Monday, August 16, 2021

Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro


Knopf, 2021
303 pp

(read earlier)

Confession time: not too much into this novel I nearly put it down. I decided that if I still didn't like it after part two it would go into the donations box, so with that mindset I continued reading.  Good decision.  What started out feeling like a mix of children's story and YA novel definitely moved into a darker zone, leaving behind a number of unanswered yet intelligent questions worth pondering.   

Just briefly, since I don't want to give away any spoilers, Klara is a "top-range B2"  Artificial Friend (AF) who, as the novel begins, is on display in a store where people can purchase an AF as a companion, preventing their children/teens from becoming lonely  and  helping them with their school work.  There are newer models, the B3s, but according to the manager, Klara has "the most sophisticated understanding" of any of the other AFs in the store, "B3s not excepted."   As narrator of the events in Klara and the Sun, she has a somewhat limited view, but in affording her this role, Ishiguro allows the spotlight to shine more keenly on the human beings and the world around her, one which is obviously more technologically advanced than our present.   For one thing, something has occurred leaving many important and talented people to have lost their jobs (having been "substituted"); for another, parents who can afford to do so have had their children somehow genetically enhanced or "lifted" via a process known as AGE so that they have the best chances in life.   On the other hand, this world also seems familiar, with among other things,  clear-cut economic and social inequality, people on the margins, city spaces falling to ruin. Klara is chosen by Josie, a young girl who with her mother lives a relatively isolated life.  The only other human in the home is Melania the housekeeper, as Josie's parents no longer live together.  Josie's learning is done via tutors online via the "oblong" (think tablet) rather than school; social engagement with other kids occurs via periodic get togethers called "interaction meetings."   Josie has a friend nearby named Rick, who is clearly not in the same socioeconomic situation as Josie and her mother; he, unlike Josie, had not been lifted although he is definitely talented and worthy of any university.   The two are close and have plans to stay together; the problem is that as a non-lifted student, he has only a very small shot at entering any college that Josie might attend setting him apart and lessening his chances for a bright future.    Further complicating the situation, Josie is ill and if her now-deceased sister's case is any judge, there is a chance that Josie may not live to go to college at all.  As her condition worsens, often leaving her bedridden, Klara hits on a plan to help her, while her mother questions her choice in having had Josie lifted (although at times she seems to resent that guilt, only wanting security for her daughter), and has her own back-up plan just in case. 

Reader reviews are all over the map on this novel, with some people finding it "flat," others thinking that Ishiguro has basically rewritten his previous work, and others loving it.  While  I haven't gone into any detail here, in the last couple of chapters what happens seemed a bit too pat, too easy, and that made the read a bit on the frustrating side. Despite that, however, and getting past my initial reluctance, I found Klara and the Sun to be well done, although admittedly there were a number of spots that sort of bogged it down and made me impatient to move on.     If you're looking for hardcore sci-fi, this isn't the book although it does have its moments, especially in one particularly sinister and unexpected scene.  I left this novel feeling a bit unsettled, just thinking about what exactly might be in store for humankind in the future, precisely because the world inhabited by the characters in this novel doesn't feel too far off.  The dustjacket blurb says that the novel poses a "fundamental question: what does it mean to love?" but there is so much more that gets unpacked in this book.  Two particular issues came to mind almost immediately on finishing: what is it that makes us uniquely human and cannot be replicated in artifical intelligence, no matter how advanced the technology?  Is it ever going to be possible to fully replicate human beings?  There's more -- themes of faith, loneliness, isolation, grief; and of course the ethical dilemmas and social consequences of AI,   --  all put to the reader in the author's usual understated prose style.  It's a fine book -- perhaps not my favorite novel by this author, but still very much worth the time.  


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