Mimicking humanity

Simon Smart reviews Kazuo Ishiguro’s futuristic novel Klara and the Sun and what makes something human in the world of AI.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s futuristic novel Klara and the Sun has been on my mind in the lead up to Christmas.

Among many other things, this haunting story invites us to consider human nature in light of advances in technology: the promise that we can eventually supersede our physical limitations, the dream that we can replace all that hinders and decays.

The whole story is told from the perspective of Klara, an AF (artificial friend), a class of android employed to look after teenagers. Klara is purchased to care for Josie, one of the elites who’ve been “lifted”, or genetically improved and given access to the best educational opportunities.

But she is seriously ill, likely because of that process, and her parents are terrified she will succumb to her illness. Klara is there to emulate Josie to the extent she can “replace” her if that becomes necessary. Will it be enough?

There is a darkness in all this manipulation of what it is to be human and a desperation in characters convincing themselves that technology will be the means of our salvation. “The second Josie won’t be a copy,” implores a true believer. “She’ll be the exact same and you’ll have every right to love her just as you love Josie now.”

The pathos lies in the fact that, as technologically marvellous as she is, it’s clear that Klara won’t ever reach the depths of human emotion, memory, and complexity necessary to be Josie in any way that matters.

The Christmas message of the baby-divine offers an entirely different possibility. As cultural scholar Christopher Watkin reminds us, while we moderns “exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human” – perfectly bringing together the physical and the spiritual in a message of healing and hope.