A fable in search of a great humane vision
Are humans unique? Tomorrow one of the greatest writers on this theme, Kazuo Ishiguro, will publish a new novel about artificial intelligence, human nature and the meaning of love.
On the edge of a field, Kathy and Tommy hold each other tightly, afraid to let go. They have grown up together, fallen in love and lost friends. Now, they know the awful truth about their lives and their future. And all they can do is stay close and savour the time they have left.
Never Let Me Go is a modern classic, a heartbreaking dystopian novel about a boarding school that prepares cloned students for a short life as organ donors. Its author is the internationally acclaimed Kazuo Ishiguro; renowned for writing stories of profound emotional depth and philosophical complexity, in a deceptively simple prose style.
And tomorrow he will publish the most highly anticipated book of 2021, his eighth novel: Klara and the Sun. Reviewers are already calling it a “masterpiece of great beauty”, a “devastating” and “dazzling genre-bending work” that fans of Never Let Me Go are certain to enjoy.
Klara is an AF, an “artificial friend”, bought from a shop window for 14-year-old Josie, a girl suffering from a mysterious terminal illness. Klara is programmed to “prevent loneliness” and befriend her human owners. Solar-powered, she believes the sun is “the source of everything good and nourishing” and she prays it will cure Josie’s sickness.
Ishiguro carefully uncovers his imagined world from the point-of-view of Klara. She learns about human behaviour, emotions and the terrible decisions adults have made for their children in this dystopian near-future.
AI is a fertile subject for science fiction. From Frankenstein to 2001: A Space Odyssey, we are haunted by the idea that humans will create intelligent life with a will of its own. As real-life AI becomes more powerful, anxiety grows that machines could replace humans and even threaten our survival.
But Ishiguro asks a different question. He tells strange stories in search of shared truths about human nature. “Good writing,” he says, “will break down barriers. We may even find a new idea, a great humane vision, around which to rally.” His books are often described as modern fables; not about butlers or buried giants, but about humanity. What unites us? Each novel asks this same question but explores a different possible answer.
In Never Let Me Go, to be human is to know that we will die. In the words of Kathy, “we all complete”. Ishiguro says this is not as sad or depressing as it sounds. He calls it his “cheerful novel”. Understanding that life is limited gives it value and encourages us to “care most about each other and setting things right”.
In his latest novel, Ishiguro turns his attention to the start of life. Klara loves and learns with the innocence of a child. “What can children know about genuine love?” she asks. Everything, suggests Ishiguro, as he unfurls an optimistic vision of human nature, with curiosity and love at its centre.
Are humans unique?
Here comes the sun
Some say no, even though we like to think we are. The more we learn about life, biology and psychology, the less mysterious and special we appear to be. Like computers, we are programmed by our genes and cells. Not only is it highly probable that there is intelligent life somewhere in the universe, but we are also developing computers that one day will be indistinguishable from humans.
Others say yes, even if we can’t say how. It may be consciousness, the ability to love or an awareness of our own mortality. It could be a combination of these things. What matters is the idea that we have a shared experience of being human and that we strive to communicate that common understanding through language, literature and art.
- Would you buy an artificial friend? Why or why not?
- What characteristic makes humans unique?
- Draw a picture of an artificial friend and describe its skills and abilities.
- Choose a book, film or TV programme that you think explores what it means to be human. Write a review explaining why it should be taught in school.
Some People Say...
“Stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?”Kazuo Ishiguro (1954 – ), British writer
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that philosophers have explored what it means to be human for thousands of years. According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, we are made in the image of God, making us unique in the universe. The scientific revolution, from the astronomy of Copernicus to Darwin’s theory of evolution, challenged this belief. But the idea that all humans share something in common, however hard to define, is a fundamental part of modern ethics and political philosophy.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate is around whether we will create something with intelligence or consciousness greater than our own. This is known as the technological singularity, a hypothetical point in the future when AI will overtake human intelligence. Despite being a popular idea in science fiction, many scientists argue that AI lacks the desires, motivation and agency of humans. However, the late Stephen Hawking warned that even so, AI “could spell the end of the human race”.
- Never Let Me Go
- The 2005 novel was turned into the 2010 film starring Keira Knightly.
- Kazuo Ishiguro
- The writer was born in Nagasaki, Japan, but moved to England in 1960 aged 5. He has written song lyrics and describes himself as a “failed musician”.
- The novel by Mary Shelley is sometimes called the first science fiction novel.
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
- The classic 1968 film features a sentient computer called HAL on a space flight to Jupiter. HAL malfunctions and turns against the human astronauts.
- Real-life AI
- Research predicts that automation will replace half of our current jobs within a decade.
- In Ishiguro’s 1989 novel The Remains of the Day, a butler reminisces about his long career at an English stately home. Ishiguro says “we are all butlers” in that we find meaning in our lives spent working diligently for others.
- Buried giants
- The Buried Giant is his 2015 fantasy novel set in medieval England. The peace between Britons and Saxons, and the love between an elderly couple, are held together by magical amnesia.
- The English mathematician Alan Turing (1912 - 1954) devised the imitation game to test whether a computer could convince a human that it was not a machine. This is now known as the Turing test.