Monday 23 August 2021

Klara and the Sun - Kazuo Ishiguro (2021)


Rating: Admirable

I'm in two minds about Klara and the Sun. Ishiguro has produced a fine novel, his first since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, and the breadth of his ambition is to be admired, with some intriguing themes dealt with in a subtle and intelligent manner, however I did not actually enjoy the novel particularly. Klara and the Sun is another stab at 'literary science fiction', in a similar vein to Never Let Me Go (2005), as has been noted by some critics, which is a reasonable summation, although to be fair to Ishiguro there are some fairly significant differences. The eponymous protagonist is an AF (artificial friend), an AI humanoid android, who is purchased by the mother of fourteen year old Josie to keep her from being lonely while she spends her days isolated, learning online and being afflicted by a mysterious illness. The illness, once you come to understand its nature, is not so mysterious and is one of the more morally ambiguous themes explored in the novel. Klara is a very capable AF, both intelligent and benign, but also surprisingly naive. Although as the novel progresses you learn just how society has been negatively transformed by humanoid AI androids, Klara herself is shown to be nothing but kind to those around her, in fact she is much more caring than the stressed out and fickle humans. The human characters are mostly average people living in what appears to be a radically altered culture, although the reader is never privy to the mechanisms behind these changes, they are only hinted at. The majority of the human characters are merely the end users of these radical technologies, trying to cope with the moral and practical challenges they present. 

Although Klara is a fascinating protagonist, the fact that the story is related from her point of view means that the novel has an almost flat one dimensional tone that does not easily allow narrative tension to build. Klara's narrative voice is predominately observational in nature, so that often the novel is weighed down by excessive descriptions of what the characters are doing, how they are relating to each other and why they are doing the things they are doing. A trip in the car becomes a tedious affair due to the fact that Klara relates every single thing about it. I often found myself speed reading or skipping ahead to more significant portions of the narrative, which is always an unfortunate outcome for the reader. The novel is also imbued with a melancholic tone and a feeling of quiet desperation on the part of the human characters. Sometimes there is an ominous, bordering on disturbing aspect to some of the more curious parts of the novel, however it occurred to me that Klara and the Sun is like a 'light' version of a J G Ballard novel, relatively unsettling, but ultimately not unsettling enough, which is a shame really, as there are important themes at play that could have made a greater impact if the narrative had been more dynamic.

As a postscript yesterday I facilitated the last of three library book club session to discuss this novel and the groups were roughly split into thirds, with one third loving the novel, another third opining that it is a failure and the final third being somewhere in-between, which is where I stood. It's certainly a divisive novel, which, as is often the case, led to in depth discussions and quite a few people coming away with a greater appreciation of the novel's finer points. I came away from these discussions thinking that, despite its flaws, Klara and the Sun is a subtle and thematically sophisticated novel. It makes me wonder how the novel will be regarded in, say, ten years time. As an important novel? Or as an underrated cult classic? Given Ishiguro's status it will probably not fade away and perhaps it will glow more brightly in its afterlife. Part of me kind of hopes so...

Sunday 8 August 2021

Death's End - Cixin Liu (2010) Translated by Ken Liu (2016)


Rating: Sublime

Death's End, the third book of the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, is a remarkable science fiction novel, perhaps the greatest one I've ever read, and certainly the best closing novel of a trilogy I've ever read. I've never encountered a science fiction novel quite like Death's End. The manner in which Liu spins his tale is just beguiling, endlessly fascinating and compelling. The narrative is logical and precise, despite being six hundred pages long. Nothing is wasted, everything is connected and the narrative thrills are astounding. What is truly remarkable is that Liu takes his time, never giving in to any notion of satisfying the reader's narrative greed; back stories are given space to breath and when the narrative is jolted forward by a revelation or plot development it comes across as a totally natural development of what came before, even though you didn't see it coming. Death's End encompasses an enormous time frame, beginning during the twentieth century 'Common Era' of the first novel, The Three Body Problem (2008), and through the 'Crisis and Deterrence Eras' of the second novel, The Dark Forest (2008); and then through the 'Post-Deterrence Era' and five other eras before ending some eighteen billion years later! What occurs in-between is just a stunning and unique exploration of humanity's struggle to survive in a dark universe (and I mean bleakly dark). 

Cixin Liu - science fiction genius

One of Cixin Liu's most impressive achievements is the application of the laws of physics and cosmology taken to their most extreme and logical end points. The highlights of this approach are numerous and unfortunately hard to talk about lest I reveal too much. However it's probably safe to mention the sections that involve humans encountering and exploring four dimensional space. The manner in which Liu uses four dimensional space as both a brilliant plot device and as a way to just blow your mind is incredible. This is just one example of the many times I actually exclaimed out loud "Wow!". It does help to know something about physics, such as theoretical eleven dimensional space, quantum mechanics, black holes and relativity, so if you can brush-up before reading it will greatly enhance your enjoyment. To contrast this (although it is connected with physics), Liu also includes three fairy-tales that are brilliant in their own right, in particular in the clever way they are connected with the main narrative. As for the writing, although not exceptional, Liu's style is more than adequate, and compared to the first two books is quite often poetic and beautiful. The characters, which sometimes came across as merely vessels to help tell the story in the first two books, are more well rounded here. Unusually for me I've indulged in some hyperbole in this brief review ( I could easily write an essay), but I have to say there's no other way to get across just how good this novel is. If you are fan of science fiction you have to read it, but you'll have to read the first two books first! Fortunately both are excellent in their own right, but Death's End is the amazing reward that closes out an incredible imaginative exploration of what the universe could well be like (but let's hope not!).