When I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day a few years ago I found it profoundly thought provoking. I was not surprised to run across an interview recently that highlighted purpose as a theme in Ishiguro’s novels. In Remains of the Day, an aging butler grapples with his changing role—as well as his lifelong loyalties—in the wake of WWII.
Not only the butler but the overall ethos of the book harks back to nineteenth-century conventions. I was therefore intrigued to learn that Ishiguro’s most recent release features an AI (artificial intelligence) protagonist in a futuristic setting. The story opens—and carries on for some time—with Klara in a shop awaiting purchase as an artificial friend (AF) for a child. At length she is bought by the mother of a teen, Josie, who has set her heart on Klara, even though Klara is not the latest model of AF.
Portraying the world through the eyes of an AI allows Ishiguro to convey the familiar through a fresh lens—one that is occasionally askew. At times Klara’s extraordinary powers of perception and deduction give her penetrating insight into human emotion. At others her limited experience leads her to faulty conclusions, such as the belief that the sun dwells in the neighbors’ barn, behind which it disappears every night.
What Are We?
Ishiguro’s failure to explain the science behind Klara’s technology may disappoint readers of traditional science fiction. But the author is clearly more interested in exploring humanity than technology. Indeed, one of the scientists in Klara comments that while they don’t fully understand how androids know what they know, studying them can provide insight into human emotion and behavior.
This naturally leads to, among other questions, that of whether and how we differ from machines. Are we highly evolved animals? Or machines that operate according to the dictates of our DNA? Or something entirely other?
(Spoiler alert) Ishiguro avoids discussing what constitutes consciousness and whether androids feel emotion. But the starkest contrast between Klara and the humans she associates with may be the absence of self-interest. She ascribes such terms as “sorry” and “surprised” to herself and exhibits a complex understanding of human impulses. She establishes a connection with Josie while still in the department store and manifests a desire to belong to her. But her every aim is to see Josie flourish, succeed, and be happy. As a “friend,” this is what Klara is programmed to do.
Klara’s narration of her history is, in the main, dispassionate and devoid of self-pity. She manifests no regret, even after Josie appears to have no enduring need for her AF and Klara is relegated to the broom closet. The humans, on the other hand, struggle with conflicting desires and loyalties, fall in and out of love, and experience jealousy, anger, insecurity. Would we be better off if we were all machines?
Young at Heart
Klara is not billed as a YA novel. But with its adolescent secondary characters, I could easily conceive of its being read in a high school classroom. Klara supports rich discussion on such topics as friendship, love, and social systems, not to mention the nature and existence of one’s immortal soul. In more practical but near-universal terms, Josie and her childhood friend Rick flirt with romance, agonize over the future, protect and spar with parents, shift allegiances, and outgrow interests.
Click here for further themes and their implications in part II of this discussion on Klara and the Sun.