Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro.
When Spielberg’s movie AI: Artificial Intelligene was released in 2001 it generated much controversy, some of it challenging the movie’s take on the subject. But that in itself is the point. Irobot in 2004 was another attempt in which weaved in Asimov’s three laws of Robots before returning to standard action stuff. We are only at the beginning of AI in real life, but fiction is much further down the road of debate. This novel was an opportunity from an esteemed writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, attempts to bring to life the soul of an AI. In this case, Klara, an Artificial Friend with exceptional observational qualities. Can one be both artificial and a friend?
As a meditation on the relationship between AI and humans it is light and largely devoid of harm. Klara rarely experiences anything outside the family who adopt her beyond the very occasional bigoted comment and hardly at all hears what the wider society thinks about her. It is left to “Melania Housekeeper” to make the odd barbed comment.
Klara’s descent into a naive reverie of humans’ idolatry of Gods is the only edginess and even then is harmless. Her implied reliance on solar power which becomes a deference to the sun as her God and to prostrate at it will give back life is too easily accepted by humans without much debate. This becomes underwhelming with her ventures into the barn as a substitute place of faith. But there is an interesting point to be made about how robots are given an understanding of the world they live in and learn on their own.
I yearned for something more than the bitchiness between exes and more back story to the opaque reference to the daughter, Josie’s physical problems following her ‘lifting’. Even then, the philosophical debate between Josie and her friend, Rick, who has not been ‘lifted’ is restricted to the conversations.
The novel has moments of verbal jousting that drew me in – the ‘interaction party’ for the children is cruel in how children can be, the bitterness between the two exes is biting. The beginning in the store takes a long time for what is really only an introduction to Klara. We are not really given much in the way of understanding what the AFs are for or used for. Some much is left unsaid. And then the question of the father living in his compound with questionably like-minded people, after losing his job, is opened up only to be left unexplored.
Ultimately, as a first person account it presents one view of how an AI is closer than we think to our own souls or a conscious mind. But it feels like half a story, with so much back story left unsaid. This is not a matter of show don’t tell, but about a philosophical meditation on role of AI in our lives, on the question of genetic editing and the risk of creating unequal societies.
The big question raised by the novel of how an AI could replace a dying child is a fascinating to explore through a family but is equally constrained by the first person account through Klara. What does it mean to a society if a mother cannot bear to lose her child and sees an opportunity for an artificial being to replace, even though it is wholly incapable of so many of our human traits. A sci-fi novel does not necessarily need to be scientific or technical. With so little world building, and not a lot going on, it is an opportunity missed.