Klara and the Sun. A Cautionary tale about good intentions in the world of AI

Lee Heidhues 11.6.2021

Each year Barack Obama provides a list of his favorite books from the preceding year. On the 2020 list is Klara and the Sun.  After waiting several weeks for it to become available at the San Francisco Public Library I became thoroughly engrossed from beginning to end.

The story by Nobel Prize winning writer Kazuo Ishiguro is very personal,  heartfelt and a warning about the dangers of artificial intelligence. Something I have thought about since the release of the original Blade Runner in 1982.

40 years later AI has become a part of everyday life. Klara and the Sun tells a story about AI and its relationship with humanity in a very down to earth and thought provoking fashion.

It was well worth the wait for the novel.

Excerpted from The New York Review of Books 10.14.2021

Completed just before the pandemic, the novel Klara and the Sun is eerily prescient, taking place in a future where jobs are in decline, social conflict is on the rise, and children increasingly stay at home, taking virtual classes over their “oblongs.” It depicts isolating times of technologically mediated distances and dwindling material resources.

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Kazuo Ishiguro

Enter Kazuo Ishiguro’s eponymous narrator, Klara, a solar-powered robot programmed to be an Artificial Friend (AF) to a human child.

When Klara and the Sun begins, Klara has not yet found her human. Or rather her human has not yet found her: “It’s for the customer to choose the AF,” chides the manager of the store where Klara and other robots are sold, “never the other way round.”

This rebuke comes after Klara refuses, Bartleby-like, to engage yet another interested buyer—a demurral, the manager correctly suspects, based on Klara’s belief that she has already promised herself to a fourteen-year-old girl named Josie. “Children make promises all the time,” the manager informs Klara. “But more often than not, the child never comes back. Or worse, the child comes back and ignores the poor AF who’s waited, and instead chooses another.”

This becomes one of many lessons Klara picks up during her time inside the store. Unlike Ishiguro’s other narrators, who carry the historical trauma of, say, war or fascism, Klara begins as a blank slate. Here are the novel’s opening lines:

When we were new, Rosa and I were mid-store, on the magazines table side, and could see through more than half of the window. So we were able to watch the outside—the office workers hurrying by, the taxis, the runners, the tourists, Beggar Man and his dog, the lower part of the RPO Building.

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It’s for the customer to choose the Artificial Friend.

Kazuo Ishiguro was a social worker before he was a novelist.

Between 1979 and 1982, he worked at West London Cyrenians, a charity that provided support and accommodations to the homeless. While there he applied, rather on a whim, to a new creative writing program at the University of East Anglia. Upon graduating a year later, Ishiguro returned to Cyrenians. He tried to wake up early and write for ninety minutes before work, but found this increasingly difficult as his job grew more demanding. Luckily an editor at Faber had already bought his first novel. Published in 1982, A Pale View of Hills was a notable success, earning him a Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and a place on Granta’s list of Best Young British Novelists. Then twenty-eight years old, Ishiguro quit his day job in order to write full time.

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Though Ishiguro has said in more than one interview that working with the homeless influenced his fiction, he has also been careful not to write about his social work directly. This is in part because, as he admitted a few years ago, “I always felt vaguely guilty that I learned so much [then] that helped me in my fiction writing.”

Yet social work is an implicit theme throughout his fiction. From his first novel to his eighth and latest, Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro considers what it means to care for and attend to others, and what happens when that attention gets abused, withdrawn, or distorted. The emotional labor of care—and care institutionalized as labor—forms a repeating central drama around which Ishiguro’s plots turn, regardless of the genre he is writing in.

In The Remains of the Day (1989) and The Unconsoled (1995), the intense devotion of butlers and bellboys to their work eclipses what might have been more meaningful personal relationships with family and lovers. Christopher Banks, the detective in When We Were Orphans (2000), forgoes romantic fulfillment in a misguided commitment to the abstract cause of, as he puts it, “trying to save the world from ruin.”

Ishiguro’s most explicit depiction of the welfare state, in Never Let Me Go (2005), in which young clones briefly act as “carers” before donating their organs to ailing humans, imagines care work to be nihilistic at worst and weakly compensatory at best.

His novels stage the contradictions between society and self, collective labor and individualist pursuits, feeling for a group and feeling for yourself. They are cautionary tales about good intentions. This is no less true of Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro’s first book since he won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature.

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Kazuo Ishiguro;  by Harriet Lee-Merrion

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