Kazuo Ishiguro, who was born in Japan but grew up in England, is one of the most influential writers of fiction in English today. He has written nine books and won numerous prizes, including the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Klara and the Sun
His latest novel Klara and the Sun is set in a dystopian world and narrated by Klara, a solar-powered robot who has the role of AF —standing for ‘artificial friend’— to a teenage girl called Josie. Klara uses her artificial intelligence to observe the people around her and learn as much as she can about human emotions. The empathy that Klara develops helps her provide friendship and care to Josie and her mother. This care is especially valuable because Josie is dangerously ill following an intervention to modify her genetic code, and so increase her intelligence. Despite being a robot, Klara has quasi-religious feelings. She believes that the sun, whose energy keeps her alive, will do the same for Josie. This latest novel by Ishiguro is a fascinating reflection on what it means to be human in an age of genetic modification and artificial intelligence.
Butler, clone, robot
So, how does Klara and the Sun compare with Ishiguro’s previous books? The author’s first big success, The Remains of the Day (1989), is set in England between the 1930s and 1950s and follows the life of a butler who works for an aristocrat in a traditional mansion. It was made into a film, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. On the surface, The Remains of the Day with its historical setting seems completely different from the futuristic, sci-fi scenario of Klara and the Sun. But, in fact, the themes of service, sacrifice and identifying what is valuable in life are quite similar.
Another of Ishiguro’s best-known novels, Never Let Me Go (2005), tells the story of three teenagers at an isolated boarding school in England. We slowly find out that the teenagers are clones and that when they reach adulthood their organs will be harvested. The true horror of the novel is that the teenagers have no choice except to make the best of their short lives and accept their destiny. Again there are clear parallels with Klara and the Sun; Klara devotes herself 100 per cent to her teenager Josie and even makes a physical sacrifice for her.
hope and optimism
During a presentation of Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro spoke about how his writing has developed, some of the main themes of his work, and how literature might respond to the issues we face as a society. Despite the dystopian setting of Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro says there is a hope and optimism to the story.
Kazuo Ishiguro (British accent): As I’ve got older perhaps I’m not more optimistic, but I want to celebrate what I think is good about human beings. And by and large, I am impressed by human beings. Of course they do terrible things, they make many mistakes. But by and large there is something very admirable and noble about human beings, particularly when they are trying to express love or devotion or protectiveness towards each other. And so, typically, recently my books have become like that. People live in a harsh world, often in a system that they can’t escape. Rebellion is almost unthought-of because you can’t even see a path to rebellion. But how they find some kind of hope, their own kind of small rebellion, is to create little private worlds almost like an oasis in which they can exchange love and affection and decency towards each other. And that’s what tends to happen in my more recent books, I think.
hierarchies of power
Several of Ishiguro’s novels, including Klara and the Sun, explore how some individuals —whether humans, clones or robots— will spend their whole lives serving people who are more powerful than themselves. But this hierarchy of power is not only about class, but also touches on something more universal, says Ishiguro.
Kazuo Ishiguro: All my life, I’ve been on the left, but I don’t think in my books I’m necessarily trying to write about the working classes as such. I’m trying to provide a more general metaphor, a universal metaphor for ordinary people of all classes. What I’m trying to say is that in our relationship to power, most of us are like servants. If you just take one of those characters like the butler in The Remains of the Day, he is like a metaphor. I’m not really looking at the servant class in Britain in a particular point in time. He’s a metaphor for us all. And somebody like Kathy, who is the clone in Never Let Me Go, she’s a victim of this very cruel system. In another way she is like all of us. We are all caught in a cruel condition of mortality. We all have limited lives and most of us have to face the fact that we will grow older and we’ll become ill and we’ll die. And we try to make something meaningful of our lives within the cruelty of that system. We try and find love and decency and good things to do that will give us some pride despite this cruel framework that we live in. And so I’m not really trying to talk on behalf of the working class, or anything like this. I’m trying to say something about the position that most of us are in, in our societies, and in relationship to mortality.
Looking back over a successful career and forward to the future, Ishiguro reflects on the future of literature in our fast-changing world.
Kazuo Ishiguro: I’m of the older generation. I’m now sixty-six years old and I’m looking to the younger generation of writers to find a voice for this world that is changing so much. To a large extent, I’m the product of the post-war era, and I see things in those terms. When I try and look at the present, and certainly the future, I just see a fog. I can only see these kinds of shapes in the fog. And Klara and the Sun is almost like that. It’s an old man looking at the future and trying to make out these shapes. I’m hoping that the younger writers, who will own this age, they will see more clearly our present age and the period that lies in front of us.