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Kazuo Ishiguro’s Suffering Servants
We live in a golden age of dystopia. From Snowpiercer to The Handmaid’s Tale, from Watchmen to The Walking Dead, we flit between the nightmare of total social control and the chaos of total civilizational collapse, or somehow face both terrors at once. Most of the time, these stories present fantasies of survival and resistance rather than delivering the true work of the genre, which is to show us not only who we already are but how indefinitely sustainable our horrors might be, precisely because they spring not from some sinister cabal or scheme but from the very nature of our humanity.
There are exceptions, though, among the most notable being the work of Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro. His latest novel, Klara and the Sun, deserves a place of particular pride in the lists of contemporary dystopic visions. Set in the not-too-distant future (or possibly an alternate present), the novel shows us a world where advances in artificial intelligence and genetic engineering have transformed the social and economic landscape. Human beings must now compete with machines as well as with each other for all but the most intellectually strenuous occupations, and they turn to dangerous and often fatal genetic manipulations to “lift” their children to a level where they might still be competitive, while those left behind increasingly secede to enclaves dedicated to ethnic purity. The relentlessness of competition and consequent social isolation have left many of the elect themselves unable to navigate basic social interactions, reliant instead on A.I.-powered Artificial Friends for companionship.
It’s a compelling premise, but what distinguishes the novel is Ishiguro’s choice to explore this world through the eyes of one of those Artificial Friends. The eponymous Klara is an AF of the B2 series, with a particularly high emotional intelligence. We first encounter her in a shop window, waiting to be purchased by a human whom she will serve as a companion until she is outgrown and discarded. It’s a situation that offers ample opportunity for pathos and allegory—much like the toys of Toy Story with their dread of abandonment and their horror at discovering they are not really heroes. But that’s not what Ishiguro is after. Klara is, in fact, perfectly content to fulfill her task of artificial friendship. Indeed, more than content: she quite plainly loves her owner, and would do anything for her, just as she is programmed to do. In consequence, the reader winds up loving her, to the point where one could almost miss the horror of the world she serves.
This is not the typical approach to dystopia. But it is typical for Ishiguro, which I think is relevant to understanding just what he is up to in this novel and throughout his works. This story is one he has told twice before in his most celebrated books, developing and ramifying it differently each time. And with each iteration, he has delved deeper into the cleft between our essential selfishness and our ability to transcend egotism into selfless love.
A Silent Witness to History
The first time Ishiguro told this story was in his third novel, the book that announced his arrival as a writer of lasting significance: The Remains of the Day. On the surface, it appears to be a conventional piece in the upstairs/downstairs genre. The first-person narrator, Stevens, is a butler at Darlington Hall, a grand old English house that once belonged to Lord Darlington and is now, in 1956, in the hands of an American. The novel follows Stevens on a journey to Cornwall to visit the former Miss Kenton, once the housekeeper at Darlington Hall, whom he hopes to entice to rejoin the staff, and for whom he clearly has a long-standing and suppressed affection. But while subtly important events do happen in the novel’s present, much of the action takes place in Stevens’s reminiscences of his service before the war.
That service is something Stevens is quite vocally proud of. It constitutes, for him, a true calling within which he strives for a particular kind of excellence, which he expostulates on at length. Excellence in a butler, for Stevens, is not only or even primarily a matter of perfect organization and attention to detail, but rather of dignity, which he defines as absolute professionalism, never betraying the slightest hint of an identity beyond the demands of service. It’s not hard to be drawn to this idea, which Stevens advocates with real passion, and to settle into the novel as the swan song of a dying order.
It quickly becomes clear, however, that there is more to the book than that—indeed, that one purpose of the book is to upend precisely that kind of nostalgia, and with it the very genre it seems to occupy. Stevens claims to have absorbed his ethos of dignity from his father, and our encounter with the elder Mr. Stevens reveals to us just how unreliable his son is as a narrator. Far from being a consummate professional, Stevens père is stubborn and prideful to the point of insubordination. (He has also plainly been a tyrant to his son.) When his father is already an old man, and no longer entirely fit for the work, Stevens brings him on to the staff at Darlington Hall, clearly hoping to preserve his father’s dignity thereby, and in consequence he winds up facing the greatest challenge to his own dignity: continuing to perform his duties downstairs as a butler without the slightest slip even as his father is dying upstairs. He counts his success in that effort as the proudest moment of his life—but he also reports Lord Darlington pulling him aside at one point during the evening and asking if he is crying. It’s a rather blatant plea for recognition from the reader of the self he struggled so hard to hide from for the sake of his dignity.
Lord Darlington, meanwhile, turns out to have played a small and disastrous role in world history, and is therefore a “problematic” figure (as the kids say) to have devoted one’s life to serving. The day Stevens’s father dies, Darlington Hall hosts a conference with an array of European dignitaries (plus one American) to discuss the possibility of amending the Treaty of Versailles to provide much needed relief to Germany. Lord Darlington organized the conference himself, the treaty’s exigencies having offended his sense of fair play and good sportsmanship, but over the course of subsequent years this empathy for a former enemy evolves into outright pro-German sympathy, including at least a flirtation with anti-Semitism. By the late 1930s, Lord Darlington has become a thoroughgoing Nazi patsy, and after the war his reputation lies in ruins.
So the book that appears to be an elegy turns out to be an indictment, connecting the ideal of self-abnegating service and the traditional British class system to the horrors of Nazi Germany, both directly and through the folly of an aristocratic amateurism that could not comprehend what it was up against. Moreover, Stevens’s case is a personal tragedy. His consummate professionalism left him no room to admit to his feelings for Miss Kenton any more than for his dying father, and he learns only on this trip what had been obvious to the reader throughout, that she had, and still has, feelings for him. As he puts it at the novel’s end in anguished revelation to a stranger on a pier, comparing himself unfavorably to his late, disgraced master, he didn’t even make his own mistakes.
His life was wasted for lack of a self—unless, we may assume, he corrects this error and makes better use of the remains of the day, presumably by embracing a different set of values, more democratic, socialistic, and modern. Ishiguro, though, will not let the reader settle into this comfortable stance. On his journey to Cornwall, Stevens is repeatedly mistaken for an aristocrat himself. (Understandably: he’s wearing an elegant hand-me-down suit and driving his employer’s luxury car.) The mistake provides an opportunity for him to observe ordinary English people in this time of transition to a postwar democratic-socialist ethos and to hear from a local doctor who, from this same familiarity, has come to a rather jaundiced view of both those people and that new ethos. Class is not so easily eradicated. Nor is the new American master of Darlington Hall portrayed as the harbinger of some bright future; he is, after all, another master, and he expects service—the service of a proper English butler of the old school, which is what he believes he has bought with the manor. And what does Stevens decide to do with the remains of his day? He will learn how to engage in the light banter he believes the American prefers, and thereby be a good servant to him.
What one comes away with, in the end, is an appreciation of the beauty of Stevens’s life, a life monastic in its dedication (and, not incidentally, in its celibacy) and dedicated to a true ideal, if a false god. The novel is a tragedy because such dedication is ultimately inhuman, and whether it has elevated Stevens or debased him ultimately matters less than that it has made him strange, a monster we are drawn to but cannot quite identify with. The ideal he served is bound up with horror, and so it had to pass. But we have intimations that the new order with its new ideals may be less different than it initially seems.
Just how bound up with horror it may be is what Ishiguro turned to when he set out to write the story again.
Ishiguro’s sixth book, Never Let Me Go, once again appears to inhabit a familiar genre, in this case the English boarding-school bildungsroman. For the present generation of readers, the most familiar point of reference would likely be the Harry Potter series, and that’s not a bad one to have in the back of one’s mind. Like the children at Hogwarts, the children at Ishiguro’s invented boarding school, Hailsham, are quite special, a caste set apart from the rest of society, with a special destiny. They have a magic power—the power to heal the sick.
They have acquired this power not by chance but by design. The students are clones, gestated and reared to donate their vital organs to normal people so they can live. Before the clones become donors, though, they spend years as carers, responsible for succoring their fellows who have already begun to donate—serving those who will be sacrifices. The narrator, Kathy H., is one of these at the novel’s opening, and her tales of her childhood at Hailsham are reminiscences. But eventually all clones will donate as many times as they can manage until the process kills them (until they “complete,” in the jargon the clones use), and they die in their carers’ arms. This is the destiny for which they were created, and their schooling, they are told, is in some fashion a preparation for that destiny.
You might think that the great mystery of the novel would be that horrible destiny itself, which would naturally be hidden from children bound for slaughter. But Ishiguro is wise enough to know that this is not the way social systems operate. The most terrible secrets hide in plain sight. The children at Hailsham are told from their earliest years what their purpose is and what their end will be, and while as little children they don’t fully grasp the meaning, by the time they are older the knowledge has seeped in enough that when a teacher tries to speak to them frankly about it, their response is akin to the eye-roll at a lecture on sex education: well, yes; we all know that. (Speaking of which: these clones can and do have sex, and experience all the emotional turmoil of romantic love, but they are congenitally sterile.)
No, the mystery of the novel is not what will happen to the students. The mystery is what the purpose of their schooling was, why they were encouraged to make art, why some of that art was taken away from them by a mysterious woman who seemed to fear them. Toward the end of the book, Kathy H. and her old school friend, Tommy, become convinced that the answer has something to do with their inner natures, specifically with love, which they have belatedly discovered they share for each other. They think that if they can demonstrate that their love is true, they might earn a deferral of their death sentence. To that end, they seek out their old teacher (or “guardian,” as she is termed) and the woman who collected their art to find the answer.
The answer turns out to be that though there is no way to defer their deaths, they were right in a way. Hailsham was an evanescent project of social reform, an attempt to demonstrate that the clone children had souls—for if they didn’t, how could they create art? And if they had souls, then that would imply that they should be treated—raised—humanely, as they endeavored to do at Hailsham, their souls given proper nourishment on the way to the slaughterhouse. Yet they were still destined for the slaughterhouse; too many “real” people’s lives were at stake for that to change. For that reason, Hailsham was never more than a fleeting mirage, abandoned for the more comfortable stance of keeping the clones dehumanized and out of sight.
Never Let Me Go is a dystopian novel of the highest order, and as such it is a commentary on our society as it is and not just as it might become. This is the reason, I think, why the novel is set not in the future but in an alternate past, a version of the 1990s in which the great biomedical breakthroughs that make the story possible happened just after World War II. There’s the echo of the primal Nazi horror again, but the darts shoot out in multiple directions from there: to the legacy of slavery, to factory farming, to our own biomedical achievements (quite plausibly including our dispensation regarding abortion), and, I suspect, our transformation of education from an ideal of soul-nourishment to something more like soul-slaughter in the name of meritocratic order. Most of all, to the hollowness of our pretensions at social reform.
But there’s something else operating below the surface of the novel, something powerful and troubling in a different way. I was captivated by Kathy H. and her quest not because of anything distinctive about her or her voice but because of that quest’s fundamental nature. The clones are souls, but they are naked ones facing their finality. Because of their sterility, and their separateness as a caste, they are not truly embedded in society—they cannot become part of a larger social story. They are lonely existential heroes by their nature. Kathy H.’s quest in that sense is akin to Gilgamesh’s, her final conference like the Sumerian hero’s meeting with Utnapishtim, the one immortal man.
She, in other words, is not merely human. In a key sense she is more human than the “normal” human characters. The title of the novel comes from a scene where Kathy H. dances slowly to a song of the same name, cradling an imaginary baby in her arms. The moment was an emblem, for the Guardian who saw her, of the passing of the “old kind world” into something more efficient but cruel. But if she, a sterile girl imagining motherhood, is that emblem, what does that say about the absence of such emotions in the Guardian’s own world? It is her world, the world of the new gods, that has become cruel and lost that ability to lose oneself in a dream of nurturing.
Never Let Me Go reads as both a sequel and a darker, more complex retelling of The Remains of the Day, most especially in the nature of the respective protagonists. Kathy H., like Stevens, is a servant, born and raised—first as a carer for her fellow clones, then as a sacrifice to the new gods, the new aristocrats of health. Like Stevens, she is destined to be childless; her nurturing powers instead go toward those she serves. Like him, she had only a fleeting glimpse of true love, but like him she has a telos, a destined purpose. I could not help but feel that these facts had become connected, that the sense of purpose, of destiny, of weight to her existence was bound up with the way in which the moral monstrousness of her society had reduced her to, in Lear’s words, “the thing itself.”
Also like Stevens’s, Kathy H.’s story is tragic, and she feels the weight of that tragedy. But what if she didn’t? What if she could look at herself and say: I’ve done my duty, fulfilled my purpose, and that is enough—more than enough? What if she were the perfect servant, able to achieve Stevens’s total subsumption into professionalism, and made love to her employment?
Klara and the Sun follows its eponymous heroine from the shop window where we meet her to a suburban home where she provides companionship to Josie, a lonely, sickly teen. Her mother, Chrissie, has had Josie “lifted” by means of genetic manipulation, a process that already killed her elder sister and that looks likely to kill her, too. Klara is a faithful companion, helping Josie reconcile with a childhood friend (a boy whose mother declined to have him “lifted” and now is guilt-ridden by the prospect that he will be left behind in life) and striving in quixotically heroic ways to help her get well. But Chrissie also has a backup plan in case her daughter dies: to replace her with a perfect simulacrum inhabited by Klara. And while Klara never gives up trying to save Josie as she is, she is also prepared and fairly confident of her ability to take her place if that becomes necessary. She has, after all, an extraordinarily high emotional intelligence.
The most impressive thing for me about the narrator of Klara and the Sun is that she succeeds at being the narrator in spite of not being human. Indeed, I found her more persuasive than I found Stevens to be. Ishiguro needed few of the tricks he used in The Remains of the Day to get the reader information that the narrator has been trying to hide; there was no sense of repressed psychology breaking through to undermine the narrative even as it was being told. Klara is unreliable because of the cognitive limitations of her construction: she is very good at reading human emotions but understands very little about the world and cannot even perceive her physical environment with reliable accuracy. (The book is smart about the kinds of errors that machine vision systems make, one of many signs that Ishiguro has done his homework on A.I.)
The grand conceit that Klara is conscious is a matter of theology at this point; the “hard problem” of consciousness is no closer to resolution than it ever was. But she behaves quite like what I imagine a machine that could pass the Turing test would, and if one imagines that such a machine could have interiority as we understand it, Klara’s fits the bill in a crucial way: her total lack of a self as we experience it. Klara—like Stevens, like Kathy H.—is sterile and created to serve. But unlike them, she does not need to deny her self to fulfill her function, because her self is her function. Her entire orientation is teleological, toward what she was made to do.
Of course, there is a long history of philosophical and theological argument claiming that human beings are similarly oriented. To quote the Baltimore Catechism: “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.” Lop off “forever in the next” and you have a decent description of how and why Klara herself was made by her human gods. But humans must be catechized to such a view; our nature is divided, with, as the traditional Jewish understanding has it, both selfish and selfless yetzarim—inclinations, instincts, passions—which need to be kept in proper order, with the former serving the latter. This is why I find it especially interesting that Klara is the first unequivocally religious character I’m aware of that Ishiguro has drawn, as well as the focus of quasi-religious feelings on the part of the human beings who created her to serve them.
Klara’s religious sentiments are focused on the sun of the title, from which she draws her nourishment. Not knowing much about the world, she doesn’t understand that human beings are not solar-powered like she is, and early in the book she becomes convinced that she has seen the resurrection of a homeless man through the kind attention of the sun’s rays. Later, at home with Josie, Klara decides that the key to saving her lies in convincing the sun to perform a similar kindness. She makes what she thinks is a bargain with the sun: she will disable a smoke-spewing machine she believes the sun hates, and in return the sun will restore Josie to health. To fulfill her end, she sacrifices her own blood (or, rather, the high-acrylamide P-E-G Nine solution that runs through her head) to pour it into the machine’s innards, thereby rendering it unusable.
It’s all quite touchingly simpleminded, and one of the few tricks that I did catch Ishiguro in was having Klara refuse to explain her reasoning to the humans on whom she relies to help execute her plan of salvation (since, if she did explain that it involved a pact with the sun, they would surely turn away in disappointment, something she ought not to be able to anticipate, though perhaps she can intuit it). Instead, she remains mysterious, and the mystery inspires the dregs of belief in the otherwise disenchanted humans around her, who therefore assist her in her absurd endeavors. Her beliefs are also a further sign of Ishiguro’s research; one explanation of the religious instinct in human beings is that it is a result of an overactive module for modeling other minds. We are extraordinarily adept at imagining what other people might be thinking and divining cognition-based explanations for action, but then apply that same ability to the behavior of tornados and the stock market and attribute our fortune to a guiding intelligence rather than blind chance. If that is the case, then a machine that specialized in understanding human emotion and motivation might well malfunction in similar ways and start to worship and propitiate the sun.
But I don’t think Ishiguro is just showing off his knowledge; the matter is too close to the heart of his subject, which is, in fact, the heart. The question of whether Klara could truly replace Josie is the technical one that excites the designer of the daughter-simulacrum, and that alarms and disturbs Josie’s father, who wants to sustain the illusion that she is more than just a machine replaceable by another machine. But we, the readers, have access to Klara’s heart. We know that she is not readily replaceable by another machine. She is a feeling, passionate individual, sweet, confused, and deeply devoted, and we love her for these things. Are we just fools because, after all, she is made only of metal, fabric, and software—or paper and ink?
I don’t think so, and I don’t think Ishiguro thinks so. Klara and the Sun has the form of speculative fiction, but it doesn’t really matter whether “strong” A.I. is actually possible, any more than it matters that the cloning technology Ishiguro imagines for Never Let Me Go remains beyond us now, to say nothing of its possibility in the 1950s, when he has it being invented. The novel is not a warning about technology as such. Nor is it an allegory; the obvious Christological reading of Klara’s behavior—giving her own blood to propitiate the life-giving god and save her beloved human—cuts both ways, since Klara is plainly imagining her bargain with the sun and there is no literal god in the machine. Rather, Klara and her ilk have been made the repository of an aspect of humanity: in many ways what makes us best, certainly what makes us most loving and beloved. Making her that repository has enabled the people in Ishiguro’s world to develop maximally along the other human axis of striving and self-assertion, while the side they share with Klara withers, to the point where Josie’s fellow teenagers barely know how to have a conversation with each other, and Josie’s mother can seriously think that replacing her with a robot simulacrum would be worth doing so long as she, the mother, wouldn’t know the difference. Reproduction, sexual or otherwise, is a proper part of the world of self-assertion, but love has been instrumentalized into another service to that asserting self.
That, I think, is what is truly dystopic about the world that Ishiguro is showing us and has always been showing us. He has been telling this story over and over, a story about societies of people who make themselves into godlike figures and the serving classes on whom that conceit depends. But in the previous iterations, the manifest and unjust suffering of those serving classes, the denial of their selfhood, has perhaps obscured the degree to which they retain much of what we value most of humanity, precisely what has atrophied among their human gods. With Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro has taken the final step and shown that even unequivocally happy, genuinely selfless slaves would ruin their masters’ characters, leaving them bereft of love, while those slaves retained not only the only true ability to love but also the only remaining access to a sense of the divine.
Noah Millman is theater and film critic for Modern Age and a columnist for The Week.
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