The convention of this interview format is to spend TIME With the subject, but with the U.K. in lockdown, physical proximity is impossible. So over a recent video call with Kazuo Ishiguro, we ponder where we might meet were it possible. The Nobel literature laureate’s new novel, Klara and the Sun, centers around artificial intelligence — so perhaps, I venture, we could imagine we are having a coffee in the headquarters of DeepMind, the A.I. pioneers based in London. “Yes, I’ve been there actually,” Ishiguro says, from his London home. He was invited to be the “creative one” in a meeting about A.I. and its potential, but recalls feeling a little out of his depth among the programmers and the technical whizzes. We’ll stick to the lobby then, perhaps.
Even over video chat, Ishiguro, or “Ish” as he introduces himself, is charming and self-effacing company. Given his accomplishments, a little more self-grandiosity might be expected — a Booker Prize winner at the age of 34 for his novel The Remains of the Day (1989), he has honorary degrees from a league table of universities, and was placed in literature’s highest pantheon by the Nobel committee in 2017. But even so he cheerfully admits he “can’t write in the third person,” and says he finds it hardest of all to “write like myself.”
The eponymous narrator of Klara and the Sun is unlike any of Ishiguro’s previous narrators in that she is not human. Instead, she is an AF or “artificial friend,” a robotic being resembling a human child, designed to comfort lonely children. The novel, which is set in the United States at some undetermined point in the future, follows Klara throughout almost her entire life-cycle from the shop floor to life with her adopted family to her eventual “slow fade.” Quite a leap of imagination to embody a robot, I suggest. “The narrator is very different from me, but that’s really part of my technique,” he says. “A lot of my effects come from how the narrator experiences the world, framed within the limitations of their perspective.”
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Ishiguro’s narrators typically look backwards, over lives steeped in self-deception, regret, or errors still unatoned for. The butler, Stevens, in The Remains of the Day recalls his pride at his life of service, but reveals that he missed the chance for love. Kathy in Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro’s 2005 dystopian novel about clones who exist to donate organs to others, is coming to terms with all that she has lost. Klara, by contrast, is a “tabula rasa” at the novel’s beginning and mainly looks forward, Ishiguro says. “She really has a child’s perspective. She sees things that we don’t, and is learning how to become a human.”
The novel initially began life as a children’s story. Ishiguro wanted to create a book for 5 or 6-year-olds with bright illustrations and a simple narrative. Klara was to be a “doll-type figure, or a small animal.” He shared the idea with his daughter Naomi, who was then working in a bookstore. “She said, no way,” he says. “You cannot tell this story to children, you would traumatize them.”
Klara and the Sun does go to some dark places. Through Klara’s eyes, we are shown a near-future world where emerging technologies like A.I. and gene-editing have transformed and divided society; in which certain children are “lifted,” a risky procedure that can heighten intelligence but has deleterious side-effects; in which some jobs have seemingly been made redundant by machines.
Despite all this, Ishiguro says he is optimistic about the technological revolution coming down the line, and says he finds A.I. “alarming and exciting at the same time.” He believes a future is coming in which machines might compete with novelists, and perhaps surpass them. “It’s not just that A.I. might produce a novel that you can’t distinguish from an Ian McEwan novel. It’s that I think it might produce a new kind of literature, like the way modernism transformed the novel. Because A.I. does see things in a different way.”
He’s remarkably sanguine about the idea of being replaced. “In terms of literature, I think people like me have been sitting and occupying these positions for too long. Until we move aside, it’s going to be quite difficult for younger people to step up.” He notes, with pride, that his daughter Naomi is publishing her first novel shortly after his.
In his Nobel lecture in 2017, he described himself — with characteristic self-effacement — as a “tired author, from an intellectually tired generation,” and questioned whether he had anything left in him to offer younger generations. Winning the prize itself didn’t help, he says now. “The thing about the Nobel is, it’s like a lifetime achievement award. Nobody expects you to publish anything after winning it.” He found himself looking at what his fellow laureates had produced after the award. “You begin to think — well, what if this is my last book? Do I need to make a late career statement?”
He put his mind at rest by looking at rock musicians of around his vintage, he says. You have the likes of Neil Young and the Rolling Stones, “doing what they always did, pretty much.” Then you have someone like Bob Dylan, one of Ishiguro’s heroes, who is constantly reinventing himself and trying out new things. Dylan’s 1997 album Time Out of Mind was a particular inspiration, he says. “It was the first time I was aware of someone creating art that embraces the idea of getting old.”
If Klara and the Sun does end up being a late career statement, what would it say? It can be read as a kind of companion piece to Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro says. “To some extent as a writer you’re always in dialogue with your earlier books, in terms of the emotions and atmospherics. Part of me wanted to reply to Never Let Me Go, which is a very sad book. It’s not pessimistic exactly, but it’s very sad. So I wanted to reply to that vision.”
And despite the dystopian backdrop, Klara has a slightly more optimistic story at its core, about a central character who is learning about human nature, and what she can and cannot replicate as an automaton. Unlike many of Ishiguro’s other narrators she succeeds in her primary goal, which is to stop her child from being lonely. “I wanted to focus on celebrating the things worth celebrating about human nature,” he says. “As a writer that’s a more positive experience for me.”