Ishiguro, Kazuo: Clara and the Sun

Ishiguro, Kazuo: Clara and the Sun
Ishiguro, Kazuo: Clara and the Sun

There have been a lot of artificial intelligence novels lately, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest is no exception. However, instead of an apocalyptic story about how robots will one day replace humans, Ishiguro uses robots to hold up a mirror to human loneliness and bad qualities, and ponders how they could coexist harmoniously with humans.

A novel about whether a robot can be more human than a human
Kazuo Ishiguro
: Klara and the Sun. Transl. Alena DvořákováArgo, Prague, 2022, 342 p.

Kazua Ishigura (b. 1954), a British writer of Japanese origin and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (2017), probably needs no introduction in the Czech environment. For the first time, he captivated readers with a novel Twilight of the day (English 1989), for which he won the Man Booker Prize, and in the last two decades he has shone novels do not leave me (English 2005) or The buried giant (English 2015). He has written nine novels so far, and as he says in several interviews, he does not want to be an author who feels obliged to publish a new book every two years. When writing, he conducts extensive research, constantly rewrites texts and likes to draw on what he failed to express in previous works. In addition to novels, Ishiguro is also the author of scripts for plays, short stories or song lyrics.

Just for the novel do not leave mein which Ishiguro uses elements of science fiction literature, is followed by his latest book Klara and the Sun (English 2021). This time the author did not choose the topic of clones destined for organ donation, but the motif of determination and predetermined fate plays an important role in his new book as well. Klara and the Sun According to Ishiguro, it was originally supposed to be a children’s picture book about the robot Klara and her relationship with the sun, which he wrote many years ago, but then his own daughter told him that the subject would be very difficult and depressing for children, so the writer, after thorough research, he elaborated the field of artificial intelligence into an allegorical story for adults. One of the most popular contemporary British authors has attempted something similar in recent years Ian McEwan in his novel Machines like me. In it, like Ishiguro, he examines human nature through the eyes of a humanoid robot, which is ultimately so unhappy with human behavior that it no longer wants to live among people. Although Ishiguro hints at a similar dystopia in his new novel, the robot Klara, unlike McEwan’s Adam, does not make similar judgments and leaves it up to the reader to form their own picture of the coexistence of humans and machines.

The main character and the narrator at the same time is the humanoid robot Klára, who at the beginning of the novel waits behind the shop window for someone to choose her and to be able to carry out her mission as a child’s companion. One day it really happens and Klara is chosen by Josie, a seriously ill girl living only with her mother in the American countryside. Before long, the reader learns that Josie is among the so-called “raised children” who have undergone gene editing and are destined for success and financial security, but at the expense of social connections and self-determination. This suggests that the novel takes place in the near future, when social bonds will probably be replaced by interaction with computers, which is partly happening today, or by living with sophisticated robots that abound with human characteristics and abilities. After all, today’s society is not far from that either. For example, the company Boston Dynamics can build robots that react almost perfectly to the environment and move in it without much difficulty. In Japan, it is already possible to buy a robot that recognizes human emotions, especially in children, from the grimaces on the human face, and adapts its behavior to them. This is precisely the task of Klára in the novel, who is determined to be with Josia from morning to night, to help her and report to her mother or the housekeeper when she feels that something is wrong with the girl. In addition, she is present at Josia’s meetings with her friend Rick, with whom they have agreed since early childhood to be together for life, and she tries to keep this pact.

Klára thus learns about human love, which she finds complicated, through the example of this couple and Josia’s mother’s relationship with her daughter. He doesn’t understand why Josie is nice to Rick one time and criticizes him for not being “elevated” and having ambitions to study at a prestigious university. Similarly, he does not understand that the mother adores her daughter, but imposes a very strict order on her and restricts her free choice. Therefore, it may seem that Klára plays the role of a developing child who gradually learns about being and emotional experience from others, and on the contrary, the human characters in the novel are programmed for certain stereotypical behavior and goals, for example, studying at the university, staying in a relationship with one person or work success. All loving relationships between people in the novel fail, and it seems that it is Klára who is able to create an emotional bond with those around her and to make free decisions. This is demonstrated, for example, by her determination to save and heal Josia using her naive “childlike” mindset.

In the novel, Ishiguro does not warn of the possible extinction of humanity, which could one day be replaced by robots. It balances between the negative view of the novel’s human characters on robotic companions – for example, Josia’s mother, who keeps her distance from Klara from the first day to the last and threatens to mistake a human for a machine – and an optimistic approach to artificial intelligence, from which humans can profit in many ways, and even complementing it harmoniously. Such an approach is defended, for example, by Mr. Capaldi, a portraitist and family friend, who, like some cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind, suggests that the boundary between man and machine has been crossed and there is nothing special about man: “Our generation still carries old feelings. We refuse to give them up completely. We still want to believe at least a little bit that something elusive is hidden inside us. Something unique and irreplaceable. But there is no such thing. We already know that.” However, Ishiguro seems to disprove this thesis precisely by describing Klara’s skills and her perception of the world. Klára is still far from human perfection. She is poorly oriented in time and space, where unlike the nimble human body, she has great problems overcoming certain obstacles. Similarly, she cannot perceive with her vision using partial visual fields, for example, rapidly changing images while driving a car: “Soon, the scenes flashed by so quickly that I did not have time to organize them. At one point, one of my fields was filled with all the other cars, while all the adjacent fields took up pieces of the road with the surrounding pasture. I tried my best to maintain a smooth line of road as I moved from one field to another, but due to the ever-changing perspective, I decided that wasn’t going to work, so I let the road fall apart, and every time it crossed the edge of the field, I started to reassemble it. Readers will also be surprised by Klara’s almost pious worship of the sun, which resembles a primitive religion and stems from her need to absorb the sun’s rays, without which she feels lethargic and her abilities decline. Klara’s other mental abilities are similarly limited. As stated by the translator Alena Dvořáková literally, the robot learns and makes decisions based on the principle of finding correlative similarities and correctly understands causality, however, not only the readers, but also the characters of the novel, remain puzzled by her reasoning. The translator asks herself the question: “Then why do we reject her (Klára’s) interpretation of reality as a bare impossibility?” However, this question remains unanswered in the novel, the author only suggests that machines lack humanity, which he also questions as a concept by pointing to the insensitive and machine-like behavior of human characters . Perhaps, however, humanity lies precisely in the imperfection of human social behavior. Thus, the boundary between human and robot is not crossed until the end of the novel, and Klára does not become an equal partner of a human. Although she is supposed to be an autonomous subject who replaces Josia’s human friend, people still treat her as an object, which also applies to the girl and her mother, who strictly adhere to the “master and his robot” hierarchy. This is evidenced by the fact that Klára knows that after completing her task, she has to say goodbye to her family and will be put in the landfill.

Although it might seem that Ishiguro’s new novel is set in a near technologically advanced future where nature is largely left behind, the author describes the beauty of the American landscape through the eyes of Klara and suggests that perhaps even robots that will eventually become as conscious as humans. they will appreciate nature and want to protect it. The character of Klára is thus placed in the current discussions about the Anthropocene in literature, but in a more optimistic current, whose supporters from the ranks of scientists and literary critics claim that although the effects of human activity on nature are catastrophic, nature can regenerate and man, on the other hand, learns again with it to work together harmoniously in a kind of hybrid, non-hierarchical relationship. The novel’s ecological overlap is also noticeable in Klara’s criticism of all human activities that either prevent the sun’s rays from hitting the earth or pollute the air, which is embodied in the novel, for example, by a road repair machine that spreads a thick cloud of dust around itself.

Like Ishiguro’s earlier novels, i Klara and the Sun presents a work on the border of several genres – science-fiction, romance, magical realism or fantasy – so it will excite all fans of this genre indeterminacy. The author himself states that genre is an abstract category and what is important is the story and what remains in the reader after reading the book. It should be noted that after reading the last page, the reader has far more questions about artificial intelligence than when he listens to an interview with a leading scientist, and perhaps somewhere in the depths of his soul he admits that the “otherness” he perceives in machine intelligence is possible only his unwillingness to acknowledge that human qualities and abilities are not actually so exceptional that they cannot be artificially imitated in the future.

© Veronika Krajíčková

The article is in Czech

Tags: Ishiguro Kazuo Clara Sun

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