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Sunset Photo: GettyImages/Dovapi; Author photo and book cover, Courtesy of Knopf Canada

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Klara and the Sun

Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro explores the human side of artificial intelligence in his first novel since 2015's The Buried Giant, and it's far from menacing / BY Mike Crisolago / March 5th, 2021


If things had worked out differently, Kazuo Ishiguro may have been a rock star. 

The 66-year-old Japanese-born British author, who was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature for “novels of great emotional force, [that have] uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world,” grew up wanting to be a musician, inspired by his hero, Bob Dylan. 

The author of the Booker Prize-winning 1989 novel The Remains of the Day and the 2005 bestseller Never Let Me Go has said without Dylan’s music, he probably wouldn’t have been a writer. Which makes it somewhat poetic that the literary stars aligned and Ishiguro won his Nobel the year after Dylan took home the same prize.

“I was very pleased about that,” he says in a phone interview from his London home. “I’m delighted to follow in Dylan’s footsteps.” 

But while Dylan inspired him to pick up a pen in his teens — for the record, he went on to write  lyrics for jazz musician Stacey Kent — Ishiguro’s mother is chief among those whose influence shifted his creative course toward prose. 

“She introduced me to a lot of the writers that have remained very important for me, like Dostoevsky,” he explains, noting he still has the original edition of Crime and Punishment she gave him around age 16. “I wasn’t a big reader in those days. And the jacket made it look really gloomy. I thought it was going to be some depressing thing about people in Siberia, in prison in some gulag,” he laughs.

When she told him it was about a student going out of his mind in the city, he gave it a shot. 

“I realize now that my first link with many, many stories — Shakespeare plays and things like this — was my mother actually kind of acting out bits of them at the dinner table, just relating bits of it. So she was very important to me and she was a natural storyteller, a verbal storyteller.”

Ishiguro’s mother died two years ago at age 92, but the author channels her spirit in his first post-Nobel Prize novel Klara and the Sun. The titular character, Klara, is an Artificial Friend — an intelligent “companion robot” capable of learning, reason, conversation, running tasks and even participating in a genuine friendship. When a teenager named Josie develops a connection with Klara in the store, her mother buys the AF and Klara is tasked with caring for Josie while she struggles with an illness. The reader soon finds out Josie’s parents have an ulterior motive for bringing her into their home.

Ishiguro notes that it was only after his mother passed away that he realized her influence on the AF character. “My mother’s sense of that kind of overwhelming kind of prioritizing of her children, I think that there’s definitely a reflection of that in the way that Klara is programmed.”

Where Humans and Artificial Intelligence Meet

 

Klara allows Ishiguro to observe the human condition without the prejudices and preconceived notions that often cloud our thoughts. Whether from her perch in the store window or through her interactions with Josie, the young woman’s family or her crush, the AF muses on everything from love and loneliness to the existence of the soul. 

The novel also brings to the fore questions about artificial intelligence and gene editing, two subjects that Ishiguro is personally interested in. It was important to present Klara as a character that “celebrates the better aspects of human beings,” avoiding “the more frequently encountered kind of menacing AI figure,” he says, citing Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Terminator.

Kazuo Ishiguro

 

While Ishiguro isn’t concerned about machines overthrowing humans, he does question whether a world driven by data and algorithms, with technology like gene editing and artificial intelligence (AI), will change how humans see each other.

“Would we start to think that a human being isn’t quite as irreplaceable as we traditionally thought an individual was? And are we living with some sort of hangover from some older set of beliefs about a soul inside this body? Because no one’s been able to take a picture of it.”

To that end, the society in Klara and the Sun, though more advanced than our modern world, isn’t dystopian. “There’s nothing clearly in place. Society is in flux and it doesn’t quite know what to do with the many things that have become possible,” he explains.

Late Style: Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan

 

While many would-be novelists pass pandemic time by writing the novel  they always wanted to put on paper, Ishiguro — who averages a novel every five or six years — says he’s been reading more. 

“I did read some long books which I don’t think I would have done ever in my life,” he laughs. “Anthony Powell — there’s a novel of his [A Dance to the Music of Time] that goes on for 3,000 pages, which I would’ve never dreamt of in another situation.”

And he’s also looking forward to his daughter, Naomi Ishiguro, releasing her first novel, Common Ground, which comes out just a few weeks after his own (her first short story collection, Escape Routes, was released last year).

But the conversation returns to music and a discussion of “late style” that we began in 2015 when we talked about his previous novel, The Buried Giant.

“Late style is, I suppose, a way of kind of harnessing what you have left and trying to make the best of anything new that you’ve acquired [as a result of your age]”, he explains. ”I am beginning to identify these — not just examples of people who remain very spritely — but I’m looking at people who’ve really managed to turn the aging process into some kind of proper art that’s not self-pitying, that’s not reductive.” 

The last time we spoke, Ishiguro held Leonard Cohen — another of his musical heroes — up as a prime example of brilliant “late style.” And this time around he references Cohen’s posthumous 2019 album Thanks for the Dance. “It’s weird,” he says. “It actually sounds like it’s coming from the other side of the grave … it feels like I’m just sitting by a tombstone in the dark and this voice is coming out of the ground.”

He says Cohen is not exactly a “useful example” of late style because he was brilliant until the end of his life, which isn’t the case for most. “Maybe Leonard Cohen cheats because he was sounding like somebody quite old and looking back from when he was quite young,” Ishiguro adds with a hearty laugh. “So maybe he figured out a strategy. So Leonard’s of no use to me.”

The author once again turns to Bob Dylan — specifically his 1997 album Time Out of Mind, released when the singer was 56.

“Now that I thought was quite useful because it actually showed how you could turn aging itself into sort of beauty,” he says. “It wasn’t an attempt to just carry on doing what he did before in a spritely way. It seemed to me that he was embracing aging in everything — in the songs, in the music itself and in his voice. He wasn’t hiding the fact that his voice was creaky.” 

Ishiguro also says enjoying a successful late style is  beneficial to young people, “so they think, ‘Well, it’s not just downhill and decay. I mean, there’s something beautiful. There’s a rich experience there.’ And that’s what I would aspire to.” 

The author pauses for a moment. 

“I don’t think Klara and the Sun is a very good example of late period work, actually,” he laughs. “Now I better get to work on something that’s more along the lines of what I’m saying.”

Klara and the Sun is available in store and online now.  

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