When I wrote about The Buried Giant earlier this year, I didn’t expect to be returning to Ishiguro’s fiction so soon. In fact, I assumed that I had now said all I was ever likely to want to say about it. For a writer who could not be considered as one of my favourites, he’d been taking up a disproportionate share of my attention. I said in the earlier piece that The Buried Giant “stands apart from” the earlier novels. The ones I’ve read — the exceptions are The Unconsoled (1995) and A Pale View of Hills (1982) — are first-person narratives whose central characters expose their own limitations, flaws, self-deceptions and failures as they tell their own stories.

A very proper and decorous butler reflects on how faithfully he served a fascist sympathizer (and would-be collaborator). A self-styled detective imagines that his parents, whom he believes to have been kidnapped many years earlier, might still be held in the same house in Shanghai to which they were supposedly brought by their abductors, and fails to think about the source of the funds that pay for his self-indulgences. A woman postpones (though not indefinitely) her own unanaesthetized vivisection, by soothing and comforting her fellow clones as they prepare for theirs. These finely wrought novels mercilessly present a bleak picture of human nature. The Buried Giant is every bit as bleak: it describes outrageous injustice, revenge (either anticipatory or long delayed, but never timely), the calculated slaughter of innocents, unconscionable breach of faith, and behaviour that is nearly impossible to forgive. It shows these things, however, without confining the reader within the consciousness of just one weak, limited failure of a character. Mainly for that reason, The Buried Giant seems to me a large step forward from Ishiguro’s earlier novels.

So, I was a bit dismayed when I heard that in the following novel he returns to the first-person narrative. Was this a reversion to his old ways? When I eventually got around to reading Klara and the Sun, I was pleased and relieved to find that, no, it isn’t. Klara isn’t another Stevens, or Kathy, or Christopher Banks. She’s not even human.

Klara is an “artificial friend” or AF, a humanoid machine designed to act as friend to a preteen child or teenager. She incorporates artificial intelligence, but this is not artificial general intelligence. Klara is designed and programmed for a specific purpose: to recognize precisely and to respond to human emotions, and particularly loneliness. Klara believes (or says she believes) that she too experiences emotions like those she perceives in humans. The store Manager tells her and the other AFs not to “worry” about being left on the shelf, or about pollution blocking out the sun, and Klara tries to persuade herself that Boy AF Rex is teasing her when he says she’s greedy in monopolizing the sun’s rays.

She has other faculties too: on meeting a new human, she almost always forms an estimate of the person’s age. Her estimates seem to be accurate, and she shows every sign of being confident in them, though the reader usually has no way of confirming her evaluations.

Klara is not the latest model of AF (that’s the B3) but she has other qualities that make her desirable as an AF: the Manager says that she has “extraordinary observational ability” (p. 51) as well as curiosity about her surroundings and a capacity for deduction:

“Klara has so many unique qualities, we could be here all morning. But if I had to emphasize just one, well, it would have to be her appetite for observing and learning. Her ability to absorb and blend everything she sees around her is really quite amazing. As a result, she now has the most sophisticated understanding of any AF in this store, B3s not excepted.” (p. 49)

So, it seems likely that the manufacturers vary the capacities and abilities of AFs from one model to another, as a continuing experiment. We see this, for example, when Klara tells Rick that she doesn’t have a sense of smell. He replies:

“… I assumed smell would be an important faculty: I mean for safety. Burning, things like that.”
“Perhaps for that reason B3s have been given limited smell. But I have none.” (p. 155)

Klara, in other words, is a very specialized machine, built for a particular, and quite narrow, role. Her limitations are part of the design, and the fact that such limitations exist will not, after the first few pages, come as a surprise to the reader. Ishiguro is not using the first-person narrative, as he did in his earlier novels, to reveal or expose the character’s shortcomings. Klara is hardly a character at all. In more than one sense, she’s a device. The device gives us an alienating or distancing perspective on the relationship between two human characters, Klara’s human friend, Josie, and Josie’s mother, Chrissie.

Like most parents, Chrissie has chosen to have her daughter “lifted”. Lifting involves genetic editing (p. 274). While the novel isn’t specific about what the desired effects of this editing are, they presumably include a boost to the child’s level of intelligence. It seems that almost no university is prepared to accept students who haven’t been lifted and the one that does, Atlas Brookings, allocates “less than two percent” (p. 145) of its available places to unlifted applicants. Josie’s childhood friend and neighbour, Rick, hasn’t been lifted, and his mother, Helen, admits to Chrissie that she regrets the fact (p. 265).

Helen long ago had a relationship with a man named Vance, who now chairs a committee that awards scholarships to attend Atlas Brookings. Vance explains to Rick (and Helen) how the system works:

“Now consider this, Rick. Atlas Brookings believes that there are many talented kids out there, just like you, who for reasons economic or otherwise, never received the benefit of AGE. The college also believes society is currently making a grave error in not allowing those talents to come to full fruition. Unfortunately, most other institutions don’t think this way. Which means we receive vastly more applications from people like yourself than we’re able to accommodate. We can weed out no-hopers, but after that, frankly, it becomes a lottery …” (pp. 276–7)

It’s not at all clear that lifting confers any noticeable intellectual or other advantage (apart from the possibility of a university education which would otherwise be denied them) on the children who undergo it. Rick has reluctantly attended an “interaction meeting” in Josie’s home, where she was expected to network and make friends with other lifted teens. Her “peer group” (p. 73), as Chrissie describes them, don’t seem to be smarter or more enlightened than any typical group of teens. Rick and Klara both notice that Josie’s behaviour — you might say her personality — seems to change in this company. Klara tells Rick:

“I can see Rick is afraid Josie might become like the others. But even though she behaved strangely just now, I believe Josie is kind underneath. And those other children. They fear loneliness and that’s why they behave as they do. Perhaps Josie too.”
“If Josie hangs out with them much more, she soon won’t be Josie at all. Somewhere she knows that herself, and that’s why she keeps on about our plan. For ages she’d forgotten about it, but now she talks about it all the time.” (pp. 93–4)

Even if there are real benefits to being lifted, there are substantial risks too. Josie had had an older sister named Sal, who was lifted and subsequently died. For much of the time, Josie has been very ill too, and it seems that she also is likely to die. Her illness appears to be a consequence of her lifting. That, at least, is what her mother thinks. She says to Klara:

“… After Sal, [Paul] said we shouldn’t risk it. So what if Josie doesn’t get lifted? Plenty of kids aren’t. But I could never have that for Josie. I wanted the best for her. I wanted her to have a good life. You understand, Klara? I called it, and now Josie’s sick. Because of what I decided. You see how it feels for me?” (p. 236)

And then, just before it becomes clear that Josie is apparently going to survive, she confronts Rick, defensive in her aggression:

“… What exactly do you believe you’ve won here? I ask because everthing about Josie, from the moment I first held her, everything about her told me she was hungry for life. The whole world excited her. That’s how I knew from the start I couldn’t deny her the chance. She was demanding a future worthy of her spirit, That’s what I mean when I say she played for high stakes … (p. 310)

Chrissie admits that having Josie lifted was a gamble. Once it’s clear that the gamble has paid off, the reader is inclined to turn Chrissie’s question back on her: what is it that she thinks she’s won? Even if the benefits of having been lifted are more real and tangible than I’ve suggested, it’s surely a kind of negative victory. Josie gets to go to university but that will not necessarily give her any advantage over the thousands or millions of lifted children who will do the same thing. Will that help to satisfy what Chrissie sees as her hunger for life? Will it provide her with “a future worthy of her spirit”?

So, Chrissie has bet an enormous stake — her daughter’s life and health — on an outcome which is unquantifiable in advance and quite possibly worthless. It would easy, then, to conclude that Chrissie made the wrong choice. But any parent in Chrissie’s position would face an intractable dilemma. There doesn’t seem to be a right answer.

Rick, who won’t be able to go to university, is nevertheless likely to have a materially comfortable life. He has designed, and is building, drones that look like birds — almost indetectable data gathering devices. Their intended use is unlikely to be socially beneficial and it’s always possible that their actual use may be more aggressive than the declared one. When Vance asks him if he foresees any ethical difficulties with these devices, Rick answers:

“I’m sure, sir, there are all kinds of ethical issues. But in the end, it’s for legislators to decide how these things get regulated, not people like me. For now, I just want to learn as much as I can, so I can take my understanding to the next level.” (p. 276)

Rick’s future, then, is no more likely to be free of problems and conflict than Josie’s is.

Chrissie is semi-secretly having a simulacrum made of Josie, with the idea that, if Josie dies, Klara’s internal workings can be implanted into the new shell. She hopes that Klara’s extraordinary abilities to observe and imitate will make it possible for her to become a replacement Josie. Paul can see that this won’t work:

“… If the moment ever comes, never mind how well you play your part, Klara, never mind how much she wishes it to work, Chrissie just won’t be able to accept it. She’s too … old fashioned. Even if she knows she’s going against the science and the math, she still won’t be able to do it. She just won’t stretch that far …” (p. 249; first ellipsis original)

It’s a hare-brained, desperate idea. Klara exists to befriend a young person for a few years, roughly from puberty to college age. She almost certainly doesn’t have the ability to grow physically, or to mature in any sense, not least because she doesn’t need to do so to perform her intended role. As Josie is about to leave for college, she hugs Klara, who notes that Josie had “become taller than me, so she had to crouch a little” (p. 332). If Chrissie had managed to accept Klara as a Josie substitute, she’d have been stuck with a little girl who could never grow up.

That Chrissie considers the possibility that Klara could be an acceptable substitute for her daughter is partly a result of Klara’s apparent confidence that she is capable of filling the role. She tells Paul:

“It won’t be easy. But I believe if I continue to observe Josie carefully, it will be within my abilities.” (p. 242)

Klara believes (or says she does) that her abilities will enable her to impersonate Josie to Chrissie’s satisfaction. She also believes that the sun may have the power to restore Josie to health, and may be persuaded to exercise that power if Klara can sacrifice a pollution-spewing road-surfacing machine to its glory. Her confidence in these possibilities persuades Rick and Paul to help her, though it’s obvious to them how unlikely it is that she can have come up with a remedy that Josie’s doctors have failed to find.

But, in spite of what she says, it seems highly unlikely that Klara has a capacity for belief. Why would she need one, and what good would it do? All that’s needed from her is that she say encouraging things to her friend and the people around them, and act accordingly. A capacity for belief would have, as its necesssary corollary, one for doubt — unless she were expected to believe everything indiscriminately. So, when Chrissie tells her that she envies her lack of feelings, Klara is probably not being accurate in her reply:

I considered this, then said: “I believe I have many feelings. The more I observe, the more feelings become available to me.” (p. 111)

That’s not to say, of course, that she has any intention to deceive Chrissie. Most likely, for Klara, to “have” feelings is to be able to simulate, not experience, them. She probably hasn’t been programmed to understand the difference.

When Klara is under pressure or her abilities are stretched, her vision starts to break up into disjointed rectangles and similar fragments, as if her software is temporarily unable to catch up with the task of integrating her various perceptions into a unified view. This happens when she senses animosity at the interaction meeting, when she makes her momentous journey to the barn and when she sees an angry bull in a field. The worst episode, though, is after Paul drains some of a chemical from behind her head, so that they can use it to sabotage the polluting machine.

Klara finds that the people around her in a crowd outside a theatre seem to be degenerating into cones and cylinders.

Someone was tugging my arm, but before me now 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. I then realized that the figure now beside me, leading me away, was the Mother. (p. 264)

But these fragmentary shapes are real people, or parts of them. Klara is the one who has been cleverly sketched to give the illusion of roundness and depth. It’s an illusion that, in spite of initial scepticism, has persuaded Chrissie, Rick and Paul, as well as Josie herself. It’s an illusion that doesn’t persist indefinitely, though it lasts as long as it needs to. As Chrissie says in the face of Klara’s unsupported insistence that there is still reason to hope for a reprieve for Josie:

“You’re an intelligent AF. Maybe you can see things the rest of us can’t. Maybe you’re right to be hopeful. Maybe you’re right.” (p. 122)

Edition: Faber paperback, 2022; ellipses added except where described as original.

It’s now a year since I moved Talk about books from Substack to Micro.blog (MB), where Manton Reece had just added a newsletter feature. Just before he did so, I had been thinking about offering a printed version of this publication. I put those plans on hold and devoted my attention instead to the move, which required creating new templates and setting up redirects for the first year’s posts. Now that the MB edition of Talk about books is running fairly smoothly, I want to look again at the print option. Here’s what I said about it last year. Some of that will have to be rethought. In particular, since this publication is no longer on Substack, I can’t use Substack’s subscription management and will need to think of an alternative.

I expect to write an updated post on the print plans during the next week or so. I’ll link to that post in the next Talk about books, which is due around 28 December. Till then.

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Thanks for reading.