Book review – “Klara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro

I don’t buy very many hardback books, hardly ever in fact until I started this blog, tending to find them cumbersome and too heavy for a handbag. Most of my reading now, however, is done at home rather than on the fly and I find I enjoy the weight and feel of a hardback and the better quality paper. Perhaps that is also down to my age! There are just some books that are more of an event though – Hamnet, The Mirror and the Light and The Testaments come to mind – and simply deserve the gravitas of the hardback format. Klara and the Sun by literary giant Kazuo Ishiguro is one such book. Plus I just couldn’t wait for the paperback! There was great fanfare about its release on 2 March; a whole episode of Alan Yentob’s BBC arts programme Imagine was devoted to the author, and I was delighted to watch a Manchester International Festival online event where Ishiguro was interviewed by fellow writer and poet Jackie Kay. Kazuo Ishiguro comes across as such a lovely man – confident but humble, respectful and measured, subtly charming. And someone who it would not be too scary to meet, I suspect.

Klara and the Sun is Ishiguro’s eighth novel (in a forty year career), proving that you don’t have to be prolific to be great; he has won just about every major literary award going, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. I knew that Artificial Intelligence was the subject of the novel and knowing that Ishiguro is never afraid to try out new things, I feared this would be a ‘dystopian future’ book – not the kind of book I tend to enjoy. It is not such a book, however. Rather, it is an exploration of what it means to be human.

Klara is an “AF” – Ishiguro leaves us to work out what this stands for – an AI robot produced for the specific purpose of acting as a companion to young people. The pre-supposition here is that human beings have reached a point of evolution where teenagers need a robot to accompany them at this stage in her life. We first meet Klara when she is in a shop window, waiting to be purchased. Poor Klara always seems to be overlooked in favour of newer models, despite the special qualities that the shop’s manager believes she possesses. From her vantage point in the shop, Klara watches the sun each day, its rising and setting and computes that it has special powers. For Klara the sun is almost god-like; a futuristic AI robot that sees the sun in a similar way to some of our ancient ancestors. Klara is also given energy by the sun – her batteries are solar.

Klara is eventually chosen by a young girl, Josie. Josie and her mother take Klara away to their home outside the city in an isolated rural setting and Klara is at last given her task. It is interesting how the reader gets drawn into having feelings about Klara. Klara is the narrator and we see the world through her rather childlike eyes, except she is not childlike; there are just some bits of data she has not processed and stored yet. But it is hard not to feel for Klara when, for example, the maid at Josie’s house is suspicious and a little hostile towards her, perhaps because she fears for her own job. And when Klara stands silently in the corner with her back to the room because her presence is not required we cannot help but see her like the child who has been left out. Klara is not human and yet she is the closest thing to it.

It soon becomes apparent that Josie has special needs. She has a kind of ‘elevated’ academic status which seems to mean that her parents have given her some sort of treatment which means that she receives a different kind of education to children who have not had this done to them. One such child is Rick, Josie’s nearest neighbour and childhood best friend. It is clear that Rick’s mother would never be able to afford the special status that Josie and her peers have and so his chances of succeeding academically and professionally are slim. The reader can see that there is a very short hop between this world and the selective nature of modern education we have in real life (both as a matter of policy and a matter of social determinism), and indeed between this world and Huxley’s Brave New World. A warning has been fired across our bows here.

In order to attain this special status, however, something had to be done to Josie (we are not told exactly what) and this has put her in some danger – for parents, the decision whether to give their child an academic leg-up is not risk-free. Hmm. Klara is capable of some rudimentary feelings and feels protective and fond of Josie. When she realises that Josie’s life may be in danger, she sets about trying to save her, utilising the sun’s enrgy. What Klara has not worked out, however, is how this AF is being groomed for something very different altogether.

The plot of this novel is pure genius and Ishiguro has conjured some contemporary themes out of a futuristic premise. What he has also done, very cleverly, is create a world that does not seem very different to our own and yet presents some prospects that we should take care we don’t stumble into. AI is a fact of our present life and will be a fact of our future. Stephen Hawking believed we should be careful as it had the potential to be the “worst event” in human civilisation. It is not clear which side Ishiguro comes down on, indeed, Klara is one of the most likeable characters in the book, but perhaps that is the point; it is not necessarily what AI will become that is the threat, but what it will cost us in human terms to get there.

A brilliant, engaging, complex novel, I recommend this highly.

Kids book review: “Tin” by Padraig Kenny

Tin is a debut children’s novel from Irish writer Padraig Kenny which is receiving a lot of publicity and has had some really good reviews. It’s set in pre-War Britain, and concerns the production of highly sophisticated robots (‘mechanicals’). Parts of the book take place in central London and the English home counties, other parts in the dreadful dystopian setting of Ironhaven, an ugly metallic landscape populated by  junk, by discarded and disfigured ‘mechanicals’ and by fearsome robots designed to terrorise. As such it is somewhat timeless and placeless. Reading it, I was struck by similarities to 1984, to Frankenstein (which strangely enough, I reviewed recently), to Oliver Twist, to dystopian fantasy as well as the Wizard of Oz! Most readers will be in the 9-12 age group, though, so may have little knowledge of these references.

Tin imgThe story begins near Aylesbury where the spivvy disgraced engineer Dr Absolom is trying to sell ‘mechanicals’. These are child robots which were initially created to perform tasks that society no longer wanted humans to do. We learn some vague details about how the experiment got out of hand when some rogue scientists tried to instil their creations with a soul. This was considered a step too far and laws were put in place to limit the capabilities of these creations, and, in particular, to forbid the building of adult-sized mechanicals. The environment we are observing, however, appears somewhat lawless, and it is clear that Absolom is operating on the margins and that there is a black market in mechanicals.

The main characters at this stage are the ‘child’ mechanicals Jack, Round Rob and Gripper, the slightly uncategorised Estelle (who works for Absolom as a specialist in making skin) and Christopher who believes himself a human orphan. Late one evening Christopher is involved in an accident which breaks his skin and reveals wires – he is not a human child, but a particularly sophisticated mechanical. He is later kidnapped by some rather shady officers from ‘The Agency’. They are merely masquerading as the authorities, however, and are in fact operating on behalf of Richard Blake, son of one of the rogue scientists, the egotistical bully Charles Blake, who was involved in illegal activity in the experiments he conducted. He is keen to get hold of Christopher who, it turns out, is the only remaining example of ‘Refined Propulsion’ – a mechanical with a soul – and to take over the world with his own giant robotic creations.

Meanwhile, Absolom’s small band of misfit mechanicals decide they must go in search of Christopher and rescue him. They seek out Richard Cormier, another one of the famous rogue scientists, for help. When they find him, however, he is hostile and uncooperative. He is an angry and disillusioned man who wants no part in society. We later learn that he lost his son in the Great War and then later his only grandson; it was in fact he who created Christopher out of grief, as a replacement for the lost child. He instilled him with memories that his grandson would have had.

The story takes the form of a quest – a group going in search of their lost friend – and the setbacks they face along the way. At the heart of it is their love for their friend, and this challenges the notion that the mechanicals do not have a ‘soul’ or feelings, because, clearly, it is their anger at his kidnap and their desire to rescue him that motivates their search. There is action and adventure, some mild peril (the sinister scientists reminded me of Dr Strangelove!) but nothing that should trouble the average ten year-old too much. Younger readers might need some guidance. The plot is quite complicated in parts and I did not always follow it easily, and some of the language of mechanics could be off-putting to some readers. It is ultimately a heart-warming story with a happy ending – good triumphs and evil is defeated.

It’s a wonderful achievement for a debut novel and I commend the author. I also like that it is not obviously a ‘boy’s book’ or a ‘girl’s book’, it will appeal to both genders and has strong male and female characters (as well as non-gender-specific mechanical characters). My only criticism would be that there are no adult females to counter the rather domineering male scientists!

Recommended for 9-12 year olds, a good and engaging read. There are some interesting references for the adults to enjoy too: Blake at times reminds us of a certain American President (he wants to “Make this nation great again”), and it raises issues around AI and the nature of warfare.

Do you find it more enjoyable to have references or jokes that are especially for the grown-ups when you read books with your kids?

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Kids book review: “The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare” by Zillah Bethel

The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare imgThis book is set in a familiar country (England) but in a future time where life has changed and the world is very different: bus journeys cost hundreds of pounds, many routine tasks and jobs are carried out (not very well) by robots and everyone carries a QWERTY, which it seems is some next generation pocket computer. Auden Dare is an eleven year-old school boy who lives with his mother in Forest Gate in east London. When we first meet him we learn that his father is away fighting in the war in Europe. Climate change has taken hold and water is scarce. Indeed, water, or the lack of it, seems to be the root cause of the conflict in which Auden’s father is involved. Auden has a condition called achromatopsia, which means he is unable to see colours, only shades of grey.

Auden and his mother move to Cambridge when Auden’s uncle, Dr Jonah Bloom, his mother’s brother and a brilliant scientist, dies and leaves them his cottage. She sees it as an opportunity for them to make a fresh start. When they arrive at the cottage, however, they find that it has been ransacked, as have his rooms at Trinity College, where he worked. It is clear that there is something amiss. Auden makes a friend at his new school, Vivi, who, it turns out, also knew Dr Bloom very well. The two young people decide there is something suspicious about Jonah Bloom’s death and set about to uncover the mystery.

Very soon Auden and Vivi discover that Dr Bloom had invented a robot, Paragon, which they find in a secret chamber underneath the garden shed in the cottage garden. Initially, Auden believes that his uncle was in the process of inventing a machine that would enable Auden to see in full colour. However, it turns out that the robot, in fact, has a much higher purpose.

This book is part adventure story, part mystery and has all the usual tropes you would expect from a children’s book of that nature: a brave and bold character in Auden, a brilliant female mind in the form of Vivi, an external threat in the form of the Water Allocation Board, which also wants to get hold of Dr Bloom’s work and in particular the robot Paragon, and a race against time, with moments of high tension. There are underlying themes here around the power of friendship to overcome adversity and how individuals can take control of their own lives and defy the destiny society has decided for them. It is also about taking a stand and doing the right thing.

As a rule of thumb, kids like reading books about characters who are slightly older than them; Auden is 11, but I would say this is a book for 10-12 year olds, rather than 9-11s. For a start it’s quite long and the plot is at times quite complex. Also, some of the themes may be quite challenging for younger readers, for example, the vision of the future, a kind of police state where the head of the Water Allocation Board is hostile and threatening. There is also the suggestion that Dr Jonah Bloom has been illegally murdered by the state and that Auden’s father has been wrongfully imprisoned by a corrupt military authority. Echoes of 1984!

Spoiler alert….

Also, the robot, Paragon, who develops a strong personality and whom Auden grows to love, ‘dies’ when he self-destructs after fulfilling his purpose as a rainmaking machine. Younger children might find some aspects of the book challenging or unsettling.

In places it is really funny; it reminded me a little of Time-travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford, so kids who enjoyed that book might like this one too (although for me it’s not quite as good or as well-written).

Recommended for 10-12 year olds who like an adventure mystery and can cope with some threat.

If you or your children have read this book, do you agree with my thoughts about the reading age?

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