"Is it science fiction?" I asked myself as I read the Nobel Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker Prize-longlisted novel, Klara and the Sun.
I ask myself this a lot these days, as more literary writers experiment with science fiction. A hardcore sci-fi fan friend scorns "the Atwood-Lessing bastardizations" (which I like) and recommends Ann Leckie and Philip K. Dick (whom I also like). But I can think of three award-winning English literary writers who have in the last few years tackled a timely SF trope, the future of A.I.
For instance, Ishiguro's stunning novel is told from the point of view of an Artificial Friend (AF). Klara is a loyal, intelligent robot who struggles to interpret the world with her electronic sensibility. In Frankissstein, longlisted for the Booker in 2019, Jeanette Winterson deftly interweaves a historical novella about Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, with the story of a transgender man in the future whose friend Dr. Victor Stein is frighteningly obsessed with artificial intelligence. 2019 also saw the publication of the Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan's Machines Like Me. (I have not yet read this.)
So is Klara and the Sun Booker-worthy? At first I wondered, but it grew on me. This deceptively simple novel begins quietly and turns into a page-turner and then a tear-jerker (and I mean that in the best possible way). Like an animated mannequin, Klara sits in the window of the AF store and watches the path of the sun - she runs on solar power. She is not the newest model of AF: customers admire her but do not buy her. Finally she bonds with a customer, a sickly girl names Josie, who thinks Klara is "cute" and persuades her reluctant mother to buy her. The mother is apprehensive about having an Artificial Friend in their house, but Klara proves her worth by her dedicated care of Josie. And she is willing to sacrifice everything to save Josie's health - even to the point of destroying a machine which causes air pollution. (Artificial friend as eco-terrorist?)
Ishiguro's style is pitch-perfect but unobtrusive. It's not the wildly poetic prose we might expect of a Booker contender. And yet it is the perfect style to reveal Klara's sentience. I will never forget Klara, and yes, I was a wreck at the end. I don't know the other books on the longlist, but I wouldn't mind seeing Ishiguro get his second Booker win.
So dare I share this book with my sci-fi fan friend? I'm thinking about it. Still thinking.