book review

In Klara and the Sun, Artificial Intelligence Meets Real Sacrifice

Kazuo Ishiguro.
Kazuo Ishiguro. Photo: Neil Hall/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The boundless helpfulness of our female digital assistants — our Siris, our Alexas, the voice of Google Maps — has given us a false sense of security. No matter how we ignore and abuse them, they never tire of our errors; you can disobey the lady in your phone and blame her (loudly) for your mistakes, and she’ll recalculate your route without complaint. Surely, nothing truly intelligent would put up with us for long, and the Philip K. Dicks and Elon Musks of this world have spent decades trying to convince us that AI rebellion is inevitable. But Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, his eighth novel and first book since winning the Nobel Prize in 2017, issues a quieter, stranger warning: The machines may never revolt. Instead, Ishiguro sees a future in which automata simply keep doing what we ask them to do, placidly accepting the burden of each small, inconvenient task. The novel takes us inside the mind of that constantly refreshing patience, where at first it’s rather peaceful — until it’s chilling.

Ishiguro returns in Klara to ideas of disposability and service that he broached in his other sci-fi first-person narrative, 2005’s Never Let Me Go. In that book, the protagonist, Kathy H., is a clone waiting for her organs to be harvested; in Klara and the Sun, Klara is an AF (artificial friend), a synthetic girl built as a companion to a child who will, inevitably, outgrow her. Ishiguro’s futurism does not imagine a great rupture or an AI singularity. Instead, Klara’s world follows the vectors already in motion. In this near future, automation has replaced many workers, pollution sometimes blacks out the sky, and the children of rich families are educated via screen as anxiety and loneliness rise and rise.

Klara spends her first weeks or months in a store, tended by the gentle Manager and hoping to be selected by a customer. She is watchful. Her speech and behavior are both innocent and diffident — she is always “wishing to give privacy” to the humans around her. She loves to look out the plate-glass window at the front of the shop, to see the small leave-takings and reunions on the bustling street outside. Sometimes these interactions are human; other times, she sees (and takes comfort from) AF’s going about their business outside. But she also notices the way taxicabs can fuse and diverge in her line of sight. The way bodies and forms appear, whether human or not, conveys great meaning to her. For Klara, looking is a kind of thinking.

Klara’s visual processing can sometimes be overwhelmed when confronting something unfamiliar. Instead of a unified image, her ocular field breaks into panels, sometimes containing repeated pictures — a woman’s face seen in various stages of close-up — or a cubist fracturing of a landscape. It’s both a deeper kind of perceiving (she sees all the woman’s conflicting microexpressions arrayed simultaneously) and a more rudimentary machine vision: human emotion as CAPTCHA grid. Klara is particularly sensitive to melancholy, and she notices that even when people are embracing joyfully, they may wince. Manager explains, “Sometimes … people feel a pain alongside their happiness.” Of all the lessons Klara learns, that’s the one she seems to write deepest into her code. Ishiguro is doing something quite tricky here, pointing to our own rather dysfunctional sympathy functions. He has Klara describe her own emotions to others: “I believe I have many feelings,” she says. “The more I observe, the more feelings become available to me.” Yet within Klara’s own mind, there is often only obligation. For much of the book, her strongest emotions are fear and disorientation and a vague concern that things are “kind” or “unkind.” Both Ishiguro the writer and Klara the character seem aware that we will not grant her our compassion unless her feelings are recognizable to us.

Klara’s division from human children starts when Manager gives her a bit of good advice: She cautions the AF not to believe children who make promises, not even those who seem to love her on sight. Still, Klara is a creature of total commitment. She is chosen and taken home by a frail 14-year-old named Josie, to whom Klara dedicates herself absolutely, ready to be Josie’s handmaiden, nurse, helpmeet, and playmate. At Josie’s house, Klara encounters unfamiliar terrain. She has to learn to navigate both a new physical space and the emotionally treacherous landscape of a house full of absent people. Why is Josie sick? Where is her sister? Why has Josie’s father gone away? Operating in what she thinks of as Josie’s best interest, Klara makes alliances with the housekeeper, the mother, and Josie’s neighbor and childhood sweetheart, Rick. As she tries to graft her simplicity onto the messy confusion of their lives, terrible things will eventually be asked of her, but she’s ready to serve at all costs.

At a moment of extreme duress late in the book, her visual-processing system starts to falter. “Before me now,” she thinks to herself as she stares at people around her, “were so many fragments they appeared like a solid wall. I’d also started to suspect that many of these shapes weren’t really even three-dimensional, but had been sketched onto flat surfaces using clever shading techniques to give the illusion of roundness and depth.” Even after whipping through the book, I kept returning to this sequence again and again. Are we being urged to see Klara as unreliable since she always accepts what her eyes tell her? Or is Ishiguro describing the inside-out feeling of reading itself, in which we perceive “clever shading” as reality?

For those old enough and foolish enough to have seen Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, you will notice certain … echoes. As experiences, A.I. and Klara and the Sun are utterly different: Spielberg’s film is grandiose and luridly sentimental; Ishiguro’s novel is spare and cool, each emotion dealt with as if he were trying to keep it from melting on his tongue. But the plots of both the silly movie and the elegant book betray that they are thinking the same things. Both imagine artificial children who will obey their programming, who will see much and understand little, and who will try to be, and fail as, substitutes for too-fragile offspring. They’re also both meditations on new varietals of loneliness. And in both, the silicon people develop supernatural beliefs that manage, oddly, to have weight in the flesh-and-bone world. Where A.I.’s David believed in the Blue Fairy, Klara worships the sun. The solar-powered little robot sees the sun do real work in the world, so it’s natural that she would begin to pray to it. Her thinking is already programmed for self-sacrifice; the self-abnegation of religion is only a quick step behind.

Ishiguro has written an exquisite book. At its best, it contains a loveliness that’s first poignant and then, on a second reading, sharp and driving as a needle. It also follows a tendency laid out in his earlier novels: In order to sustain the innocence of his narrators, Ishiguro has to steal from them a little bit. His protagonists exist but don’t grow up; they are noticers but not changers, wonderful at describing an event without quite grasping its contours. The speaker may be a man caught in a dream-logic town that keeps erasing his short-term recall (The Unconsoled) or a father traveling through a mist that’s literally the fog of memory (The Buried Giant). The world is always new for them; they come around each corner with their mind wiped clean.

This works when Ishiguro’s books have a kitelike, lofting quality — when the plots don’t seem to have engines yet somehow things drift swiftly forward. But in Klara and the Sun, you eventually begin to notice how carefully the author has had to fence off certain complexities to keep his kite in the air. The book’s first 30 or so pages, when Klara’s in the shop, are perfect. Once she goes out into the world, we see the author’s unwillingness to fully imagine her existence. It’s strange, for instance, that a book about a buyable girl is so sexless. Klara is a naïf, but she never catches even a peripheral glance of human perversion? I can’t believe it.

But then, Ishiguro isn’t a futurist or even a realist. He’s a moralist, holding up one of Klara’s fractured mirrors to the use and waste of our current age. Klara’s pure, rather formal phrasing makes the book seem like a fable. More than all the sci-fi on my shelf, Ishiguro’s story reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s “The Nightingale and the Rose.” In Wilde’s tale—one written long before we started worrying about the AI takeover—a bird impales herself on a thorn to dye a white blossom red, hoping to please the man she loves. All our technological inventions are nightingales, programmed to destroy themselves and the natural world to satisfy some human’s passing whim. Klara shows us how gladly she lets herself be pierced to the heart. Ishiguro argues that if we allow her to do it, we will be the ones to feel the sting.

In Klara and the Sun, an AI Makes Real Sacrifices