By Harry Hext
The latest novel from Nobel Prize winning Kazuo Ishiguro is the next text in a line of works that tackle the impending ‘threat’ of artificial intelligence and its impact on the world. Ishiguro takes this premise and works it into a narrative of human support plus passing references to climate change, creating a final novel that ends before you can really grow attached to any of the strands.
The novel’s protagonist Klara is an AF, which we later learn stands for Artificial Friend. The story is told from her perspective, allowing Ishiguro to experiment with language and voice as a mode of dramatic irony. We know what Klara’s words mean and what they stand for. This promotes us to empathise with our narrator – but at times it becomes too much of a distraction from the plot.
The main plot concerns itself with Klara’s human friend Josie and her friend Rick. Unlike Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me, where the narrator sees his life taken over by AI, this novel is more Klara being taken over by the humans in her life, becoming more of an observer to the characters than someone who takes an active role. As stated before, it offers a new perspective to that already seen in previous UK texts like Machines Like me and Ex Machina, becoming the next text in line to tackle artificial intelligence.
This is both a massive criticism and a source of praise for Ishiguro. As we spend all of the novel with Klara’s narration and her impassive, funny comments on situations, it’s impossible not to be drawn to her and her witty reactions to the world around her. Which is why the opening section of the novel, where Klara spends her time as an unsold AF, is where the novel excels. Ishiguro does what many writers struggle to do – he leaves his readers up a stream without a paddle right at the beginning of the novel.
It’s a clever device that dystopias have utilised since their beginnings. Ishiguro cleverly presents a world where nothing sinister is happening, but there’s just a strangeness to it, and a strangeness due to the eyes we view it from. Ishiguro shines in his attempt to make the AFs as close to humans as he can. The only difference is they are manufactured and see things without emotions. Yet, Klara begins to care for her ‘friend’ Josie, the novel becomes as much about her as it does Klara.
Ishiguro does not seem afraid like his contemporaries. Instead he welcomes the idea that soon our children could have AFs to talk to and complete tasks with. AFs could care for us when we’re sick. At no point in the novel do Klara’s intentions become bad, although some people she sees appear scared of her; this is not a dystopia where the AI is the problem, but more its creators. Ishiguro, as he has done several times before, explores humanity with such an elegant, unflinching openness. It’s hard not to root for Klara at points as she tries her best for people that are losing hope in themselves. Where McEwan’s novel tried to fight AI and had his protagonist lose his mind over its involvement, Ishiguro welcomes the change and signals evolution.
This is why the first part of the novel stands out. For Klara is introduced as someone with feelings and viewpoints, not a cold machine that feels nothing but aspiration to take over its creator. Klara is as thoughtful and emotionally intelligent as the rest of us. She excels as a helper in her own way and has an incredible memory. She is different to humans of course, and as the colloquialisms of her language appear more frequently, it becomes more evident she is not one. But that emotional intelligence and creeping, uncertain feeling of where Klara sits in the world persists throughout the novel.
There is also the theme of the Sun, which sadly is very undercooked in comparison to the other themes of the novel. At times, it seems Ishiguro is going to go full eco-critic and blame the world for the state of global warming we find ourselves in. Instead, he retreats and focuses on Josie’s illness instead. Constantly, the toe is dipped and retracted as if afraid to fully explore the ramifications of pollution on technology. Klara’s relationship to the sun also becomes lost in the other themes the book attempts to juggle, whereas McEwan’s novel decided to focus entirely on machines and human relationships. Ishiguro has swamps this novel in plot whilst never quite making the water clear enough to continually swim through, and the novel loses its course as a result.
But this does not stop the conclusion of the novel hitting incredibly hard. Much like Alex Garland achieved with Ex Machina, Ishiguro similarly humanises machines and exposes possible fragilities. This conclusion is incredibly raw and forced me to consider my own memories and viewpoints, and what would happen if I lose them.
Ultimately, Ishiguro joins a council of writers that concern themselves with technology. His view has moved towards the human side of the argument, whilst never fully exploring the potential threats of climate change and ecology. Whilst the other writers mentioned have explored their points more fully as a result of focus, Ishiguro still throws a consistent, thought provoking novel into the ring and leaves the door open for the next writer to tackle human evolution.