Opinion

Kazuo Ishiguro's Klara illuminates what meritocracy does to the soul

His newest novel raises a number of troubling questions

Toward the end of the splendid speech he delivered upon receiving the 2017 Nobel Prize in literature, novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (best known for his 1989 novel The Remains of the Day) transitioned away from narrating the major creative turning points in his career to make a point about the wider world. The shocking events of the previous year — the outcome of the Brexit vote in the U.K. and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. — had led him to realize that "the era since the fall of the Berlin Wall" had been an age of "complacency" and "opportunities lost," when "enormous inequalities — of wealth and opportunity — [had] been allowed to grow, between nations and within nations."

Going further, Ishiguro spoke of trends in "science, technology, and medicine" that he saw as posing challenges continuous with the economic and social dislocations revealed by recent political developments. "New genetic technologies — such as the gene-editing technique CRISPR — and advances in Artificial Intelligence and robotics will bring us amazing, life-saving benefits," he suggested. But they "may also create savage meritocracies that resemble apartheid, and massive unemployment, including to those in the current professional elites."

In March, Ishiguro published his first novel since giving that speech in Stockholm four years ago, and it portrays a near-future world in which the meritocracy of our own time has been amplified and intensified, intertwining with developments in AI, robotics, and gene-editing to produce a society just enough like our own to feel deeply recognizable and also horrifying enough to inspire shudders at certain key moments in the unfolding of its plot.

But to portray Klara and the Sun as splashy dystopian science fiction is misleading. Details about the world in which the action of the novel takes place are revealed slowly and sparingly throughout the book, forming the essential but somewhat distant backdrop to the story. Very much in the foreground are the day-to-day experiences, struggles, and emotions of the novel's characters.

In this, Klara and the Sun resembles Ishiguro's earlier masterpiece Never Let Me Go (2005), which told the story of an alternative late-20th-century England in which a class of clones is raised for the sole purpose of donating their organs. Ishiguro used that conceit to explore themes that went far beyond the standard and somewhat tidy moral dilemmas of bioethics. (These themes included the mysterious interweaving of romantic love and hope, the way devotion to service can confer meaning, and how knowledge of one's own demise shapes a life.) Klara likewise raises very topical questions about the influence of various forms of technology on society and human relationships, but its main focus is on the implications of these developments for the human soul.

(Abundant spoilers ahead, though I've avoided revealing details about the biggest twists in the plot.)

That the novel is concerned above all with humanity in the broadest sense is somewhat surprising, since its title character and first-person narrator isn't a human being at all. She's an "artificial friend" (or "AF") — a solar-powered robot with an AI "brain." Such devices are common in this world, though they're also quite controversial. They've replaced workers in numerous industries, creating mass unemployment that touches most strata of society and leaves cities teeming with the jobless, some of whom organize and join neighborhood-based fascist movements. But AFs are robots with a very distinctive purpose. They exist to provide companionship for the children of the elite — specifically those who have been "lifted."

In order to win a rare job (and hopeful future) in this world, a child must go to college. But, aside from a handful of extremely rare exceptions, a child can only win acceptance to college by having themselves lifted — a chilling euphemism for a form of gene editing that enhances the intellect but can lead to a serious illness and even to death. For parents in Ishiguro's vision of the future, the price of securing a place for their kids in their society's elite is a game of Russian roulette played with the latest advances in medical science.

All of this is revealed to us a little at a time as the novel unfolds. It begins in a store where Klara and other AFs spend their days on display, eagerly awaiting the arrival of customers — parents looking for a robot companion to accompany their child through the isolation, loneliness, and medical precarity of the months following the lifting process. Klara doesn't understand this context at first, so neither do we. She simply observes the world through the shop window, trying to make sense of confusing human behavior she sees unfolding before her, pondering the nature of the sun in the sky that provides her with nourishing energy, and hoping a family will take her home so she can begin to fulfill her purpose. Eventually it happens — when a very thin, slightly fragile teenaged girl named Josie and her lovingly protective but also peculiarly severe mother Chrissie begin to make periodic visits to the store.

I'll admit that I was skeptical of the novel at first. I have serious doubts that AI will ever advance far enough to generate anything resembling human consciousness — let alone the profound self-awareness Klara displays as she narrates the world around her, reflecting on her perceptions, trying to understand human intentions, and describing her own feelings, which include fear, anxiety, hope, and even (in the novel's affecting final sections) piety.

Yet Ishiguro thoroughly won me over. He did so by emphasizing two things about Klara that help to explain her distinctive mix of capacities. First, she clearly differs from human beings in lacking a full sense of self as we understand and experience it. She never once becomes angry in response to an affront to her worth or dignity. She never thinks in terms of her own thriving or flourishing. In fact, she never really displays any concern at all for her own interests apart from worries about her ability to fulfill her duties to Josie.

Then there are the novel's repeated references to Klara being unique in some inexplicable way. As the manager of the AF store notes early on, there is something "special" about Klara — something that places her above and beyond other AFs in curiosity, insight, and capacity to notice details about the world around her and to grasp the often partially concealed and contradictory motives at work in human beings. Klara's specialness elevates her above AFs of her own model, and even above the technologically advanced next generation AFs (B3s) that display much greater physical prowess than she does.

It is presumably Klara's distinctive mix of abilities that enables her to narrate the novel's sometimes deeply unsettling story without a hint of judgment, but also (and perhaps for that very reason) to do so while lacking a complete understanding of what she's describing. She's one of the most fascinating unreliable narrators I've ever encountered.

As the novel unfolds, mostly at Josie's house in the countryside, the theme of specialness comes to the fore. Josie is facing possible death because of her mother's unwavering commitment to enhancing her mind as a means to securing her a prominent place in their world, even at enormous risk — a risk with which the whole family has painful, personal experience. Meanwhile, Josie's close childhood friend and neighbor Rick, who hasn't been lifted, serves as a cautionary counter-example, facing a terribly uncertain future because his own mother refused to accept the risks associated with the lifting process.

And then there's Klara's distinctive specialness — as much a product of human ingenuity as the gene editing technique that makes society's savage meritocracy possible, it also appears in some indeterminate way to be a product of chance. No one designed Klara to be uniquely thoughtful and attentive. She just is, through some fluke of her programming. But when this trait is combined with the innate selflessness common to her kind, the result is a puzzle. Is Klara less than a human being — or somehow a more perfect one? And if she is more perfect, what does that reveal, both about the rather different form of perfection toward which so many of the actual humans in the story so dangerously aspire, and about the tendency of so many characters in the book to treat Klara as the moral equivalent of a vacuum cleaner?

These and related questions pile up as readers come to learn, in a chilling revelation that comes roughly two thirds of the way through the novel, that Josie's mother has plans for Klara that far surpass mere companionship for her daughter. And that revelation raises a slew of even more troubling questions. Are any of us distinctive or irreplaceable? Is there anything inside of us — a divine spark, perhaps, or a soul — that makes us special? A unique whole? Anything that, as Josie's father puts it at one point, "our modern tools can't excavate, copy, transfer"?

Could it be, he goes on to wonder, that "people have been living with one another all this time, centuries, loving and hating each other, and all on a mistaken premise" that is merely "a kind of superstition"? The superstitious premise is that any of it — that any of us — really matters in the end. Might we be nothing more than the sum of our replaceable, exchangeable parts — nothing particularly special, just perishable flesh and bone and blood for human beings, and plastic and metal and P-E-G Nine solution for Klara? Does it make any sense for a person (or a society) to strive so mercilessly for achievement, risking her own (or her child's) well-being for an illusory, ephemeral good, and leaving others discarded like junkyard scraps in the scramble? And what about Klara's decision to commit a brave, well-intentioned, but ultimately superstitious act of sacrifice, voluntarily spilling some of her own synthetic lifeblood to give Josie an added chance of recovery?

As the novel winds down, with Klara's purpose fulfilled, she, and we, are left to ponder the haunting events that brought the story to its terminus — and what Kazuo Ishiguro means for us to take from this mournful, enigmatic novel about meritocracy, technology, loneliness, simple kindness, and the indelible mysteries of the human (or perhaps not so simply human) soul.

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