It was appropriate that the afternoon sunlight was warming me as I finished reading Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. Sat on a large squishy couch in the Homerton Combination Room (a college lounge area that was once a gymnasium where PE teachers in training were taught how to teach others to climb ropes), the sun’s light was framed by the black frames of the French Doors leading out to the college’s wide grassy grounds. In this novel, Klara’s views of the sun are similar: it’s often seen just in part, framed through windows, or passing behind buildings, or coming down for a night’s rest in a barn far away across fields. I’ve never been much of a sun-worshipperall – I do tan pretty well, even if I’m usually library-pale – but I’ve known a fair few of them, even hanging out with some Pagan friends at Midwinter in the middle of Stonehenge to welcome the return of the Sun some years back. In Ishiguro’s novel, Klara is unusual as sun-worshippers go, being an AF. An artificial friend.
While Klara and the Sun leans more heavily on character than plot, I will summarise the story (with spoilers) before discussing Klara as a believing robot.
Klara is an artificial friend who is bought for a teenage girl, Josie, who has health issues and a lack of socialisation, as her school classes are primarily held online as most are in this near-future setting. At first, it is unclear what her health issues are. But Josie does warn Klara that there’s a chance she will not always be around to be with her. Klara moves to Josie’s countryside home from the shop, where brief glimpses of the Sun have powered her technology but left her scared of powering down in its absence. Klara can see the sun moving across the sky above rolling fields and seemingly disappearing into a distant barn. Conversations with Josie, her mother, and a local boy, Rick, make it clear that Josie has had something done to her that has had a long-term effect on her health: she has been ‘lifted’ – genetically modified to be more intelligent, and something has gone wrong, as it did with Sal, her deceased sister. Rick, with whom Josie is making long term romantic plans, has not been lifted like most children and is resigning himself to not being able to go to university. Josie’s mother seems to want to bond with Klara but also asks her to pretend to be Josie when they visit a waterfall together, a place special to Josie.
Klara travels to the barn and offers to help the Sun by destroying a machine that she believes is causing Pollution and blocking its power. She thinks she once saw a homeless man and his dog brought back to life by the Sun’s rays, and she hopes that the sun will work its healing power on Josie as well. Visits back to the city for Josie to sit for a portrait are revealed to be a part of a process of making a robotic copy of Josie – just as an accurate AF copy was once made of Sal, but Josie’s mother rejected it. This time though, Josie’s mother wants Klara to ‘be’ Josie inside the doll if Josie dies. On one visit, Klara comes along, and she manages to convince Josie’s father to help her find the polluting machine and destroy it. He tells her that some of the liquid in her head can damage the machine, and Klara makes the sacrifice, knowing that her cognitive abilities will be impaired. But Josie gets worse. Klara journeys to the barn again and reminds the sun of Josie and Rick’s love to convince it to help heal Josie. She seems close to death until suddenly dark clouds part and the Sun’s rays beam into her sickroom. Soon she is better, but she and Rick drift apart as she prepares to go to university. The story ends with Klara in a scrapyard, reliving memories but all alone. She is visited by the Manager of the shop where she once lived, who limps in the same way that Josie did.
The World-Building in Klara and the Sun is minimal along with the plot. There are a few hints as to how the world has been affected by the Lifted and the AFs: some comments in passing from characters about unemployment and replacement, the children’s lack of socialisation, the segregation of AF’s from human spaces such as the theatre, and the social pressure to ‘lift’ your child even with the risks. Ishiguro concentrates more on Klara and her inner workings and developing theologies. Of the AFs in the store where she is bought from, she is described as the most observant, even more so than those AFs of a later iteration. She observes how their human owners treat AFs, and fears being bought by an unsympathetic one. She also puts together the evidence that she has and comes to her beliefs about the Sun. It DOES indeed bring her life and animation, so why can’t it do the same for Josie.
Reading Klara and the Sun, I was reminded of Isaac Asimov’s 1941 short story, ‘Reason’, in which robots go through a similar deductive chain of thinking and become religious. Two robot experts, Donovan and Powell, are sent to Solar Station no.5 to oversee its robot workers and find that one of them, QT-1 (‘Cutie’), has begun to deny that humans made it:
Cutie gazed upon his long, supple fingers in an oddly human attitude of mystification, “It strikes me that there should be a more satisfactory explanation than that. For you to make me seems improbable.”
The Earthman laughed quite suddenly, “In Earth’s name, why?”
“Call it intuition. That’s all it is so far. But I intend to reason it out, though. A chain of valid reasoning can end only with the determination of truth, and I’ll stick till I get there.”
Cutie’s reasoning takes it to the position that the space station is all that there is and that its only logical creator cannot be the squishy fragile humans who claim to be Creators, but the Energy Convertor on the space station; the focus of both the humans’ and robots’ attention. When a solar storm threatens the transmission of solar energy to the planet and catastrophe, the humans are desperate to get Cutie, and its new robot followers among the rest of the machines, back on program. But it turns out that their religious faith drove them to perform even more optimally than before. This efficiency leads Powell to a pragmatic conclusion:
“We can’t let him continue this nitwit stuff about the Master.”
“Because whoever heard of such a damned thing? How are we going to trust him with the station, if he doesn’t believe in Earth?”
“Can he handle the station?”
“Then what’s the difference what he believes!” Powell spread his arms outward with a vague smile upon his face and tumbled backward onto the bed. He was asleep.
There are differences between Klara and Cutie’s belief systems. Cutie begins as a robotic Descartes, deducing the first principle that the only sure assumption he can make is that he exists (Descartes was himself mocked for turning humans into soulless robots with his separation of mind and body – mockery which included the apocryphal story of his own automata’ daughter’, which I used as the basis of my short story, And All the Automata of London Couldn’t). Klara begins with effects: the Sun powers her, the Sun brings back the homeless man and his dog; therefore the Sun can heal Josie. Moreover, no one else in Ishiguro’s novel appears to worship the Sun. In contrast, Cutie deduces that the Energy Convertor is the actual Creator and Master because it is the centre of both the humans’ and the robots’ attentions. Defining religious belief as that which we give attention to is a very modern secularist account of faith. It is apparent in other novels that consider the future directions of technology and faith, such as Dan Brown’s Origin, that suggests that we will form a religion around AI and the posthuman beings that emerge from it. Likewise, in Homo Deus Yuval Harari argues for the emerging faith of ‘Dataism’, as that to which we increasingly give attention. I am loathed to work with this definition of religion. It misses out on many other aspects of embodied lived religion and makes the root of faith simply ‘fanaticism’. While the boundaries of religion are always fluid, this kind of interpretation can also bring in many everyday foci of fans, and there’s still the concern that if everything is sacred, and if everything can be a religion, then nothing is (we might call this the Incredibles Argument for Religious Boundaries!).
The representation of Klara’s faith also has some flaws. Primarily, the implied primitiveness of her account of the world. The trope of the naïve robot exploring, and often misunderstanding, the world is a longstanding SF one; see Commander Data in Star Trek: Next Generation, Seven of Nine in Star Trek Voyager, or Cutie again. The role and duty of the human (Picard/Janeway/Donovan etc.) are to correct their misperceptions. The naïve believer crosses over with this trope here. The too simplistic theological thinking presented in this novel seems subject to the same colonialist othering and ‘primativising’ that the early anthropologists were guilty of when encountering indigenous cultures and then short-handing their faith for audiences back home. The narrative of the ‘natural history’ of religion (see David Hume in particular) and the ‘evolution’ of faith from primitive pluralistic representations and cosmologies to rational singular theisms was ‘proven’ by anthropologists travelling back in time to study the ‘simpler’ humans of indigenous cultures to reassure themselves and their societies that they were more ‘advanced’ (I’ve taken some of them out, but this sentence used so many scare quotes I almost broke the ‘ key on my laptop!). Of course, we are meant to think, Klara for all her technological sophistication, lacks the common rationality to know that the Sun is just the sun and cannot heal Josie. The huge coincidence of Klara’s liquid being capable of defeating the dread Pollution machine could have been an immersion-breaking plot contrivance. I think it is meant to seen by the reader as a placebo effect used by Josie’s father to leverage Klara’s magical thinking and appease her. The AF are primitive constructs, and the humans know that there is more going on than a miraculous healing.
Cutie gets to remain on the space station with his religious followers and live out his existence serving his ‘Creator’. Klara ends up in a rubbish dump, her memories intermixing so that the Manager becomes Josie. But she seems happy, and I wonder if this isn’t meant to show us that naivety and primitive belief leave us as content fools? Rick has the rationality and common sense to know that his and Josie’s love was real but wasn’t forever and has to explain that to Klara, taking on the recurring role of the much smarter human. And smartness (or common sense or rationality etc.) is knowing that magic isn’t real, love is fleeting, and that Klara’s sacrifice was unnecessary. Again, this novel seems to be on the same trajectory away from theological thinking towards secular thinking. Klara finds the home of the Sun in the barn, but we know that the sun doesn’t live in a barn – the author is winking at us because we humans know better. This moment takes me back to Stonehenge, and I’ve seen the barn compared to that monument. The Pagans I visited Stonehenge with weren’t robots (I’m pretty sure!), and they weren’t indigenous ‘primitives’ in far off lands. The assumed line of religious evolution from ‘simple’ beliefs based on natural effects to monotheisms (and onwards to secular rationalities) isn’t one way. Or perhaps even a line at all.
Terry Pratchett’s fantastic novel The Hogfather also considers our beliefs about the Sun and has something to add here. The story involves a race against time to save the life of an entity that can assure that the sun will continue to rise. But what if the heroes fail?
WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF YOU HADN’T SAVED HIM?
“Yes! The sun would have risen just the same, yes?”
“Oh, come on. You can’t expect me to believe that. It’s an astronomical fact.”
THE SUN WOULD NOT HAVE RISEN.
“Really? Then what would have happened, pray?”
A MERE BALL OF FLAMING GAS WOULD HAVE ILLUMINATED THE WORLD.
Pratchett argues in this same scene that we need to believe these little lies – the sun is more than just a ball of flaming gas – to be able to accept the big ones, “LIKE JUSTICE, MERCY, DUTY, THAT SORT OF THING”. Klara talks about wanting to understand human emotions, and perhaps in her anthropomorphisation of the Sun, she is on her way to understanding the big lies, like LOVE. By the end of the book, even if she is left alone in the dump, there’s a sense that she is content with having saved Josie, even if she is forgotten. Much in the way that Rick is okay with having loved Josie and her then moving on. Contrast this with Josie’s Mother’s failed attempts to hold on to first Sal and then Josie through their recreation in AF bodies. She has a belief in robots that will save her children.
Belief in robots in this novel works in two ways, then. There is Klara’s presentation as a believing robot, and there is the human populace’s belief in robots as being capable of certain things. However, there is not much sign in the World Building of Ishiguro that the humans have a teleological belief in robots as either necessary or eventually superior, as we often see in real-world narratives of tech progress. They are mainly shown as pet-like artificial friends rather than dominating society. The more dominant and culture altering technology is genetic modification, the ‘Lifting’ of children. Even the ordinarily ubiquitous tech monster – the mobile phone – is passed over without much comment as just the ‘oblongs’ used by the humans by Klara, and they do not dominate the narrative.
The first form of ‘belief in robots’, that of believing robots, also gets real-world discussion and is worth comment. In AI ethics discourse, the thinking about how we imbue AI with our values sometimes comes with commentary on the role of religion in our values. For ‘Western’ scholars, this requires contemplating what is commonly (although reductively) referred to as ‘Judeo-Christian’ values. Reference I also made to the values of other cultures, but also often with a reductive understanding of religions such as Shinto, Hinduism, Buddhism, where granular understandings are parsed into commentary on ‘animism’ that ignores ‘Western’ animisms. But more commonly the discussion skips over the religious context because cultural values are diverse, and instead focusses on what are thought to be commonly agreed secular humanist values assumed to be shared by the WEIRD (“Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic”) cultures (even though these can be just as diverse). The discussion on purposefully embedding a specific faith into robotic beings tends to remain the purview of SF – especially when it can be shown to go wrong in order to argue that religion is a destructive force (see ‘The Jesus Singularity’, which I have discussed in a post before).
Interestingly, Klara is not ‘given’ a faith. There is a moment right at the beginning where one of the other AF’s in the shop tries to make her feel bad for taking all of the Sun’s nourishment as a dark cloud passes its face, in essence encouraging her anthropomorphic tendencies, but he does not spell out what the Sun is and to have faith in. In Klara, as well as in Cutie, faith seems to come about from embodied experience of the world. Which raises the question of accidental believing robots and what that might mean for society. In ‘Reason’, the humans are worried Cutie’s faith will lead to an existential risk as the solar energy might be misdirected. But his faith directs the sun’s light successfully. Arguably, Klara’s faith directs the sun’s light to Josie to heal her, if we accept Klara’s interpretation of that event. With real world thinking machines, do we think we would encounter the same fortuitous ending if they developed beliefs? Would we be pragmatic like Powell and Josie’s Father or (rightly) afraid like the protagonist of ‘The Jesus Singularity’? All these stories demonstrate not simply how we believe robots will be, but can also tell us about how we understand the nature of belief itself.