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Clara and the Sun: Why Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s New Novel Isn’t Really About Robots

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  • Elizaveta Podshivalova
  • For the Russian service of the BBC

Photo author, Getty Images

In April, the book “Clara and the Sun” by British writer Kazuo Ishiguro was published in Russian. Under the guise of science fiction about artificial intelligence, Ishiguro thought about what makes a person human.

“Clara and the Sun” was eagerly awaited by both critics and readers: it is Ishiguro’s first novel since the Nobel Prize in Literature, which can be a difficult test for any writer.

However, in 2017, the election of the Nobel Committee seemed to many even too safe.

The British’s literary career, even without an award, went very well: the Booker Prize and two adaptations of novels starring Hollywood stars. Ishiguro did not take part in political battles, and the standard accusations of opportunism – as it were with Svetlana Aleksievich or Olga Tokarchuk – It was difficult to present to the Nobel Prize winner.

Anti-utopia or fairy tale

The main heroine of Clara’s new novel is Artificial Girlfriend – a logical continuation of the current voice assistants, a robot friend for teenagers (adults no longer have such comrades-in-arms). From the store, she finds herself in the family of a girl named Josie, who suffers from an unknown disease, and is determined to save her.

Of all Ishiguro’s novels, this one clearly rhymes with “Don’t Let Me Go” (screened in 2010 starring Kira Knightley and Carrie Mulligan). The main characters there were clones, which were made for organ donation to ordinary people.

It is tempting to read both books as a reflection on the new ethical dilemmas that the future poses, or as a warning of the inevitable change in the social order. But it makes sense not to succumb to this temptation: Ishiguro’s world is deliberately ghostly, the main thing is in the minds of the heroes, which the British still prepares with unsurpassed care.

Photo author, Getty Images

Caption to the photo,

In Ishiguro’s novel, robots have become habitual participants in life and are not going to revolt at all

Ishiguro’s genre wrapper warns of nothing: as soon as you get used to the inevitable sense of injustice of the futuristic social order, you begin to see the same thing around you.

The reader only has time to resent – how can people humiliate a robot with personality and often with enviable perseverance treat him like a vacuum cleaner? And then the reality helpfully reminds that there is nothing specifically offensive to robots in this, because the people around are often treated in the same way.

And the answer to the question why robots (like the clones in “Don’t Let Me Go”) don’t even try to fight a completely inhumane system can be found by looking around.

“Many readers are indignant – why these clones do not rebel, do not run away? Why do they and society tolerate this inhuman transformation of man into a set of spare parts? which both victims and observers have long since reconciled, “wrote critic and translator Grigory Dashevsky of” Don’t Let Me Go. ”

Photo author, Getty Images

Caption to the photo,

Isiguro’s 2010 film Don’t Let Me Go with Carrie Mulligan and Kira Knightley raises the same questions about humanity and inhumanity as his new book

In Ishiguro’s latest novel, this is even clearer: we are much closer to these very observers – Josie’s family and their entourage, ordinary people who simply do not notice the inhumanity around.

Here you can find some trend of recent years: the feeling that if you want a person can turn into “normality” anything. And then Ishiguro’s new novel goes well, for example, with books such as Agustina Basterrica’s anti-utopia “Special Meat” (humanity had to exterminate all animals, and began to raise other people for food) or “Everyone Who Can Breathe” by Linor Goralik, where animals have gained the ability to talk.

Particularly powerful in this context is the episode where the question is discussed whether it is possible to “continue” a person in a robot, if he sufficiently studies his ward. And the heroes are inclined to think that it is probably possible, because there is no “spark of God” that is not available to the robot.

But no one is reversing the same concept – which means that a robot is no different from a human.

How to become a person

But it is the inhumanity of conditions that makes the reader think about what humanity is.

Photo author, Getty Images

Caption to the photo,

In 2017, Ishiguro received the Nobel Prize for books that reveal “the abyss under our illusory connection with the world.”

The answer to the question of what makes a person human is briefly stated by Josie’s father: “Hope. The damn thing will never leave you alone.”

If hope is nowhere to be found, one can only believe in the possibility of divine intervention.

Clara, who works on solar panels, believes that it is the Sun that can help Josie – if she prays and promises something in return.

The demonstrative irrationality of the robot, which seems to be the embodiment of reason – at first seems a little annoying, but towards the end of the novel becomes almost unbearable. Behind Clara’s calm and naive reasoning is a huge unspoken pain leading to self-deception and a willingness to completely renounce. And behind history itself is the eternal question of whether love and devotion can defeat death.

Ishiguro returns to all these topics throughout his career, highlighting them from different angles. His talent allows him to address issues of this magnitude without turning the story into a parable or a metaphor.

In the novel, the human heart is described as a strange house with rooms inside the rooms, going to infinity. So “Clara and the Sun” can be read as a beautiful story of childhood and devotion, and as an anti-utopia or as a metaphor for the human soul.

But these interpretations do not end the novel. This is what makes Ishiguro unique, and such a book was really worth waiting for six years.

Kazuo Ishiguro. Clara and the Sun.. Exmo, 2021.

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