The way we love now

14 March 2021 - 09:16 By and sue de groot

When he first began thinking about his latest novel, Kazuo Ishiguro imagined it as a children's book that would also be read by adults. But as Klara and the Sun began to take shape, he realised it would not be suitable for very small children. "I had in mind a story for very young children. Then at a certain point I realised it wasn't suitable for very young children, they'd be traumatised! It was just another one of my adult stories."

When he stops laughing, Ishiguro reflects more seriously on the character at the heart of his new book. Klara, a girl-shaped machine that learns, is the "artificial friend" to a human girl called Josie.

"Somewhere back there, Klara was not a robot," Ishiguro says of his early thoughts. "She was more like a teddy bear or a doll, like the protagonist in those picture story books for children who are five or six years old. I wanted to put in a lot of that atmosphere that you find in children's books. I wanted those bright colours, the sun in the sky. I wanted some of that atmosphere of hope, and also that kind of crazy child's logic, where because you only know a couple of things, you put two things together and come up with a kind of crazy conclusion, which is what Klara does quite a lot of the time, as she does with the sun.

"I love the kind of weird logic that's allowed in small children's books, that isn't permitted in older children's books, or in 'our' books as adults" - he grimaces disparagingly - "and I thought by having an AI creature I would be given that kind of permission; Klara would be able to have that kind of child's logic, which would be kind of sweet and optimistic, but at the same time she could be super-sophisticated as she comes to learn many things about the world.

"One of the reasons I like those children's books is because they seem to embody a kind of confusion on our part, on the part of adults. On the one hand, we really want to protect children from what's coming up later in their lives, so all those books, the way they're illustrated, the stories they tell, they say, 'Look, the world is nice, the world is kind; it's really friendly and you're going to really love it when you go out there.' But you can also see the other side, our wish to kind of warn them slightly, and not to lie to them. Even the children's stories that have been Disneyfied, if you go back to the original things like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, they were very dark."

'Very sad, but beautiful'

Born in Nagasaki in 1954, Ishiguro has lived in Britain since he was five - his father was a researcher at the UK's National Institute of Oceanography and Ishiguro attended a grammar school for boys in Surrey - but much of his work has been influenced by his heritage and those early years in Japan.

"I grew up with Japanese children's stories, which are not so much macabre as heartbreakingly sad. I don't know what the Japanese want to do to their children" - he has another long laugh - "but I can still remember these little children's stories. They are often very melancholy, very sad, but beautiful.

"So often, in the illustrations as much as in the stories, you can see this tension, you can see these little hints of a darker world, and little warnings to say, 'Oooh, yeah, there is sadness in this world, there is darkness, but don't worry, don't think about that now, it's lovely.'

"I find that tension very interesting, that you find in many books for children that age. And I wanted to put a lot of that into Klara's character and into the atmosphere of the book as a whole."

Speaking via Zoom from his London home (abstract art on the walls, drizzle outside, a piano in the far corner), Ishiguro speaks like the quintessential British gentleman, one who is reluctant to boast and who laughs softly and frequently.

He is fascinated by the world of artificial intelligence, but Klara and the Sun is not futuristic sci-fi, nor an exploration of robotics. Ishiguro has approached the subject differently from all the other novels that have touched on the topic in recent years. It is in essence about what makes us human.

In part the book raises the question of whether human beings are nothing more than data banks of stored memories and learnt responses, an idea shored up by all the current talk about algorithms.

Is that all we are?

"That's a question that has been raised not just by my novel," says Ishiguro. "It is in the air now, it's in the world, it is pushing at us in our everyday lives from every direction. Every time we go online or switch on a television, someone is recommending what we might want to be, and startlingly it is often correct. 'I DO want to see that - how did you know?'

"So I think in our everyday lives our idea of our uniqueness and our specialness is being challenged."

So is the concept of love.

Sun worship

"The book is very concerned about human love," says Ishiguro. "Does it make sense? It made sense in an era when we believed in a relationship between ourselves and some kind of god. Most religions seem to have this idea of a god and this invisible thing inside us having a very special relationship with that god, and the religion is based on that relationship in some kind of way.

"I've never been a religious person but I understand that. Part of that kind of thinking is hardwired into me. So I think a lot of the things we're discovering, or the opportunities that are opening up in the world of big data and technology and science, are slightly challenging that, and asking the question: is this just some kind of superstitious hangover we have from an older age and older beliefs?"

Klara, as the book's title suggests, sees the sun as a kind of god. Ishiguro originally meant this as a sort of joke, he says, because Klara is solar-powered, but it plays into many of his observations about children and adults and what we tell ourselves about the world.

"I am interested intrinsically in artificial intelligence but my interest in this novel, in Klara, was primarily in what she tells us about the human world. She has what seems to be a kind of ridiculous instinct: because she's solar-powered, right from the start she identifies the sun as the source of everything that is kind and powerful. She thinks it's this benevolent power that is watching not just over her but over everybody, including human beings.

"I think I intended Klara to be kind of a mirror of human beings, because she is learning. She starts off almost like a baby, a tabula rasa, and she's just learning very fast from what she observes and from human beings. I thought it would be apt that Klara would be some sort of distorted, weird, reflection of human beings and human impulses. I don't know how actually her particular form of artificial intelligence has been put together but there is obviously a human background to what's been put into her. So one of my interests in Klara was what she says about human beings, how she reflects our world of humans."

Ishiguro, who was knighted in 2019, does not like to be called "Sir Kazuo". He is similarly reluctant to accept praise for his extraordinary talent. He bridles at the suggestion that Klara's perspicacity and powers of observation might be a reflection of his own, a mirror of the writer who studies humanity.

"It's kind of flattering that you think writers are very good at observing," he laughs. "I'm not sure if I am, my wife is always saying things like, 'How on earth did you not notice that they were bickering the whole evening?' And I'll say, 'Oh, I thought they were getting on fine.' I'm not observant in that sense; I'm not even sure that writers in general are observant in the way Klara is required to be, but maybe we are given the privilege of having a little space in society. Those of us who are lucky enough are told: you go off into that corner and you have a good think about life and human beings, while the rest of us get on with all our busy tasks.

"I suppose in that sense I sometimes observe things that other people don't because they're too busy, and I've been given the full-time job of sitting in the corner to think about some things, but I'm not sure if the writer as such could be compared with Klara. I don't think there's any equivalent to that kind of penetrating intelligence that Klara has, where she can learn at an exponential rate."

Mother love

He does, however, think that in some ways the enchanting Klara resembles his mother, Shizuko Ishiguro, to whom the novel is dedicated.

"My mother passed away in 2019, just as I was finishing Klara and the Sun. I realised afterwards that there's quite a lot of my mother in Klara, I think. Mothers are almost like a programmed piece of AI when it comes to parenting. They're all doing the best they can for their child.

"My mother was like that. Because she was the generation she was, she gave up her job as a schoolteacher when she got married. I guess looking after her family was the primary thing, but she didn't look at it as a job. Her heart and soul went into this, right to the end.

"Klara has been created to look after teenagers and stop them from becoming lonely, and there's almost a relentlessness in the way Klara does everything to protect Josie or do the best thing for Josie. That's something I think I got from just observing my mother: this absolute determination that everything you do has to be to further this end."

The best books have multiple meanings attributed by their multiple readers, and in this tradition Ishiguro raises questions for the reader to pick away at rather than thumping any ideological soapbox.

"By a certain point Klara is able to interpret signals in human behaviour and conclude that this person is sad, this person is lonely, and so on, but does she really understand, and does she empathise with human emotion? Does she actually have human emotion herself?

"That's an open question for me. That's not something I'm sure about. I'm asking the reader to think about it.

"In a sense it goes to the heart of the novel, which is concerned in a very literal sense about whether an AI robot can replace an individual human being whom you love."


Observing, thinking, writing

After finishing school, Kazuo Ishiguro worked as a grouse-beater for Britain's Queen Mother at Balmoral before attending the University of Kent, where he studied English and philosophy. After graduating he worked as a social worker in London, then studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia. He has been a full-time writer since 1982.

His novels include A Pale View of Hills, An Artist of the Floating World, The Remains of the Day (which won the Booker prize for fiction), The Unconsoled, When We Were Orphans, Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant.

He has been awarded an OBE for services to literature by the British, the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French and the Order of the Rising Sun, gold and silver star, by the Japanese.

In 2017 he won the Nobel Prize for literature and in 2019 received a knighthood. 


Cutting edge

Emmanuelle Charpentier, left, and Jennifer Doudna.
Emmanuelle Charpentier, left, and Jennifer Doudna.
Image: Supplied

In Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro makes reference to gene editing (the book describes children who have been "lifted").

This area has received even more attention since Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were jointly awarded the 2020 Nobel prize in chemistry for their work in developing the Crispr/Cas9 "genetic scissors" that can minutely alter the DNA of living creatures and which might help to finally cure or even exterminate inherited diseases.

Ishiguro was interested in this and similar areas long before he began writing Klara and the Sun, and as exciting as he finds them he also sees the potential dangers.

"Both AI and genetic technologies give us enormous opportunities," he says. "I think we're already more or less there in terms of what is possible in my novel. I think we haven't quite woken up to how quickly breakthroughs have been arrived at on all these fronts, particularly in gene editing. There have been huge advances just in the last few years and possibly we will all wake up to the opportunities, but also to the huge dangers of what is now possible."

Jennifer Doudna in particular has been speaking very loudly and clearly about the need for us to talk as a society, not just the community of scientists but in the wider international community, before this thing gets out of hand, before the genie gets out of the bottle and we can't control it." 


SA director Oliver Hermanus.
SA director Oliver Hermanus.
Image: John Phillips/Getty Images

The SA connection

Ishiguro, who writes for the screen as well as the page, has recently written a film script based on Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's 1952 film Ikiru.

Retold in a British setting, the film Living will star Bill Nighy and will be directed by South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus who completed his master of arts degree at the London Film School.

Hermanus's graduation feature film, Shirley Adams (2009), won numerous awards, as did his subsequent films Beauty (2011), The Endless River (2015) and Moffie (2019).

"I think Oliver is a tremendous talent and I'm really looking forward to seeing what he does with this," says Ishiguro.

Filming is expected to begin in May. 

 


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