[This 2021 novel is in six parts. I read blocks of roughly two parts at a time, writing about those before reading further. Spoiler alert: If you read this running commentary, you will find out everything that happens in the book as I read it.]
13 July 2021
Parts 1 and 2
We’re in one of Ishiguro’s invented worlds, and I’m not having a great time with it. There are plenty of elements of our own world in it, so that it feels as much like an alternative present as a distant future in which AI ‘friends’ for lonely rich kids have had a plausible amount of time to be developed. So Klara’s view from the window of the store where she spends Part 1 is of a busy high street with taxis and window-shoppers, and it seems that nobody’s heard of online shopping. But this is what Ishiguro often does—we can’t quite place the worlds of Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant either. The former is set in a different alternative present, the main characters coming to realise that they are being groomed to fulfil a nightmarish purpose. The latter is a collage of elements from different fantasy genres, which the characters have to navigate in order to fulfil a narrative purpose that seems never to be fully explained.
We’re piecing together the world of Klara and the Sun as we read. We understand pretty quickly that Klara is an ‘AF’, one of the artificial friends designed as companions for children. During Part 2 we also piece together that in this world, the lives of children and adolescents, or those from privileged backgrounds, are sequestered and mainly solitary. The girl whose mother buys Klara for her by the end of Part 1 knows only one boy of her own age who, we come to realise—there’s often a lot of coming to realise to be done in Ishiguro’s novels—is only around because he hasn’t been through some sort of selection process. The word mentioned, during an excruciating get-together the adults in authority force their charges to undergo periodically, is ‘lifted’. Rick, the neighbour, isn’t lifted, so some of the other kids decide it’s OK to look down on him. An intervention from one of the mothers, who are supposed to be keeping out of it, confirms that such attitudes are learnt at home.
This world is full of hierarchies, and we have no idea how real they all are. ‘The Mother,’ as Klara refers to her, dresses in a way that marks her as being ‘high-ranking’. Is it a genuine stratum in this society? Or Klara’s imperfect take on what she has somehow gathered through her observations? Almost from the beginning, we’re wondering how Klara has gained the limited knowledge she has. Has she been programmed? Or does she have to acquire information like an earnest version of ‘Number 5’ in Short Circuit? That comedy movie was made in 1986, and I’m not convinced that Ishiguro’s po-faced version of machine learning offers any more enlightenment on an idea of artificial consciousness that has been around in fiction for decades. Philip K Dick was doing it much more entertainingly in the 1950s—and, come to think of it, Craig Raine’s imagined Martian, a being who sees our world through fresh, untutored eyes, is far more interesting. When the Martian gets the wrong idea or uses the wrong word, the effect is like a strange music. When Klara does it, it clunks.
A few sentences into the first page, she describes looking out of the store’s main display window: ‘if we were there at just the right time, we would see the Sun on his journey, crossing between the building tops from our side over to the RPO Building side. When I was lucky enough to see him like that, I’d lean my face forward to take in as much of his nourishment as I could, and if Rosa was with me, I’d tell her to do the same.’ This doesn’t really make sense in science fiction terms. Klara speaks like an imperfectly educated child, her awareness that she is powered by solar energy somehow skewed into a kind of reverence for the Sun, a benign entity, ‘nourishing’ her and others like her. Later in the novel, she is shown where he goes down to rest at night, and she wonders whether he rests in the barn on the far horizon. It’s the beginning of a religious mythology, and… I wonder why Ishiguro is doing it.
I can only guess—and I’m not just talking about the Sun-worship thing—that Ishiguro is no more interested in science fiction than Craig Raine in his Martian poems. This novel, surely, is about the limits of our own, human perceptions and knowledge, the imperfections of human society and, among other things, the way we continue to it wrong with our children. Josie, the girl with an unnamed debilitating illness for whom Klara is the companion, has a parallel struggle to that of her artificial friend. She is constantly found wanting, is endlessly appraised and assessed—but, unlike Klara, is not programmed always to please.
So it’s no surprise when, near the end of Part 2, the first sign of any plot development occurs when Josie’s mother decides that as Josie has been telling lies about being well enough to be taken to her favourite waterfall, Klara can go instead. The mother fears for Josie’s long-term future—her sister died young—and we can only wonder why, not for the first time, she asks Klara to go into role as Josie. She first did it in the store, asking her to imitate Josie’s awkward walk. Now, for a few minutes, she gets Klara to role-play her whole personality. After a while, it seems the mother realises she’s on quite dangerous ground. She stops Klara hastily and is brusque for a time….
So far, it seems to me that this is a novel not about AI, but about human failings, and needs so deep-seated we can’t control them. I wonder if this is really the mother’s story, as she comes to terms with the possibility of losing a second daughter. Maybe this fresh-faced, eager AF would fill the gap?
Part 3, and Part 4 as far as the revelations in the ‘portrait studio’
I think most of my problems in this book are to do with what I wrote in my final paragraph last time. No, this novel isn’t really about AI, beyond a heavy-handed treatment of the idea that any degree of AI consciousness is going to be limited, in ways that might, or might not be, similar to that of human beings. And yes, this really is the Mother’s story, as she actively moulds Karla into a future surrogate for Josie.
This is all narrated by Karla herself, of course, so we have to accept a prose style that feels as though it’s been written by a committee of IT geeks. The colourless first-person narration makes it easy for Ishiguro to reveal to us not only the way she thinks—wide-eyed and literal-minded—but also, quite literally, the way she sees. Something I wonder about, for instance, is why Ishiguro has chosen to equip Karla with such a crude system for processing visual data. As she moves through the world, the refresh rate is often painfully slow, like a new video game played on an old console. ‘The field became partitioned into boxes, some larger than others….’
We’ve seen a lot of this visual partitioning before, but it becomes weirder because the visual refresh rate is only the half of it: ‘I pressed on, conscious of the contrasting atmospheres between one box and another.’ Klara doesn’t understand even the tiniest bit of how the world operates, and her processor does the best it can to make sense of it: ‘I remembered the terrible bull on the walk up to Morgan’s Falls, and how in all probability it had emerged from beneath the ground, and for a brief moment, I even thought the Sun wasn’t kind at all, and this was the true reason for Josie’s worsening condition. Even in this confusion, I was convinced that if I could only pull myself through into a kinder box, I’d become safe.’
This supposedly high-intelligence AI entity has no concept that the world as she perceives it isn’t reality, but what her processor can come up with—and, I suppose, a possible truth dawns on us. Maybe the point is that the version of Plato’s Cave she lives in might not be that different from our own. I hope not, because it’s far too glib. I prefer to believe—I’m trying really hard here—that what Ishiguro is presenting is a real time display of machine learning, from the machine’s point of view. Not that this works for me either, because I can think of no plausible reason why Karla wouldn’t be programmed with a library of basic knowledge. That idea of hers that the Sun is conscious, and comes to rest in the barn across the big field, depends on her not knowing the first thing about anything.
As we have been looking on, ever more bemused, this has become the driver of a ramshackle religious belief of Karla’s own invention. It only works at a metaphorical level which, for me, is simply not enough. Karla, Ishiguro’s creation, doesn’t work as a plausible AI entity, only as a metaphor of human consciousness as it has developed from its early beginnings. Currently, she’s stuck in a pagan era in which an all-powerful being needs to be appeased through self-abasement and acts of propitiation. When she goes to meet the Sun in the barn—yes, that really is what her nightmare walk through fields is all about—she promises him that she will do her best to get rid of the only machine she knows that causes Pollution. (Like another character stuck in his own Plato’s Cave, the boy in Emma Donaghue’s Room, she likes capital letters.) It’s the Coolings Machine, used in road-surface-laying, and she remembers how its Pollution blocked the Sun’s nourishment for days as she looked out of the store window. The deal is that if Karla gets rid of it, the Sun will save Josie.
I realise I might be making this sound interesting. It isn’t, because Karla’s narration is repetitive and dull. Plot developments—I’ll come to those—are treated with the bland transactional quality of a company report, whilst her linguistic quirks seem pointless. Why have her programmers omitted an ability to address people in the second person? Are we to believe that in her as yet undeveloped AI psyche the concept of ‘you’ hasn’t formed yet? Or is it to emphasize her subservience, the third person always having been used by the serving classes when addressing their employers?
I don’t really care because, frankly, I can’t believe that Ishiguro cares. This novel isn’t really about her, but about the human characters and their needs. It’s through these that the main plot development takes place, a continuation of that one at the end of Part 2 when the Mother took Klara to Josie’s favourite place. We learn that the portrait of Josie that is being done—it was mentioned in Part 2, presented as little more than the whim of a privileged family—has a huge significance for the mother. We guess, rightly, that it has to do with her need to retain something of Josie after she dies. This is starting to look almost inevitable, as she takes what feels like months to recover from her worst ever bout of illness…
…which, like the development of AI technologies, isn’t something that Ishiguro is really interested in. Josie’s is like one of those unnamed wasting illnesses suffered by children in Victorian novels, a convenient narrative device to move things along. It really, really doesn’t matter what the illness is, even though Ishiguro lets there be a strange little suggestion that the ‘lifting’ process somehow contributed to it. I’m not going to pursue that, because Ishiguro doesn’t. Instead, he has the long recovery lead to daily visits to Josie by Rick. It seems, from what Josie calls their ‘plan’, that they were once childhood sweethearts. Now… it’s complicated, made more so by the deliberately limited parameters Ishiguro imposes on the narrative.
I’ve said it before, about a different authorial choice, but I’ll say it again. I’m not sure why Ishiguro is doing it. Not only do we have their awkward, adolescent relationship presented through the eyes of an imperfectly programmed artificial consciousness. The little game that develops in what Klara describes as the second phase of the visits when, we gather, Josie and Rick become comfortable with one another, adds another layer of obscurity. On one sheet of paper after another Josie, who spends a lot of her time sketching, hands Rick cartoons of figures talking together. She draws one or more speech bubbles, and the game that develops is that Rick fills in the words and hands them back. Klara recognises that the figures represent real people they both know, sometimes including Josie and Rick themselves.
The game is fun, and they both enjoy it. And then, during the third phase, things become difficult. Klara guesses that Rick isn’t finding it easy to write the responses that Klara thinks he thinks Josie wants—a sentence I’ve deliberately made complicated, because that’s how Ishiguro has made it. Finally, one response leads to him leaving, and not coming back for many days afterwards. Through a glass darkly, we’ve been shown the development and pitfalls of a relationship between two young people, right down to what might be a final rift. And I’m as mystified about Ishiguro’s motives for doing it like this as I was as I read The Buried Giant. I’m guessing he’s using the speech bubble game as another philosophical metaphor—communication between individuals is beset by difficulties—and I wish he’d stop it. I’d feel better about it if I felt he was saying anything new.
In fact, it isn’t a final rift. Ishiguro seems to need both Rick and his unhappy mother to help move things on. Maybe he thinks, rightly, that his cast of characters has been too limited to be interesting. Whatever, Klara discovers some initiative within her programming and goes to visit Rick’s house. She somehow knows that Josie needs him, and… and so on. She meets the mother, who seems OK but, if Rick is right, is just putting on a brave face. It turns out she and ‘Chrissie’—the Mother—are friendly, and she would like to help Klara and Josie. She wants Klara to help her though because, Ishiguro would have us believe, it is possible for unlifted students in this world to go to the elite school if they do well in assessments. But he needs to be persuaded to do some work, like he used to.
This is dull. Ishiguro draws a line under Part 3 and has the family go to visit the so-called portraitist, the one who has to spend a lot of time photographing and measuring Josie to get his version of her just right. Paul, the estranged or divorced Father, also needs to come along, because it seems the Mother wants him to be on board with what she is having done. Klara, in that way she has, detects ‘tension’ in their conversations, even when she is upstairs doing assessments of her own for the portraitist.
The surprise, when it comes, is no surprise at all. In Part 3, Rick (or is it his mother?) had told Klara that two years after the death of Josie’s sister, the Mother had been seen with her, emerging from the long grass in the field. Things didn’t seem to be going well, and the sister has never been seen since. What the whole ‘portraitist’ thing is about, of course, is that he is making sure he gets the new facial features he is making for Klara just right. The father thinks it’s a terrible idea, reminds her in Klara’s hearing how badly it went the last time. But they didn’t have Klara the last time, says the Mother, and… and so on. And as Josie and her father get some quality time in a burger bar, the Mother comes clean to Klara. Will she do it? Will she not just imitate josie, but be her? Of course she will, given that she still has a strong hope—she’s seen the Coolings machine in the city—that Josie might not die after all.
Enough for now. I’m finding the plight of none of the characters either moving or worth caring about, because Ishiguro’s bizarre narrative decisions keep all human emotion a long way from the core. This should be the Mother’s story, and the story of the other needy people around her, but it’s Klara’s instead. So far, her digitised version of the human interactions she witnesses feels like it’s being played on a poorly designed console that’s just not up to the job.
The rest of Part 4; Parts 5 and 6—to the end
Part 4, easily the longest in the novel, becomes more and more hectic. Will this thing be sorted out? Will this other thing? Will Klara really be expected to become Josie II? Will Rick get a place at the enlightened college? Will the father be on board? Does it matter?
Not really. Nothing much matters as we lurch and zig-zag our way to the end, and characters who had briefly seemed important—Rick’s mother, Paul the father—either fade away (her) or make a final, irrelevant cameo appearance (him). Josie doesn’t die, and Klara can go to the yard—or Yard—where old tech goes to live out its remaining years of consciousness undisturbed. She’s like the little toy space aliens in Toy Story, endlessly thrilled by whatever comes her way. Which is a good job, because nothing much ever does. The end.
Most of what happens left me feeling mystified. Not because it’s hard to follow, but because everything seems so arbitrary—or, bizarrely, immaterial. Ishiguro has Klara follow the Mother into the burger joint, to demand an hour alone with Josie. Paul takes Klara for a drive, and she decides to take a risk. She tells him her plan to destroy the Coolings Machine and, unexpectedly, he goes along with it. When they happen upon it in a storage yard, Klara realises she has no idea what to do next. Luckily, Paul is a former top engineer—his unemployment seems to have a lot to do with how AI is taking over people’s jobs, an idea that Ishiguro raises in order to drop again fairly quickly. He tells Klara that some PEG-nine liquid poured into it would kill its workings—and, luckily, she has a small reservoir of the stuff inside her.
What kind of hokum is this? Specifically, is this baloney, and Paul is somehow sabotaging Klara? Or is it a different kind of hokum, in which we are to believe his story about the magic liquid? We find out later that he is a member of a survivalist community, so maybe he’s actually trying to hasten the downfall of a society that is running out of time…. We never find out, which isn’t at all uncommon in this novel. Klara does detect some waywardness in her own perceptions after Paul has taken half her supply of the vital liquid but, basically, she seems to get on OK.
I didn’t mention that Rick and his mother had hitched a ride into town so she could subtly try to persuade somebody she knows to help him into college. Klara describes how they all go to where Rick’s mother has arranged to meet the guy… which is in the street, outside a theatre where crowds and theatre types are gathering. It’s confusing enough for Karla’s visual processing to go into early Cubism mode: ‘now I was in their midst, their figures became more simplified, as if constructed out of cones and cylinders made from smooth card. Their clothes, for instance, were devoid of the usual creases and folds, and even their faces under the streetlight appeared to have been created by cleverly placing flat surfaces into complex arrangements to create a sense of contouring.’
This is all very picturesque, but what is it for? I don’t see Ishiguro taking us any further forward in our understanding of anybody’s perception and behaviour, whether human or artificial. In fact, Klara’s understanding of human interactions seems, if anything, to have improved as her visual processors have deteriorated. She is able to recount pretty accurately the way Rick makes a good impression on his mother’s friend—an old flame from 20-odd years ago, in fact—until his mother breaks the tacit rules and blatantly admits that yes, she is looking for favouritism from him. The question is, or might be, will this ruin Rick’s chances? The answer is… it doesn’t seem to matter. Rick decides not to apply to college and when, later, the ‘seasons—and the years’ have passed, he seems to be doing OK with his inventions without a formal education. Or maybe he isn’t. In another of those undeveloped stubs, the influential guy had asked Rick how he feels about his drone-based technology very possibly being used for covert surveillance. Rick seems uninterested in the question: ‘I’m sure, sir, there are all kinds of ethical issues. But in the end, it’s for legislators to decide….’
The way Ishiguro hints at certain dystopic possibilities, then drops them is fairly typical. Karla herself is an AI entity, and AI is clearly shown as a problematic feature of this world. This is true enough for one of the theatre employees to object to Karla as a possible member of the audience. ‘These are sought-after seats. They shouldn’t be taken by machines.’ This is the most pointed of any of the objections ever raised about the AFs, and… Ishiguro, as ever, fails to run with it. Karla’s narrative, somehow, doesn’t have the space for anything beyond her bland recounting of what was said, and by the time she has moved on, so has the reader. The idea that anti-AI prejudice might be a metaphor of something in our world doesn’t really arise… so what is it there for?
I’m starting to get bored now. Maybe Ishiguro is too, because he decides to resolve the problem of Josie’s health in the fairly short Part 5. Then there is a quick coda of her going off to university after, as in a later Toy Story, she has said goodbye to Karla forever. Before all this, Josie had seemed close to death, and Karla decides she needs to make a final effort with the Sun to get him to save her. So we get a scene of dramatic high-key lighting in which Karla visits the barn again, the last rays of the Sun streaming blindingly and almost horizontally through it. She apologises to the Sun for her earlier failure, and a subsequent day, which is overcast, is suddenly transformed by break in the clouds. Klara insists on opening the curtains and blinds in Josie’s room.
‘Rick seemed now somehow to have guessed what was occurring, but I was interested to observe how both the Mother and Melania Housekeeper seemed also to have grasped its essence. […] We watched and waited, and even when at one point the orange half-disc looked as if it might catch alight, none of us did anything. Then Josie stirred, and with squinting eyes, held a hand up in the air….’ Soon after, with the Sun still streaming in: ‘There was an obvious new strength to the way she’d manoeuvred herself.’
Karla has saved Josie’s life. Or she hasn’t, because Josie would have recovered anyway and to believe any different is absurd. Of course, this being the novel it is, there is only Karla’s version and the narrative doesn’t care at all what the reader thinks. We’ve only ever had her nearly-human-but-not-quite take on her experiences, and… I’m glad it’s over. In the Yard at the end of the novel, ‘Manager’ from the store comes along to see which of the old AFs are happily languishing in storage there. She and Karla speak affectionately for a while, Manager tells her enough for us to realise that AFs aren’t really a thing now, and Karla makes no comment. As Manager turns to go, all we get is Karla’s plainly delivered report on the departure. ‘She reached down to the metal crate she’d been sitting on, and dragged it back to its original position, making the same unpleasant noise….’ And so on, for a paragraph, as the woman leaves and doesn’t look back. She stops to gaze into the distance, then… ‘she continued to walk away.’
Me too. If this is an oblique meditation on the human condition, and I can’t think what on earth it might be otherwise, it’s too full of the background noise of an imperfectly realised alternative reality for any telling points to be made. I used to like what Ishiguro could do, and consider The Remains of the Day (1989) one of my favourite novels. Now, he never quite seems to hit the mark.