Famous English novelists tackle AI

Klara and the Sun
By Kazuo Ishiguro
320 pp. Knopf. $28.

Machines Like Me
By Ian McEwan
352 pp. Anchor Books. $16.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro/Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

Yes, in what is a first for me, I’ve decided to review two books together. I usually hate book reviews that tackle two books. Why, after all, do I want to read a review of two different books when I’m on this page specifically due to my interest in one? But on the surface there are so many similarities between these two books — both are written by famous English authors, both take on the topic of artificial intelligence, both are relatively recent and I ultimately rated both similarly — that it felt appropriate.

I’ve had Machines Like Me on my shelf for some time and when “Klara and the Sun” came out, earlier this month, I decided that I may as well read both now. Think of it as a famous English novelists’ edition of “Who Does It Better?” — this one on the topic of AI.

Topic and the nationality of each writer aside, though, these books are actually quite different and there were many times in which my feelings about them were totally at odds.

Where “Klara and the Sun” soars — largely in its setup and general execution — “Machines Like Me” sputters. What I disliked about “Klara and the Sun” (the ending, for one) was exactly what I did like about “Machines Like Me.”

“Klara and the Sun” is told entirely from the perspective of Klara, an “AF” or “Artificial Friend.” Klara is a kindhearted AF designed to function as a companion for a child. Klara finds herself adopted by Josie, a kindly youngster with some unspecified ailment that we’re led to believe early on is likely to prove fatal.

Josie’s mother, referred to as “Mother,” is a character whose ultimate intentions are long hidden from us. Does her icy exterior conceal something sinister, or is she emotionally withdrawn merely as a result of her daughter’s illness?

We never get a full description of Klara, but I imagined her as a sort of 3-foot high Chatty Cathy doll with robot intelligence and genuinely good intentions. There is a point in the story where Klara is presented with an opportunity for a, well, promotion of sorts, but that such a promotion would come at the expense of Klara’s programmed love for Josie means the moment is devoid of any real suspense.

McEwan’s “Machines Like Me” is told entirely from the perspective of Charlie Friend, a rather unlikable fellow whose day job consists of just lounging around on his computer all day, buying and moving stocks (or something) in lieu of an actual job.

Charlie struck me as a rejected Houellebecq protagonist. A sad sack sort of character who, unlike Houellebecq’s male protagonists, is just unaware of how truly sad and pathetic he is — which makes him even more unlikable.

Charlie spends 86,000 pounds — gleaned from the death of his mother and the sale of the family home — to buy an “Adam,” the first “artificial human.” There were only 12 Adams and 13 Eves produced, and Charlie tells us that he had originally wanted an Eve for what, we can only presume, were sexual purposes. But the 13 Eves were sold out by the end of the first week, leaving Charlie with no choice but to spend the money he could have spent on a nice flat in Notting Hill (his words) on an Adam instead.

Already, on page 2, Charlie is regretting his decision, and he voices many more regrets from there. Far too many, if you ask me. That Charlie initially finds no purpose for Adam other than having him do the dishes and clean his shabby little apartment feels like the greatest waste of artificial intelligence since Rosie was made to take out the laundry in “The Jetsons.”

Charlie’s real purpose for Adam, it would seem, is to impress his 22-year-old crush, Miranda, who lives upstairs. We get a pretty generic description of Adam, who we’re told could be taken “for a Turk or a Greek,” but he’s pretty hunky by the sound of it and Miranda decides rather early on to take him to bed.

Miranda is about as unlikable as Charlie, so eventually you come to sympathize with Adam. Of all the humans out there, he had to find himself stuck with these two. I don’t think McEwan likes Charlie or Miranda either, hence the very “righteous justice” ending he subjects them to (which I welcomed, since I didn’t like them either).

You come to sympathize with Klara too, who is also better than the humans around her. Showing the action from Klara’s point of view is a great move, far better than McEwan’s sticking us with Charlie’s, though it does obscure much of what happens throughout the story since Klara is herself unclear on what is going on.

The robots in Ishiguro’s world are solar powered, which leads Klara to believe that all sick little Josie needs is some sunlight and she’ll be as good as new! Hence the title, “Klara and the Sun,” and Klara’s purpose throughout, which is to convince the “Sun,” which she believes to be a conscious entity, to heal Josie. That such an otherwise intelligent being could be so naive as this seemed to me a bit silly.

This is the very first Ishiguro I’ve read, though I’ve had “Never Let Me Go” sitting on my shelf for years now, long enough for the twist in that story to get spoiled many times over. Ishiguro seems to be getting at something similar here, and the mood and general tone of this book feels much like how I imagine his earlier book feeling.

“Klara and the Sun” is set in an unspecified point in the not-too-distant future. No flying cars, and still plenty of smokestacks, so global warming apparently hasn’t killed everyone yet. Other than the AFs, there’s not much here to differentiate Ishiguro’s world from our own.

McEwan’s world, on the other hand, is far more futuristic than the world Ishiguro lays out … despite McEwan actually setting his story in an alternate past. I’m all for a story that effectively works in some alternate reality (Quentin Tarantino has become something of an expert at this), but McEwan fails to make his compelling.

The UK in the 1980s isn’t just MORE advanced than any other country on the planet is now, it’s significantly more advanced. And the reason seems to stem from one key difference — the mathematician Alan Turing didn’t kill himself in 1954 but lived on to create artificial intelligence and much else besides.

In McEwan’s alternate reality, Turing is clearly the most important human being on the planet — perhaps the most important to have ever existed at all. Somehow, in the ripples cast off from Turing’s newly extended life, the UK lost the war over the Falkland Islands, Thatcher was deposed, both John Lennon AND John Kennedy failed to be felled by assassins’ bullets, and other major repercussions that I can no longer remember.

Do I understand it? No. Is it strictly necessary to the story? Not at all.

Likewise, McEwan’s addition of a ridiculous plot line involving a young child and a suddenly baby crazy Miranda feels so absurdly tacked on that it doesn’t warrant further mention.

Of the two, “Klara and the Sun” is undoubtedly better, I just don’t think “Machines Like Me” is that much worse.

By that I mean that Ishiguro’s world is far richer, more intriguing, and certainly more lifelike but that one of the things that makes it so intriguing — its occasional “Vertigo” vibe and the many questions it poses in the reader’s mind (what does it mean to be “lifted”? what’s the significance of the Cootings machine? what exactly does happen in the end?) ultimately leads to frustration as so very little is resolved. It’s all left very vague.

“Machines Like Me,” on the other hand, didn’t fill me with the same high level of expectation because it doesn’t aim as high. As a result, I wasn’t as disappointed. The difference, though, is that with “Klara and the Sun” you’ll at least have a good time discussing with other readers what Ishiguro might have been getting at.

Either way, it’s clear that the perfect novel on artificial intelligence still has yet to be written.

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