Klara and the Murderbot
by Mike Meyer ~ Honolulu ~ March 10, 2021
In the late 1950s, stretched out on the floor behind my bed on a winter afternoon, warmed by the heat duct, reading Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and others, I was in a private universe. This universe was small and special, made up of us who were enthralled by science fiction's first golden age, and it was ours.
That science fiction sixty years later would be both widespread as the foundation of popular entertainment and shaping us into a real future was unthinkable. After all, noir detectives were king, WWII adventures still played with romance added, and westerns were the lowest common denominator. Science fiction was fringe owned by my fellow middle and high school science kids.
I didn’t think I even knew there was a Nobel Prize in Literature all those years ago. That the previous year’s winner of that prize would follow up with a magical, sad, and whimsical science fiction novel about an Automated Friend without the slightest question defines our world.
I’m more concerned about this than the reading public in 2021, but that concern is some latent dismay at serious writers intruding on my private world. How dare they.
But our paradigms are all temporary, and I’ve gone through so many that the discomfort is fleeting while yet another brilliant new world expands us month by month. That two of my favorite authors write in Japanese, Haruki Murakami in Japan and Kazuo Ishiguro as British (English and Japanese), is important but only by indicating the diversity that we now must have to be real.
That both are most often defined as within the realm of Jorge Luis Borges’ and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magical realism is one of the many shades between fantasy and hard science fiction. The genres seem to multiply by the day, from space opera with military or romance leitmotif to fantasy with strong female leads with slow bun sexuality, the bedrock of apocalyptic disaster.
Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun carries his trademark whimsy in a subtle and profound exploration of sentience and unsustainability. The long history of robots as problematic people goes back to the earliest days of science fiction.
Limiting us to non-biological automation starts in 1907 with Lyman Frank Baum’s children’s novel Ozma of Oz with the Tin Man famous in the Wizard of Oz movie. The word “robot” did not appear until Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), written in 1920.
Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot is perhaps the most famous from that golden age of science fiction in the 1950s. He also invented Robbie the Robot as a friendly mechanical friend that seems a direct source for Ishiguro’s Klara and her fellow AFs.
Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics have become universal robotic standards that must be dealt with in any story featuring sentient technology. These are now dealing with more sophistication as the prevalence of independent, sentient technology becomes steadily closer.
Klara is very perceptive and sensitive, struggling to deal with her human’s illness and potential death, requiring her to act independently with responsibility for her machinations to save her owner. When does a sentient automaton assume moral actions against its own programming?
Ishiguro works through this by accepting Klara’s technical limitations but adding the sun as both a source of power for Klara and, as a logical result, a source of power that Klara can control for other magical purposes.
What do you do with a child’s toy when they leave for college? This is, I think, one of the most troubling questions that Ishiguro raises in this novel. Without going into detail, Klara as an AF is an elaborate play companion for teenagers who are lonely and need, incidentally, required physical, social interaction sessions in the novel's society.
All the other robotic novels assume a sentient automaton would be dealt with as a sentient being in chattel slavery. A key piece of the conflict in the story is obtaining the rights of humans. Ishiguro’s American midwest society deals with Klara as a very sophisticated appliance appreciated for years of service but with no more emotional bonding than an old car.
Unlike the range of robotic literature, I wonder if Ishiguro specifically targets radical American capitalism with no sustainability, hence the US midwest location. At another level, a major conflict is the few remaining children that are not ‘lifted’ for improved learning. This seems to have replaced racism producing the same oppression but with no reference to skin color.
An interesting comparison is Martha Wells’ Murderot Diaries. No whimsy here but a tough look at morals, ethics, and issues of a sentient robot struggling to find its meaning in, one can’t really say life, but existence.
We are fascinated by the life we are being transported into at a frightening and unacceptable speed to some people. Sentient systems, technical, mechanical, or combined, are central to that future. This is now far more certain than the arrival of intelligent alien beings. The last forty years have seen this change in our popular and, now, serious literature.
Our old problems will need to be dealt with by the new beings we raise into sentience. We can’t solve our own problems so they will come back to haunt us in our new roles. Perhaps we can hope for is some gentle whimsy as we fade away.