‘Corduroy is a bear who once lived in the toy department of a big store. Day after day he waited with all the other animals and dolls for somebody to come along and take him home.’ No one seems interested, until ‘one morning a little girl stopped and looked straight into Corduroy’s bright eyes.’ ‘Look!’ Lisa says. ‘There’s the very bear I’ve always wanted.’ But her mother replies ‘not today, dear,’ and points out that ‘he doesn’t look new’ – a button is missing from his dungarees. That night, after the store has closed, Corduroy has a series of adventures while looking for his lost button (‘Could this be a mountain?’ he wonders, accidentally riding up an escalator), but then, the very next day, Lisa comes back with her piggy bank savings and takes him home. ‘You must be a friend,’ Corduroy says. ‘I’ve always wanted a friend.’
Don Freeman’s children’s story, published in 1968, came to mind as I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel (this isn’t supposed to sound disparaging: Corduroy is a masterpiece). Klara is a robot who lives in the ‘AF department’ of a medium-sized store. We aren’t told what AF stands for, but it seems, by analogy with AI, to be ‘artificial friend’: an apparent oxymoron, or a type of ambiguity, since in the normal way of things, someone who isn’t a ‘real friend’ isn’t a friend at all. Day after day Klara waits with all the other robots, or AFs, for somebody to come along and take her home. A girl and her mother come in, and the girl looks at one of the other robots and says: ‘Oh, Mother, he’s perfect.’ But her mother says no, because he’s from a series with ‘solar absorption problems’. Klara meanwhile catches the eye of a 14-year-old girl called Josie, who eventually – after forty pages, a long wait and a series of near misses – takes her home. But because this isn’t a children’s story, though it apparently began as one, Josie and Klara don’t live happily ever after.
Josie and her mother (Klara refers to her as ‘the Mother’, as if she were a Jungian archetype) live in the country, in the middle of nowhere, with their housekeeper, Melania (Klara calls her ‘Melania Housekeeper’), who treats Klara with undisguised hostility. This may look like a human worker’s understandable reaction to the presence of a mechanical rival – a defensive response to the threat of automation – but we come to see that Melania is more concerned by what Klara’s presence means for Josie. Klara at first assumes that her role is to keep Josie company, to keep her loneliness at bay, but it gradually appears that the Mother may have more sinister plans for her.
There’s only one other house nearby, less ‘high-rank’ than Josie’s, where a boy called Rick lives with his mother, Helen. (‘Are you a guest?’ she asks Klara. ‘Or do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?’) Josie and Rick have been friends since early childhood, and have long-held plans to spend their lives together, but these are now in jeopardy: Josie has been ‘lifted’ – she has ‘benefited from genetic editing’ – and Rick has not, which makes him ineligible for most of the colleges she is likely to attend. Though it isn’t certain that Josie will go to college at all, because she is sick, and getting sicker, possibly as a consequence of the genetic editing.
Josie’s father, meanwhile, having lost his job at the local chemical plant a few years ago (‘substituted’, Josie’s mother says), has gone to live in a survivalist compound. They meet up with him in the city. He takes offence when Helen accuses him of ‘fascistic leanings’, but the way he phrases his denial only confirms her suspicion: ‘I’m sharing my life,’ he says, ‘with some very fine people.’ He still dabbles in amateur engineering projects, and has brought Josie a gift (which, Klara observes, he carries ‘carefully, the way people carry a small dog too tired to walk’). It’s a pocket mirror that lets you see yourself not ‘the wrong way round’ but ‘the way you really look’. Josie professes gratitude – ‘Thanks! You’re such a genius. Does this thing run on batteries?’ – but since she already has a smartphone, on which she has video lessons with her tutors, her father’s mirror, for all its allegorical force, seems curiously obsolete. The human characters talk about their phones, but Klara calls them ‘oblongs’, as if something in her programming prevents her from recognising them for what they are. Perhaps it’s for the same reason she isn’t networked, a way to maintain her narrow horizons, to keep her under control.
Klara and the Sun is – just about, technically – a science fiction novel. It’s set in an imagined world, different from and more technologically advanced than the one we inhabit: perhaps it’s our world at some unspecified time in the future; perhaps, as in Never Let Me Go (published in 2005, but set, for no obvious reason, in the late 1990s), an alternative present. Unlike a lot of sci-fi, but as in most of Ishiguro’s novels – The Buried Giant, with its debt to Anglo-Saxon poetry, is a notable exception – not much happens: an uneventful party, or ‘interaction meeting’, with other lifted teenagers; a trip to a waterfall; a trip into the city, which involves much sitting around in cars, parked or stuck in slow-moving traffic; a couple of walks across a field to a barn – all described in the careful, even, unostentatious, curiously compelling sentences that have served Ishiguro so well for nearly forty years. The dramatic centrepiece of Never Let Me Go is a visit to a second-hand shop in Cromer.
It’s not a requirement of sci-fi to be action-packed but, more unusually, Ishiguro doesn’t show much interest in ‘world building’: the differences that distinguish Klara’s world from our reality are adumbrated with a few carefully placed brushstrokes. The mechanisms that underlie Klara’s thought processes, the technologies that make her existence possible, are as mysterious to her as the workings of human consciousness are to us. Ishiguro doesn’t get tangled up in the complexities of neural networks, machine learning, algorithms or the difficulties of getting computers to understand symbolic logic. But it doesn’t matter how Klara’s mind works, because she isn’t really a robot. She’s a much older form of artificial intelligence, a much older kind of artificial friend: she’s a fictional character. It may be inherently impossible to write a novel that openly poses such questions as whether robots can be said to have souls, or to be conscious, or capable of feeling love, or of inspiring and reciprocating sympathy in people. By making them characters in a story, you aren’t asking the question: you’ve already answered it. Klara thinks in ways similar enough to us, is human enough, to function as a conventional narrator of a novel.
One of the clever things about Corduroy, which I only noticed on maybe the twentieth reading, is that the bear comes to life at the moment Lisa chooses him: ‘Corduroy watched them sadly as they walked away. “I didn’t know I’d lost a button,” he said to himself.’ Before that, he was just any old bear; it’s her wanting him that makes him capable of feeling, thinking, talking and having his adventures in the store. Klara, though, is alive and conscious before Josie chooses her. The human characters don’t take much notice of it, but she has an independent existence.
A larger question, which Klara and the Sun obliquely poses, is not whether a human ‘soul’ (or mind, or psyche, or consciousness, or whatever you want to call it) can be replicated in a robot, but whether a human body can. Klara’s least human qualities are all embodied ones: she has no sense of smell, she doesn’t eat, she appears not to sleep, she has no sexual desire, and while she may be able to mimic, say, Josie’s way of speaking or walking, it may be that it’s not only a person’s thoughts or memories, but also the way their body feels and smells, that makes them irreplicable.
And then there’s always a darker question lurking behind the one about whether or not robots can be people, and it isn’t about robots but about people, and what it means when they – when we – treat others as if they weren’t human. It is, or should be, troubling to realise that we have little difficulty not only in anthropomorphising computers, cars, toys or fictional characters, but also in dehumanising the people whose lives, sometimes but not always remote from our own, are instrumental to our happiness, or to our comfort.
Ursula Le Guin’s short story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, published in 1973, describes a city, ‘bright-towered by the sea’, whose inhabitants are all ‘happy’; they are ‘mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched’. But their happiness depends on the abject misery of a single neglected child, locked away in a basement. ‘They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place … all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms.’ Nobody helps the child. But some people, sometimes, walk away from Omelas. The dilemma in Le Guin’s fable was earlier posed, as she acknowledged, by Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov and by William James in ‘The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life’. Ishiguro’s novels pose versions of it too, if not with such immediate horror.
In Never Let Me Go, for instance, the child isn’t alone, and Kathy and her companions aren’t miserable. Their lives are circumscribed, but in many ways they’re quite comfortable: they are confined not in a dank, windowless basement but in a boarding school in the English countryside, Hailsham, one of the very best institutions of its kind (though there are hints at greater deprivation than the children are aware of). This is the only life they’ve ever known. They’ve also always known, somehow, that their lives, or their bodies, are here for a particular purpose. I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say that the narrator and her friends are clones, who have been bred to be ‘donors’, to have their organs harvested to save the lives of people who have not been cloned, and who have children, spouses, parents and friends – who belong, in other words, to social networks that protect them, and which mean that society considers their lives to be worth saving, not sacrificing.
The revelation, from a former ‘guardian’ (as the teachers at Hailsham are known), doesn’t come as much of a surprise to the narrator or the reader: they have already been ‘told and not told’ the truth, Kathy thinks, and so have we. (Ishiguro doesn’t go in for sudden twists so much as gradual unwindings.) But what gives Kathy’s life meaning, to her, is not that her body parts will be used to save the lives of people she has never met, but the relationships she has made with the other clones in the school. There’s a certain amount of talk about whether or not clones have ‘souls’, but it’s a bizarre question to ask, or a misdirected way to frame it: of course they do; the distinction between clones and non-clones may have a basis in biological fact, but the divisions that follow from it are arbitrary. The method of their conception has no bearing on their innate humanity, only on the value that society places on their lives. By loving one another, they resist the purely functional existence that society attributes to them. But it’s an abstract form of rebellion, and in a material sense they calmly acquiesce to their fate: they hope they will be given permission to ‘defer’, but it never occurs to them to run away. Their agency is restricted by their point of view; they have never seen an elsewhere they could run away to. The child in the basement is the only one who cannot walk away from Omelas.
Stevens, the narrator of The Remains of the Day, isn’t a robot or a clone but a butler, who has devoted his life, and subordinated all his personal relationships and desires, to an ideal of service – carrying the decanter of port into the smoking room as his father lies dying in the servants’ quarters upstairs – for a man who may not, he comes to realise, have been worthy of the sacrifice. His employer, Lord Darlington, was at best one of Hitler’s useful idiots; at worst, an actual Nazi. Stevens must be able to see this, however much he doesn’t want to, because the reader can see it, and we see everything – narrowly, precisely – through his eyes.
The discipline with which Ishiguro cleaves to his narrators’ point of view is one of the most distinctive features of his novels – with the wild, wonderful exception of The Unconsoled, whose narrator has occasional, unexplained access to the thoughts, feelings and actions of other characters. The Unconsoled takes any number of outrageous liberties with novelistic conventions, but still proceeds by way of the same mild, measured, reasonable sentences, as if it were the most normal story in the world.Ryder, the narrator, is a world-famous pianist visiting an unnamed central European town of shifting topography (as in a dream, or on a stage set), where he is due to give a concert. He needs to rehearse, but is endlessly distracted by a series of obligations placed on him by the other characters, who are at once total strangers to him but also appear to be close family members. At last, about two-thirds of the way through the novel, he manages to find somewhere to practise, a ‘little wooden hut’ at the top of a hill with ‘an upright piano of somewhat grubby appearance’. But even here the irresistible distractions continue: ‘As I approached the latter stages of the third movement’ – of a piece called Asbestos and Fibre – ‘I became conscious again of the digging noise.’ Outside the hut, a disgraced older musician called Brodsky is burying his dog. That was the moment (irreproducible without the 350 pages building up to it) at which I had the sudden, indefensible thought that The Unconsoled is the greatest novel written in English in my lifetime. Frank Kermode gives probably the best account of it – ‘the effect is of tragic farce, and Ishiguro, unlike his characters, works well in that destructive setting’ – in his reviews of Never Let Me Go and Nocturnes in the LRB.
Unlike Ryder, Klara is not ‘demented’ – Kermode’s word for the narrators of The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans – but, like Stevens in The Remains of the Day or Kathy in Never Let Me Go, she has a very particular view of the world, formed from a combination of her limited experience, almost complete lack of prior (preloaded?) knowledge, and what the shop manager, in her sales pitch, calls her ‘extraordinary observational ability’. Klara has developed an idiosyncratic way of referring to people and things, classifying passers-by, for example, as ‘overhaul men’, ‘dog lead people’ or ‘umbrella couples’. She watches ‘the Sun on his journey, crossing between the building tops from our side over to the RPO Building Side’. (If you search for ‘RPO Building’ on Google, one of the top results is a set of directions to the Darlington Nuclear refurbishment project office building in Clarington, near Toronto. I wonder if this is a coincidence or a joke.)
No one has ever told Klara that the Earth goes round the Sun, and when Josie says that ‘from up in my room you can see exactly where the Sun goes down,’ Klara assumes she is speaking the literal truth. From Josie’s bedroom window, she watches the Sun set behind Mr McBain’s barn, and deduces (like Corduroy and the escalator mountain) that this is where it goes at night: not so very far away; just across the fields. She takes a special interest in the movements of the Sun because she is solar-powered, and ‘the Sun’s nourishment’, as she calls it, has a very real meaning for her. So far, so reasonable. But she also comes to believe, based on a radical misinterpretation of what she sees from the window of the store, that the Sun has another, ‘special kind of nourishment’, that it is able to bring people back to life. ‘Beggar Man and his dog’ can often be seen in a doorway across the road, next to the RPO Building, ‘cheerfully exchanging remarks’ with people (a characterisically optimistic reading of the world). But one day Klara sees them lying unmoving on the ground for hours, and makes a deductive leap too far: ‘It was obvious they had died.’ When they turn out not to be dead after all, she doesn’t correct her earlier assumption, but reasons instead that they have been resurrected by the Sun’s ‘special nourishment’.
Believing that Josie, too, could be helped by this ‘special nourishment’, Klara makes a pilgrimage at sunset across the fields to Mr McBain’s barn, which becomes for her a kind of temple, to pray for help, and has a variety of religious experience – brought on, it’s strongly implied, by the effort expended getting there and her inability to recharge her batteries because the Sun is going down. Past and present, perception and memory, collapse into one another, in the most banal way possible, as Klara thinks she sees a set of shelves from the store, complete with coffee cups, attached to a wall of the rundown barn (there is a faint echo here of the dual timelines Ishiguro uses to structure some of his earlier novels). Her perception fragments into ‘segments of irregular shape’ – this happens at other times too, when her energy is low or her surroundings confuse her with their complexity – and the hallucinations get more intense and frightening, with visions of a chthonic bull she once saw, and of another AF, a friend from her time in the store, in apparent pain. She asks the Sun to help Josie and makes a promise to him in return (a transactional prayer that a more sophisticated theological mind would surely disdain).
Back at Josie’s house, her batteries recharged, Klara begins to express confidence that Josie’s health will recover. The adults tend to respond positively to Klara’s optimism. ‘Maybe you can see things the rest of us can’t,’ Josie’s mother says to her at one point. ‘Oh you darling robot!’ Helen says, when Klara expresses confidence that Rick will get into college. Josie’s father agrees to help Klara in a quixotic act of self-sacrificial environmental sabotage, though knowing his fascist leanings we may doubt his motives. But despite Klara’s faith, and despite her good works, the Sun doesn’t answer her prayers. Well, of course not, you think. But then there is a kind of miracle – or perhaps it’s only a coincidence; the welcome clouds of ambiguity soon return. This being Ishiguro, no one apart from Klara even notices the coincidence, let alone the miracle.
In any case, whatever it is that may or may not have happened, the time comes when Klara has served her purpose, and finds herself redundant, retired, alone with her memories. The problem of memory is a persistent concern in Ishiguro’s novels. The people in The Buried Giant are able to live in peace only because they have forgotten that they were recently at war. ‘I do not doubt,’ says the narrator of A Pale View of Hills, set in Nagasaki in the early 1950s (Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki in 1954 and moved to Surrey when he was five), ‘that amongst those women I lived with then, there were those who had suffered, those with sad and terrible memories. But to watch them each day, busily involved with their husbands and their children, I found this hard to believe.’ ‘It must be great,’ Josie’s mother says to Klara, quite early in the new novel, ‘not to miss things. Not to long to get back to something. Not to be looking back all the time.’ But Klara wouldn’t know.
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