Klara and the Sun

Kazuo Ishiguro’s futuristic novel Klara and the Sun may not be that far into the future; Ishiguro says his story is not so much futuristic as it is “a distorted view of our present.”

Klara is an AF, acronym for Artificial Friend, with the brains of Watson and the empathy of Oprah.  Klara is not the latest model AF, but is unique with her amazing observational qualities, giving her the ability to connect with her new owner, Josie.

Ishiguro eerily includes details echoing modern day.  Josie is a fourteen year old who uses an oblong – not too different from an iPad or Iphone – to log on to online lessons and connect with friends.  Her health issues seem to have been caused by her mother’s desire to have her daughter “uplifted,” a possible gene altering operation to provide a more competitive brain (today some students dangerously use Adderall to uplift their brains before tests). The world has other predictive qualities:  Artificial Intelligence robots taking over jobs, pollution spewing machines contaminating the air, and major divisions in the haves and have nots.

The winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, Ishiguro was born in Japan and educated in Britain.  Fluent in both Japanese and English, Ishiguro’s language in this novel sometimes seems translated, adding flavor to characters in the novel, especially Klara, giving them a nonhuman quality.  Nevertheless, Klara may be at heart more human than her handlers.

As the story evolves, characters change in their motivations, sometimes in nefarious ways. Josie’s mother has made a deal to clone her daughter in the event of her death, and the clone creator confirms he believes “Our generation … wants to keep believing there’s something unreachable inside each of us. Something that’s unique and won’t transfer. But there’s nothing like that, we know now.”

Klara, however,  is sure there is more to being human than replication, no matter how ingenious, and she is determined to save, not replace Josie.

Klara’s cells are solar energized, so she already has a special relationship with the sun, but Ishiguro creates a magical and almost religious connection for Klara with the Sun.  Have you ever made a deal with higher beings, promising something in exchange for a better outcome?  I’ll stop smoking, if only you’ll let my dog live; I’ll change my diet, if only you’ll let my cholesterol fall back down…  Klara makes a deal with the Sun, and is willing to sacrifice herself to make Josie better.  If she can make the right offering to the sun, he might be able to heal Josie.

As Klara “fades away’ in the end, Ishiguru reframes the question of what makes a person who they are, and reminds the reader how magical it is to be alive and loved.

Goodbye for Now by Laurie Frankel

Laurie Frankel’s Goodbye for Now suggests that coping with death in the electronic age might be the next available computer application.    In a modern adaptation of Love Story, Frankel uses today’s obsession with the cyber world and its possibilities to craft a touching story, while addressing the issues that the impersonalization of electronic communication creates.

After Sam Elling designs the perfect computer match dating scheme, he loses his job at the dot com headquarters – seems the company only makes money when the participants keep returning. Sam’s programming is too perfect, and the couples using Sam’s algorithm match so well, they don’t need to try again.

Sam soon applies his skill to helping his girlfriend, Meredith, overcome her grief when her grandmother dies suddenly.  With his programming of the grandmother’s old emails and Skype connections, Sam has her respond to a goodbye letter that Meredith created to assuage her feelings of loss.  Soon, he has them connecting by video chat, and a new business is born – RePose.  Meredith and Sam suddenly find themselves the CEO’s of a new company that offers communication with dead loved ones.  Of course, the simulation is not real, and the program can only use information supplied by emails and other electronic communication the client has had with the living person.

Though you may cringe at first at Sam’s use of artificial intelligence to create contact with a replication of someone who is dead, the story soon becomes a fascinating examination of the magic of computers – and their limitations.

Related Post:  Elementary My Dear Watson

The Fear Index

Although the IBM computer, Watson, made humorous mistakes when competing with two humans on the television show Jeopardy, Watson still won the game.  In Robert Harris’ mystery thriller, The Fear Index, the stakes are higher, and who has the real intelligence is questionable.

Dr. Alan Hoffmann has traded up from his job as a physicist working on creating artificial intelligence to organize the data from the Large Hadron Collider to owning a hedge fund company that uses algorithms based on fear to predict market values that “thrive on panic.”  It was a good move; he is now worth billions.

Hoffmann’s story opens with a burglary at his entry-proof mansion, and accelerates quickly into a nightmare of alienating his wife, losing control of his company, and perhaps his mind.  As he faces each new fear, he frantically tries to uncover if he has been the mad man behind them, or if the computer program he created is the mastermind.

“Fear of the intruder in the night. Fear of assault and violation. Fear of illness. Fear of madness. Fear of loneliness. Fear of being trapped in a burning building…”

The recent financial crisis across the world markets becomes an important character, with Harris referencing real events.  But more than the compelling thrill of the action, Harris offers a cautionary commentary on the role of corporations and the evolution of computers –  turning over decision-making to the “cloud” could be dangerous.

The action is fast and furious; I read the book in one sitting.