Kazuo Ishiguro: A Dystopian Book in Dystopian TimesPosted by Cybil on March 2, 2021
Kazuo Ishiguro insists he’s an optimist about technology.
“I'm not one of these people who thinks it's going to come and destroy us,” he said in a recent interview. He rattled off a list of promising breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and genetics.
Still, it’s a surprising take from the author of Never Let Me Go, a deeply disturbing novel about human cloning.
What he fears, Ishiguro explained, is the devastating injustice that may result if society isn’t careful with scientific progress.
“We've all got to start to think and worry about these questions,” he said, “because at the moment, they’re in the hands of very, very few people.”
In his latest novel, Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro does just that, turning his focus to artificial intelligence. The story follows Klara, an intelligent robot known as an “artificial friend,” who joins a human family in a dystopian America.
It’s Ishiguro’s first novel since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. As with many of his previous works, the book doesn’t fit neatly into one genre but has elements of science fiction and also works as a coming-of-age tale.
Ishiguro spoke to Goodreads contributor Kerry Shaw in December about his latest work, his lockdown reading list, and his fears about the future. Their conversation has been edited.
Goodreads: When I finished this incredible book, I wished I could discuss it with my book club. And then I remembered I got to speak with you, which is perhaps better.
Kazuo Ishiguro: I’m not the same. I'm not the same as your book club. The author is not a very good person to quiz about a book. I try to avoid talking to authors about their books.
GR: Really? I imagine you have many author friends.
KI: I do, but we never talk about our books. Actually, we don't even know who's read which books. Maybe there's a different code amongst American writers? I've been writing here in Britain for decades now, and I have no idea which of my author friends has ever read me or not, because there's an understanding that you just don't mention such things. It's not polite conversation.
GR: OK, but one question that only you can answer is: What was on your mind when you wrote Klara and the Sun?
KI: There is usually one big thing behind each of my books and then a constellation of other little things. At the center was this question: What does it mean to love another human being, particularly in an age when we're questioning whether we can map out everything about a person through data and algorithms? It's that old question: Is there a soul? Maybe there isn't anything in there that's unique that can't be reproduced. Perhaps we are reducible to just data and algorithms.
Many of my other books have been about things like that. But the age we’re in, and the age we seem to be hurtling toward, made me look at that same question in a slightly different way.
GR: There are so many reasons to be wary of technology. Did you have a specific experience that made you want to explore these questions in a novel?
KI: I do have fears about technology and science, but on the whole, I'm an optimist. I think it's going to make many things possible: We're going to be free of the fear of many illnesses that kill us. Possibly we will have answers to other big questions, like how to organize capitalism in a way that doesn't create huge inequalities. It's possible that artificial intelligence and big data can help us with this. And it's possible that genetic technologies will open up a whole new world of medicine and healing, freeing us from so much sadness and pain.
I think we're much further toward that than a lot of people realize. There have been phenomenal breakthroughs in the last, say, ten years with CRISPR and with what's now called machine learning or reinforcement learning in AI. These are complete game changers.
However, while it's an exciting time, it's also a dangerous time. We've got some very big questions to solve that we can't leave to scientists or politicians, or to the people who run very wealthy corporations.
GR: What do you fear about technology?
KI: What I fear, looking back through history, is that we're going to make some of the hideous mistakes we made in the early parts of the Industrial Revolution: children working in mines, people dying in factories of terrible conditions. And we had people going to other, nonindustrialized countries to kidnap people, to work as slaves in order to get the Industrial Revolution going and to keep it going. I think we have to do everything possible not to make the same mistakes again.
GR: Do you feel like there’s enough enthusiasm for these ethical questions?
KI: At the moment, I don't think people are aware enough. But I'm not a big believer in people having moral debates around the dinner table. I am a big believer in those kinds of discussions happening through art, documentaries, novels, films—so that people actually engage these questions at an emotional level.
GR: Why did you set this book in America?
KI: I don't think it was because I thought there was something inherently dystopian about America. It was just a whim. I wanted American-style images. I wanted fields that looked like American fields, and I wanted the sun to be an American sky. I wanted it to be slightly Edward Hopper. And maybe there is a sense that America is the society at the moment, along with China, that's rapidly embracing new technology, new science, certainly new biotechnology, as well as computer science. And so it seemed appropriate.
GR: I know this book is set in the future, but some of it seems very contemporary, with this incredibly calcified class system.
KI: Well, that's explained by the dystopian world. It's a new caste system, created by the fact that it's become possible to “enhance” some children.
Once again, I'll say this is something that's already upon us. We have the ability to do this quite simply now, mainly because this technology, CRISPR, makes it very, very easy to gene edit. The scientist who thought he was going to become a world hero and Nobel Prize winner was promptly put in jail by Chinese authorities for having done this. At the moment, world over, people think it's not a good idea to do that kind of thing.
I think it's going to be very, very difficult for this not to end up like the cosmetic surgery industry, which started off as something to help burn victims or people who had been hideously disfigured. Of course, you can't really stop it from being an industry where rich people pay to look better.
Now that we have the possibility of making some children intellectually more capable in some ways, less prone to illnesses, more athletic, I think we are going to create a very dangerous kind of caste system. The traditional arguments about injustice are perhaps not going to be there, because you can always say these people are being given more opportunities and more privileges and more wealth on merit. And for the first time, we're going to have some scientific backing for ideas that in the past were considered racist.
GR: Were you critiquing a particular caste system?
KI: It wasn't so much a comment on any specific caste system, but a comment on every kind of caste system. Unfortunately, human beings have this propensity to see things in hierarchies and to find some distinguishing thing that says one group is entitled to more than another.
I didn't want to write a book about race in America or race in Europe or race anywhere else. Race often seems to be a marker of caste, but often it works in other ways. Most of the time I was growing up in Great Britain, Northern Ireland was in a civil war situation between Protestants and Catholics, who had the same skin color and spoke with the same accent. And we ended up with a situation where one group was oppressing the other, had a lot of political power, and the police power. We lived with bombings all the time because of that. The town where I grew up, two pubs were blown up and a lot of people died—the Guildford bombings. And so it's not just to do with color.
GR: I also wanted to ask you about winning the Nobel Prize. What was it like to find out that you'd won?
KI: It's quite surreal. The Nobel Prize is a strange thing in that it's incredibly secretive. Nobody can really intelligently predict who’s going to win. Also, I discovered they have a rule that, when they decide somebody should win the Nobel Prize, they don't announce it for a year in case they change their mind. My understanding is that I was given the Nobel Prize in the autumn of 2017, but they came to that decision in the autumn of 2016.
I had started the day like any other. I was sitting at the kitchen table around 10:30, writing an email to a friend. I was thinking of going upstairs and having a shower and washing my hair when the telephone rang. And it wasn't the Swedish Academy. I’d always heard there's this legendary call that comes from Sweden. It didn't happen to me.
I started to get calls from various people in London. My agent called and said, "We heard this live feed about the announcement. It sounded like you, but we're not quite sure because she had a Swedish accent. We’re just going to check up on it." And then, immediately, somebody from my publishing house called to say, "We think you've won a Nobel Prize." As soon as one call ended, the phone would ring again. And the third call was the BBC saying, "Could we come round with a film crew because you've won the Nobel Prize?”
That was the first time I thought, "Oh, perhaps it's true, then. It wasn't just people winding me up.”
I went back to my iPad and finished the email I was writing to a friend, an English guy who lives in China to say, "I've got to stop now. I have to finish this email because I seem to have won the Nobel Prize. I'll write to you again.” And I'd already written about a whole page of news and stuff. And then all mayhem broke loose.
GR: Not how you envisioned your day going!
KI: It was actually going to be a big day because my wife, Lorna, had been trying to decide about changing her hair color, and this had gone on for months. And she had decided that she would change her hair color. She'd made an appointment, gone to the hairdresser, and she was literally sitting there—they were mixing the colors—when she happened to look at her iPhone. And she saw this news flash come across. And she said, "Well, maybe I can't have my hair color change today, so I better find out what's going on."
Meanwhile, I was alone in the house and saw a line of camera crews outside. My wife came back and organized these people. And then eventually my agent and my publicist from the publishing house turned up, and we didn't know quite what to do. We put them all in the back garden and had a press conference.
GR: I love that.
KI: I didn't speak to anybody from Sweden for about two hours. And eventually, I phoned my mother, who was 91 years old. She's passed away now, but I'm very pleased that she lived to hear it. I got a call from my daughter, who was doing her master's at the university, who said, "It seems like you've won the Nobel Prize. My friends keep texting me to say you've won the Nobel Prize in Literature.” The whole thing is very surreal.
GR: What have you been reading?
KI: Lockdown slightly reset my reading habits. I actually read some very long books that I would not normally attempt. I reread War and Peace after 20 years, and it felt very different to me this time. And I have to say I didn't think it was as good. [Laughs.] Won't go there.... It's pretty good.
GR: Tolstoy won't read this.
KI: If I'd written it, I wouldn't complain. But I was stunned by how narrow the social milieu was. It’s supposed to be this massive book, with this huge cast of characters, but everybody comes from this very narrow sector of Russian aristocracy. Everybody is an aristocrat! It's panoramic in a visual sense: great scenes with huge battles. But peculiarly narrow and elitist, I would say. And the female characters are terrible. If I'm still around in 20 years' time, I'll read it again and see if it's changed.
I also read Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. I thought it was going to be one of these very upper-class things about posh English people. But actually, it's quite a radical modern experimental novel and a very interesting book.
But what I've been doing in the past six months—and maybe this is because of the way the world is, because of the U.S. elections, because of Brexit—I've just been reading nonfiction.
I've read many books about race in the U.S.: Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow; Caste by Isabel Wilkerson; Carol Sullivan's White Rage; Stony the Road by Henry Louis Gates Jr.; and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. I also read a very interesting book called Learning from the Germans. It’s by Susan Neiman, a Jewish woman who was brought up in the American South and then went to live in Germany.
I have also been reading more about big tech. Two very important books about the way the world is going at the moment are The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff. The other is by Rana Foroohar, the [Financial Times] journalist, called Don't Be Evil.
These aren't just attacks on high tech. You know, it's not about, Why don't they pay more taxes and why are they ruining our teenagers’ lives? It’s analyzing the fact that the richest corporations now earn money in a different way, which is they harvest data from us while giving us free services. And we have to respond to that as a society. We have got to protect ourselves from the extremes of capitalism. And I find that fascinating. I wasn't so aware of this when I was writing Klara. I've become much more aware now. Perhaps it is something to do with the way the world is.... I don't usually read so much nonfiction.
GR: Why have you been reading so much nonfiction?
KI: I guess it’s because you're locked into place and then this huge news keeps coming in: George Floyd; Trump as president; Britain, for some bizarre reason, decides to leave the European Union. And then this pandemic, which is kind of dystopian.... Not just the pandemic, but the fact that the international community doesn't seem to have an answer for it. We can't get our act together. We've just been shown to be childlike, both as individual nations and as an international community.
Suddenly you think, Well, there aren't any adults in this world. I always thought there were adults. And actually there aren't, we can't really handle things very well. I suppose it's a kind of emotional reaction. I want to read clever people's books who might be able to explain what's out there. Next time I go out there, I want to be safer.