Thursday, March 2, 2023

Klara and other people


Michael – Alternate Thursdays

Kwei pointed out yesterday that exploring another culture in fiction is intriguing, but also can be challenging for readers from outside the culture. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the difficulty of understanding the thinking processes of animals. It turns out to be as much a philosophical problem as a scientific one. So how does a writer go about introducing characters that are not human at all? The cats who solve mysteries, the aliens of science fiction, the intelligent creatures of fantasy?

Treebeard, Tolikien Gateway

I think the answer is that they are actually all human whatever guise they come in, because those are the only characters we can hope to relate to. Of course, they are not “ordinary” humans. It is precisely their extraordinary nature that makes them intriguing and interesting. For example, take Treebeard, one of the Ents from Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. The Ents are ancient, treelike, and, if they make up their slow and thoughtful minds to do so, they can move and cooperate against enemies. Their culture is very different from that of the Hobbits and both are very different from anything that has existed on Earth now or in the past, but their thoughts and discussions are still human ones. The reader becomes involved and starts to care about these characters. In the cases of Frodo and Samwise the reader cares very much.

Samwise and Frodo
They look human all right...

As a science fiction example, take Larry Niven’s Puppeteers in Neutron Star. These are strange aliens with their brains safely stored in the centers of their bodies. They are enormously risk averse, and as such build the best and safest spaceships. They keep the location of their home planet a secret. Nevertheless, they are charming and the reader likes them. They are alien enough to be different, intriguing, and somewhat unpredictable, but human enough so that we can relate to them. They went on to feature in a number of his novels.

Of course, there are bad guy aliens in Science Fiction that do not need to be human at all. We don’t need to relate to them, and it’s actually convenient for the author not to need to provide motive for the evil things they do. After all, they are aliens, right? Unfortunately, generally speaking those stories are not very interesting unless you’re a teenage boy who likes war stories. The good guys always win and are always humans, of course.

I used to read a lot of science fiction when I was younger, but perhaps I became tired of the aliens being humans after all. However, I could not resist Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, Klara and the Sun. It's not described as science fiction, but Ishiguro’s protagonist is an android. That’s certainly not new for science fiction, anything but. Isaac Asimov’s robot mysteries with his three Laws of Robotics were written around seventy years ago. Ishiguro, however, makes Klara the protagonist and writes in first person, so she tells her own story. We know that Ishiguro can write wonderful human characters, for example, his butler in The Remains of the Day. He also writes beautiful clear, simple prose. (He did win the Nobel Prize after all.) So maybe he could write a genuine alien character?

The novel is set at some point in the future. The world is quite different from the way it is today—at least where the story takes place, but the author isn’t really interested in that anyway. The "AFs" are android companions for youngsters growing up in a rather isolated society—best friends for children who don’t have human companionship. There are allusions to the way the world is from time to time, but everything is processed and interpreted by Klara, and she is really interested in only one thing—the welfare and happiness of Josie, a girl with medical issues to whom she is friend and companion.

It’s obvious from the start that Klara is going to behave in as human a way as possible. After all, she is designed to be a companion for a human child. Does she have feelings? Ishiguro tries to address that, and it’s no spoiler that the answer is yes. And yet she is truly alien, mainly in that she doesn’t exhibit any selfish needs, other than perhaps early on when she wants to be “chosen” by Josie as her companion, and she deliberately discourages another child from selecting her. While the focus is on the relationship between Klara and Josie, and how Klara tries to help Josie overcome her medical issues, the novel has a broader canvass including Josie’s separated parents and their needs. It is the fact that Klara doesn’t appear to have any of these human needs that convinces one that she is, after all, an android. Yet the steps she takes to help Josie and her family are highly empathetic. By the end, probably we care more about Klara than we do about Josie. There's morality in this novel as well as emotion.

So Klara is human, too. (It never occurred to me to refer to Klara as "it" in this post.) But she is also genuinely different, and I think that's a triumph in itself.


  1. Michael--I love this post and it mentioned a few books I haven't read, so thank you. I deal with this on a daily basis with my series, since there's at least one if not more endangered animals who are interacting with Cyd. I try not to "humanize" them, as I am trying to show what extraordinary creatures they are in and of themselves, but I think the simple fact that she's interacting with them inadvertently has an effect on readers, as for them, apparently, the animals are often their favorite parts of the book, though they don't speak and I never say how they feel. Strange, isn't it? Great post.

    1. Thanks, Wendall. It's natural to include animals as animal characters (taking into account their behavior as you do), my question is whether one can convincingly make them protagonists without making them essentially human. I think Ishiguro pulled it off with Klara, but then he could stack the deck somewhat by making her an android!

  2. The 'otherness' is one of the reasons I love reading science fiction. It's hard to find, but when you do, it can really blow your mind. But, fundamentally, much of life in the universe will probably share some fundamentalisms with humanity. The need to survive, to procreate. It's how those things could be mutated and bent in different directions is what becomes fascinating. One old story that leaps to mind is "Your Haploid Heart" by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), from 1969. I haven't read it for decades, but may have to track it down, as it has stuck with me. (Always dangerous, as somehow old stories seem to mutate and change, while we remain the same as we age...)

    1. I think I missed "Your Haploid Heart". Will have to search for it...
      It's very interesting to speculate on what intelligent life could be like elsewhere in the universe, and of course, that's what SF writers do. But how far away from us are they really as characters? I guess you've read PJ Farmer's The Lovers?

  3. Why did "I TOBOR" keep flashing through my mind as I read your post, Michael, and Wendall and EvKa's comments?