By Michael Grossberg
The sympathetic character at the center of Klara and the Sun is profoundly human in her caring, determination, curiosity, loyalty and observant intelligence.
And yet, Klara is an artificial being, an android branded and sold as an Artificial Friend in Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel, one of five 2022 Prometheus Best Novel finalists.
Set a generation or two into the future and strictly told from the highly limited point of view of Klara, the novel never fully answers the question of whether Klara has achieved full self-awareness (and thus should be treated as a person with rights.)
Yet, Ishiguro carefully drops enough clues and hints to make Klara and the Sun both a tantalizingly ambiguous mystery about the threshold of full consciousness and a haunting meta-libertarian parable about the foundations of rights and the tragedy that can occur when basic “humanity” and basic rights go unrecognized.
Like some past Prometheus winners for Best Novel – such as Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World, which also focused on the very foundations of libertarian theory in terms of basic human rights – Klara and the Sun does not focus on politics but the foundation of rights in self-awareness.
Hailed as a poignant meditation on love and loneliness by the Associated Press, the novel begins with Klara beginning to puzzle out the world from her limited vantage point on display as one of several A.I.s being sold in a downtown store, most often to families seeking a companion for their children.
Once she finds a home with an affluent family, Klara begins to tend to the needs of the family’s young daughter, gradually learning about the daughter’s limitations and health issues in a world where genetics has allowed most families to “lift” their children to a higher level of intelligence (albeit with some failures.)
Klara and the Sun is especially rich in the context of Ishiguro’s sublime subtlety as Klara as she learns more about the world and develops her own viewpoint, sense of meaning, purpose and plan of action.
SAPIENCY, AUTONOMY AND PERSONHOOD
Klara and the Sun may be the most realistic sf novel I’ve ever read focusing on how A.I.s might begin to approach a level of sapiency and self-awareness that could make them fully “human” – and deserve at least some measure of respect for their dignity, moral autonomy and basic rights.
The Prometheus Awards focus on outstanding science fiction and fantasy that explores themes of individual rights and liberties. Such rights are in turn based on a foundational recognition that humans are intelligent and self-aware – a prerequisite that also could be applied to other self-aware beings, such as the possibility of emergent A.I. like Klara.
Through her observant eyes, Klara seems childlike, innocent and ignorant of so much, yet also powerfully poised on the verge of personhood – with all the basic human rights that every person deserves.
Yet, her personhood is nearly invisible to nearly everyone around her. At what point in evolution and self-awareness do basic rights emerge? And if such self-awareness and rights aren’t recognized, what is the terrible cost and tragic waste? Klara and the Sun sparked such questions in me.
Reinforcing such subtle and intentionally ambiguous themes, Klara and the Sunalso explores in its imagined future how “lifted” humans are treated differently (such as in college admissions) from how people with “natural” brains are treated – raising questions about equal rights versus special privileges.
Although Ishiguro did not choose to structure his novel into a more clearly libertarian story about an A.I.’s struggle for independence and liberty, he does hint here and there that Klara may have enough agency to be human.
It’s revealing that Klara is one of the few members of her limited-run class of A.I’s, already “replaced” by a later (and ironically lesser) A.I. model, who may well have achieved both self-awareness and true agency.
The tragedy is that no one fully recognizes that (although a few people come tantalizingly and achingly close), and so no one fights for her rights – including her.
Yet, Ishiguro intentionally and explicitly includes several brief moments of partial recognition of AFs (the novel’s term for this class of AIs) that come close – such as on page 197:
But Mr. Capaldi now addressed the Father.
“Paul, maybe as a fellow scientist, you’ll agree with me. I believe AFs have so much more to give than we currently appreciate. We shouldn’t fear their intellectual powers. We should learn from them. AFs have so much to teach us.”
Here Ishiguro is including this as a tantalizing lost opportunity – for the novel shows that these hints are ignored, and that humans don’t learn from them and don’t fully recognize the potential of AFs, or their full self-awareness, and so they are discarded, their human potential wasted.
Also note the reference to fear – later reinforced near the novel’s end with brief references suggesting that the entire world turned against AFs out of fear, and misunderstanding, in a social-cultural response very similar to historical mob/movements that stigmatize and demonize people of different races or sexual orientations or other minorities as “abnormal” or “inferior” or threatening. (“Kill all witches!,” as they shouted in Salem.)
WORSHIPPING THE SUN
One key clue to Klara’s true or potential nature begins with the title of the novel itself: Symbolically, the sun turns out to be just as important as Klara – and not a mere poetic metaphor.
Klara’s fascination with the sun starts obviously enough with her awareness that its rays of light help generate power through solar energy to help sustain her existence.
Gradually, as Klara puzzles out the world around her – often quite similar to the way human children do (and don’t, often coming to false conclusions or limited knowledge) – she develops her own mythology about the Sun, almost the beginnings of a proto-religion similar to the type of early-human nature worship that developed over millennia into humanity’s ancient religions.
And Klara’s emerging religious philosophy both shapes her understanding of the world and motivates her to help her young human charge – even to the point of nobly risking or even sacrificing (some of) her energy and life to do so.
When a human child or adult does that, even when we may not see the world exactly the way they do, we tend to admire them. So what are we to make of Klara’s almost religious quest?
Here again Ishiguro resists any easy answers and avoids wrapping up the themes and issues he raises with any plot finality.
Sadly, even those who know Klara best and come to care about her the most never quite cross the threshold themselves of truly asking whether she might be fully self-aware. Not the kind store manager who takes a special nurturing interest in Klara, not the girl who connects with Klara as her A.F. companion and not the boy next door who forges a special alliance with Klara through is friendship with the girl.
Yet, Ishiguro’s novel – published by Faber and Faber in 2021 – seems to me carefully written to invite observant readers to speculate about the true nature and potential personhood of this A.F., especially as one comes to care deeply for Klara, one of the most fascinating and yes, human characters I’ve come across in fiction.
See the LFS press release announcing the 2022 Prometheus Best Novel finalists for capsule reviews of all five finalists.
* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.
* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.
Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights and differences.
Through recognizing the literature of liberty and the many different but complementary visions of a free future via the Prometheus Awards, the LFS hopes to help spread better visions of the future that help humanity overcome tyranny, slavery and war and achieve universal liberty and human rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.