Klara and the Sun
I first saw this book in an email, in Dymocks newsletter in my ‘non-focused’ inbox. I like to think it was fate, given that I only sporadically check that inbox. But that day, I did. And the cover was what got me.
It was a sun moving through this square window but the side of the pages were printed in a way that looked like the moving through the pages. That image was imprinted in my mind.
Next time I was at Dymocks, I saw the book and got it (although not the limited edition, just good old paper back).
This book is a good old dystopian fiction, one of my favourite genres. My measure of whether I like a good dystopian is how intensely I binged it. For me a great dystopian is a page turner, a book that I want to finish in one breath. I’ll start in the afternoon and then keep reading into the evening (or morning) until I cannot keep my eyes open anymore. Then I would sleep and resume in the afternoon, holding my breath until I finish and close the book.
For Klara and the Sun, I held on to my breath for one and a half days, and that is why it will feature in Books that Broke Me.
The book is told through the perspective of a robot with artificial general intelligence (see the difference between narrow and general AI here https://codebots.com/artificial-intelligence/the-3-types-of-ai-is-the-third-even-possible), Klara, as she experiences this world with her friend, Miss Josie. My favourite part was the slow drip reveals, as Ishiguro describes Klara’s observations on the everyday in meticulous loving detail.
“Then the Coffee Cup Lady reached the RPO Building side, and she and the man were holding each other so tightly they were like one large person, and the Sun, noticing, was pouring his nourishment on them. I still couldn’t see the Coffee Cup Lady’s face, but the man had this eyes tightly shut, and I wasn’t sure if he was very happy or very upset…
…[The Manager said] “That must be it. They lost each other. And perhaps just now, just by chance, they found each other again” …
… ‘Sometimes,’ she [the Manger] said, ‘at special moments like that, people feel a pain alongside their happiness. I’m glad you watch everything so carefully, Klara.”
But sometimes, not matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t able to decipher what Klara described, such as the Cootings Machine.
“So when the Cootings Machine first arrived, I thought it might be a machine to fight Pollution, but Boy AF Rex said no, it was something specially designed to make more of it … The Cootings Machine — I named it that in my mind because it had ‘Cootings’ in big letters across its side — began with a high-pitched whine … But there were three short funnels protruding from its roof, and smoke began to come up out of them. At first the smoke came in little white puffs, then grew darker, till it no longer rose as separate cloud but as one think continuous one.”
It might have just been my lack of knowledge about the construction but after the I googled for a bit and did not find any machines that really fit my image of Klara’s Cootings Machine.
This made me think about perception and reality, which I think I sometimes take for granted. For example, for someone who has never witness a internal combustion engine car for the first time, it must be such a weird thing. A metal box with its four wheels and a couch, drinking black liquid to propel itself forward. It was so refreshing to restart from a blank slate and see everyday objects from Klara’s perspective and a starting point of zero.
This book reminded me of one of my favourite AI art pieces. As it asks a similar question, how does machines perceive us?
The perception engines collection used AI neural networks to observe real world objects and then created the computer’s representation of the these objects aka the computer’s perception. For example, here was the computational perception of an electric fan.
While the titular character is a machine and we experience the world through her perspective, like at many of Ishiguro’s books, at its core, it questions what makes us human.
Are there any intangibles that can’t be replicated by technology once it reaches a certain level? Maybe the soul? But once technology maps out our human existence, can the components of the soul also be created?
“Our generation still carry the old feelings. A part of us refuses to let go. The part that wants to keep believing there’s something unreachable inside each of us. Something that’s unique and won’t transfer. But there’s nothing like that, we know that now. You know that. For people our age it’s a hard one to let go.”
My favourite part of dystopian fictions, where in this make-belief setting, it asks these fundamental questions so real and at the core of everything we experience everyday. It lures you into a fantasy, a fiction, a make-believe world of the future, giving you a false sense of security. You think to yourself, ‘Yes, of course in this make belief world of sentient robots, it would be okay to ask what makes humans distinct from them?’
Then it’s too late, you are (or at least I was) already questioning my own humanity, asking myself what it means to be human.
“There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her.”
As I turned over the last page and closed the back cover, I finally breathed out, a breath I didn’t realise I was holding on to. On the surface nothing had changed, but inside, a question, with no answers, but a release, the perfect dystopian novel.
“Hope,’ he said. ‘Damn thing never leaves you alone.”
(Google, the future overload, please be good to me), until next time,