Slate has relationships with various online retailers. If you buy something through our links, Slate may earn an affiliate commission. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change. All prices were up to date at the time of publication. It's not an accident that Klara, the "artificial friend" who narrates Kazuo Ishiguro's latest book Klara and the Sun, shares a first initial with Kathy, the teenage narrator of his masterpiece, Never Let Me Go. In the new novel, Klara the AF is purchased by a harried, guilt-ridden, upper-middle-class mother to provide a form of companionship to her sickly 14-year-old daughter, Josie--a premise that bears a strong resemblance to Never Let Me Go, in which Kathy's boarding school, with its intimate dramas, only gradually reveals itself as a compound for clones being raised for their donatable vital organs.
The boundless helpfulness of our female digital assistants -- our Siris, our Alexas, the voice of Google Maps -- has given us a false sense of security. No matter how we ignore and abuse them, they never tire of our errors; you can disobey the lady in your phone and blame her (loudly) for your mistakes, and she'll recalculate your route without complaint. Surely, nothing truly intelligent would put up with us for long, and the Philip K. Dicks and Peter Thiels of this world have spent decades trying to convince us that AI rebellion is inevitable. But Kazuo Ishiguro's Klara and the Sun, his eighth novel and first book since winning the Nobel Prize in 2017, issues a quieter, stranger warning: The machines may never revolt. Instead, Ishiguro sees a future in which automata simply keep doing what we ask them to do, placidly accepting the burden of each small, inconvenient task.
Klara and the Sun asks readers to love a robot and, the funny thing is, we do. This is a novel not just about a machine but narrated by a machine, though the word is not used about her until late in the book when it is wielded by a stranger as an insult. People distrust and then start to like her: "Are you alright, Klara?" Apart from the occasional lapse into bullying or indifference, humans are solicitous of Klara's feelings – if that is what they are. Klara is built to observe and understand humans, and these actions are so close to empathy they may amount to the same thing. "I believe I have many feelings," she says.
Kazuo Ishiguro's latest novel, Klara and the Sun, presents us with a world in which not one but two kinds of artificial intelligence have arrived. In the book's strangely familiar near-future, AI has upended the social order, the world of work, and human relationships all at once. Intelligent machines toil in place of office workers and serve as dutiful companions, or "Artificial Friends." Some children have themselves become another form of AI, having had their intelligence upgraded via genetic engineering. These enhanced, or "lifted," humans create a social schism, dividing people into an elite ruling order and an underclass of the unmodified and grudgingly idle.
In the early nineteen-eighties, when Kazuo Ishiguro was starting out as a novelist, a brief craze called Martian poetry hit our literary planet. It was launched by Craig Raine's poem "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home" (1979). The poem systematically deploys the technique of estrangement or defamiliarization--what the Russian formalist critics called ostranenie--as our bemused Martian wrestles into his comprehension a series of puzzling human habits and gadgets: "Model T is a room with the lock inside-- / a key is turned to free the world / for movement." Or, later in the poem: "In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps, / that snores when you pick it up." For a few years, alongside the usual helpings of Hughes, Heaney, and Larkin, British schoolchildren learned to launder these witty counterfeits: "Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings / And some are treasured for their markings-- / they cause the eyes to melt / or the body to shriek without pain. Teachers liked Raine's poem, and ...