This week, I’m reading two mainstream novels that take an aspect of Artificial Intelligence as their starting point.
I’m convinced that AI is rapidly reaching a point where it will affect how many of us live, not just in terms of technology gadgets but in terms of how day-to-day decisions are made, how wealth is generated and in whose hands power is concentrated.
While Science Fiction writers like Ann Leckie, Joel Shepherd, Erin Bow, Gareth Powell and Martha Wells have given us startling and credible visions of AI, they are focused on a future that is comfortably distant.
It’s been my experience that the books featuring AI that have moved me most have been written by mainstream fiction writers who, looking ahead only a little, use AI to explore what it means to be human and to consider how our culture will change when it is permeated by AI. I strongly recommend ‘The Unseen World’ by Liz Moore, ‘Speak’ by Louisa Hall and ‘Plum Rains’ by Andromeda Romano-Lax.
So when I saw that, this month, Kazuo Ishiguro published his first book since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017 and that his chosen topic was AI, I decided to take another dip into mainstream books about AI. I selected Samanta Schweblin’s International Booker Prize Longlisted ‘Little Eyes’ as the companion piece.
I’m hoping for two thoughtful, emotionally engaging books that will give me insights into the challenges and opportunities AI gives us and what values we need to pay attention to retain and enrich our humanity.
‘Little Eyes’ by Samanta Schweblin (2018)
In an interview she gave when ‘Little Eyes’ was longlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize, Samanta Schweblin gives this description of ‘Little Eyes’:
‘Maybe Little Eyes can best be described as a contemporary snapshot of how a new form of communication catches on across the world little by little, how it can expand exponentially in the blink of an eye, and then, in an instant, fall apart. Or maybe it’s more accurate to describe it as a ghost story, a story about desire and the abuse of power, and of how the source of evil isn’t technology itself; it’s not the other user looking at us from the other side of the screen; it’s lurking in our own fears and prejudices.’
Megan McDowell, who translated ‘Little Eyes’ from the original Spanish, said:
‘Little Eyes is ostensibly a book about technology, but more than that it’s about human beings interacting; the mediating technology shines a spotlight on their foibles, their loneliness, their capacity for cruelty and kindness. I love how creepy the kentukis are, I think it’s genius to give them cute teddy bear faces. I think Samanta is an expert in crystallizing a zeitgeist and implicating her readers in an urgent story that’s disturbing and yet extremely enjoyable.’
That would have been enough to get me hooked but, then I listened to an excerpt from the audiobook narrated by Cassandra Campbell and knew I was in for something good.
Then I found out something odd. Audible seems to have decided that, as I live in the UK, the narrator for this book, that takes place around the world, was written in Spanish by a woman from Argentina who now lives in Berlin, and was translated into English by a woman originally from Kentucky who now lives in Chile, should be available to me not with the original American narrator but should be an English narrator instead. Did they think I’d be confused if I had to listen to an accent unlike my own? I’m sure that Bea Holland will be a fine narrator. There may be some contractual reason for the change. Even so, I find the ways of global publishers exceeding strange.
‘Klara And The Sun ‘ by Kazuo Ishiguro (2021)
First, some disclosure. I’ve never read anything by Kazuo Ishiguro and I didn’t pick up ‘Klara And The Sun’ because Kazuo Ishiguro is a Nobel Prize winner. I picked up ‘Klara And The Sun’ because every AI-nerd feed that I monitor was talking about it. These are not the feeds I typically pick up my fiction reading list from but Klara has definitely struck a chord with the people who work in AI. I saw the title first, without the author, looked it up and went, ‘Isn’t he “The Remains Of The Day” guy? He’s the one writing about AI?’
So I read a few interviews and was both intrigued and amused by what I found. My favourite interview is in ‘i newspaper. (This isn’t a newspaper I’d normally recommend as it’s now owned by Tory billionaire, Viscount Rothermere who also owns the repugnant ‘Daily Mail’). Still, this is a good interview. One of the things I enjoyed about it was Kazuo Ishiguro’s comments about winning the Nobel Prize. He says he was:
“…completely caught on the hop… You fantasise about winning the Booker Prize; you don’t fantasise about winning the Nobel Prize.”
He goes on to say,
“There is a past-tense aspect to it. You think, ‘OK, they think I’m more or less finished now!’ I guess there’s a part of me that wants to say, ‘Look, I’m still going to carry on working’.”
From the stir this book has already called, I think there’s no doubt will know that he’s still working.
He explained that ‘Klara And The Sun’ was originally conceived as a children’s story about a sentient toy caring for a terminally ill child. It was explained to him that this might not be good ‘children’s book’ material, so he made it an adult story. What caused the stir in my AI newsfeeds is the way he’s combined AI, Ubiquitous Computing, Big Data and Gene Editing to create an AF, a sentient ‘Artificial Friend’ who is bought to cheer up a terminal teenager.
I liked that when Kazuo Ishiguro was asked what the book was about, he didn’t speak of the technology. He said:
“It’s about people’s capacity to care for each other, and forgive each other, and love each other.”
I’ve picked the audiobook version, narrated by Sura Siu. I listened to an extract and I know this will be a great read.