There is a story about René Descartes according to which the philosopher once owned a female automaton so convincing that a superstitious mariner, seeing the machine in operation, declared it the work of the devil and threw it into the sea. In some versions, Descartes is said to have built the automaton to replace his illegitimate daughter, Francine, who died in childhood. Though apocryphal, the tale persists because it combines a moving human tragedy with an intellectual problem – the relationship between mind and matter – that was central to Descartes’s own philosophy. It is a thought experiment disguised as a fairy tale, or perhaps vice versa.
Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel since being awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature – put me in mind of this story, partly because it considers artificial life, lost children and parental grief, but also because it seems to occupy that same space at the intersection of philosophy and fairy tale. At the heart of the novel is the relationship between Klara, an ‘AF’ (‘Artificial Friend’), and Josie, whose mother buys Klara as a companion for her precocious daughter. Klara becomes, by design, devoted to Josie, helping her through periods of illness caused by the elective genetic enhancements that are now a standard investment for wealthy and ambitious parents in this plausible near future. Solar-powered herself, like all AFs, Klara convinces herself that Josie’s fate depends on the energising power of the sun.
Klara is our window onto an imagined society in which artificial intelligence, whether in the form of genetic enhancement or digital programming, is the new normal. Schools are a thing of the past, and the children of the well-off learn at home, attending regular playdates (‘interaction meetings’, in the managerialist idiom of the time) to prepare them for colleges occupied exclusively by the gene-boosted. The unenhanced, like Josie’s neighbour and childhood boyfriend Rick, are destined to become an underclass, excluded from education and superseded by robotic labour.
But the conditions imagined by Ishiguro are also reflections of our own society, in which wealth and privilege already shape life chances. Like the clones in Never Let Me Go (2005), whose shortened lifespans emphasise, in concentrated form, the universal human struggle to comprehend mortality, Klara enables us to observe a world whose injustices seem both unbearable and utterly familiar. Her placid, accepting voice recalls that of Never Let Me Go’s Kathy H; I was reminded, too, of Stevens, the fastidious butler in The Remains of the Day (1989), a narrator similarly conditioned by and committed to his duties.
Klara, of course, is not a repressed English manservant but a machine designed to respond automatically to the wishes of her owners. And yet, like Stevens, she is a discreet observer within a troubled household, privy to secrets spoken and unspoken. She is, in a sense, an adopted child, and like other fictional adoptees she works hard to understand her new family and her role in it. Becoming a confidante of both Josie and her mother, she begins to piece together a story of past family bereavement that complicates their relationship to each other, and to her.
As adept as she is in deploying the standard conventions of first-person narrative, Klara’s sensory experience of the world is not quite like that afforded to the humans she otherwise resembles. She has no sense of smell, for instance; nor, presumably – since AFs don’t eat – of taste. Her vision and cognition, meanwhile, seem to be particularly sharp, even for an AF: ‘Her ability to absorb and blend everything she sees around her is quite amazing,’ says the saleswoman who sells her to Josie’s family. That capacity to observe and synthesise serves her well as a narrator, though there are also instances of estrangement, reminding us that the voice we are listening to is not a human one.
In the most striking of these, Klara’s visual field seems to fracture into segments where different elements appear magnified or repeated, creating an effect reminiscent of those grid-based puzzles sometimes used by websites to distinguish human users from bots (‘Select all boxes containing traffic lights’). The fragmentations tend to coincide with occasions when Klara is obliged to process particularly dense sets of information, suggesting a kind of instinctive response to the world’s complexity. Sometimes they are triggered when she attempts to judge emotion by comparing subtle variations in facial expressions; at other times they accompany challenges to her spatial awareness. At a busy ‘interaction meeting’, for instance:
The room’s space had become divided into twenty-four boxes – arranged in two tiers – all the way to the rear wall. Because of this partitioning, it was hard to gain an overall view of what was before me, but I gradually made sense of things.
The deceptive neutrality of Klara’s term for this experience, ‘partitioning’, is a characteristic Ishiguro touch. In its everyday sense, the word simply means that the room appears divided spatially into separate sections. But ‘partitioning’ is also a computing term meaning the division of a storage medium or program into self-contained parts that operate independently. Like so many of Ishiguro’s human narrators, in other words, Klara contains within herself divisions and contradictions, pockets of knowledge that she isn’t able to synthesise fully.
The novel, too, leaves some things unresolved. Does Klara’s intervention affect the outcome of Josie’s illness? She seems to believe so. For the reader, the question remains open – indeed, rather mysterious, in the way that fairy tales can be mysterious. For Klara and the Sun is a fairy tale of sorts, one in which Klara begins as the orphan servant and ends up playing the Fairy Godmother. That transformation comes about, as fairy-tale transformations often do, through the power of selfless love. We might wonder whether Klara, whose programming gives her little choice in the matter, can truly be said to love Josie selflessly – but then again, how much choice do any of us have in the objects of our affection? To ask whether Klara feels love for Josie seems, ultimately, beside the point. What matters is that she behaves as if she does – often more so than her human counterparts. An artificial friend she may be, but it is Klara’s friendship with Josie that gives her story real meaning. In a society that has abandoned any clear distinction between the artificial and the real, that may be the most anyone can hope for.