary Memory

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