Klara and the Sun: Another Brilliant Ishiguro Novel


By Kazuo Ishiguro

Random House/Penguin, 307 pages





There are reasons why Japanese-born British author Kazuo Ishiguro has won most of the major awards a novelist can, including the Whitbread, the Arthur C. Clarke, the Man Booker, and a Nobel. He manages to be an amazing stylist without being pretentious, and he never repeats himself thematically. Consider just a few of his subjects: the Sino-Japanese War (When We Were Orphans), the British aristocracy (Remains of the Day), and a dystopian in which children are raised to become organ donors (Never Let Me Go).


In Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro turns to what we construe to be the very near future. AI (Artificial Intelligence) has reached advanced levels, and genetic engineering has become commonplace. The titular character is an AF (Artificial Friend), which are all the rage as companions for children bred for superior intellect. Klara has not yet found a home because she’s an older model. There’s something about her, though, that attracts the eye of young Josie, who doesn’t have many friends other than Rick, who has never been “lifted” and comes from a difficult family situation. In addition, Josie’s sister, Sal, is deceased. Chrissie, Josie’s ambitious mother, wants her daughter to get one of the sleek new B3 models, but Josie insists on buying Klara.


For an android like Klara, the Sun is godlike, as it replenishes her batteries. She’s a bundle of wires and programming capable of high-level thinking, but Klara is essentially a child, as she knows little of the world except what she observed through the store display window. You will be charmed by Klara, how she learns, what she “feels,” and her skewed look at the world–phones are “oblongs,” for example, and she misreads illogical social situations. Among Klara’s impressions is that the “Cootings Machine”–the name on a piece of construction equipment–is evil and environmentally destructive.


Klara is an excellent AF to Josie, who is often ill, perhaps as Chrissie fears, mortally so. We also learn that Chrissie’s ex-husband, Paul, has concerns about how his daughters have been raised. He comes off as a cross between a hippie, a survivalist, and a Luddite, but maybe he’s not a naïf. He is particularly concerned when Chrissie begins taking Josie to a painter named Calpaldi, who also did Sal’s portrait before she died. Is more than painting taking place inside his studio?


Klara and the Sun is a fascinating exploration of “humanity.” The novel reminded me of a Star Trek Next Generation episode titled “The Measure of a Man” in which scientist Bruce Maddox wishes to disassemble Data to see if he can be replicated. After all, Data is just a “machine.” Is Klara just a “’bot?” How do we measure humanity? Klara learns, is self-aware, and her programmed emotions are often superior to those fired by biological receptors and neurons. What about GMOs like Josie? Does live birth make her more human than a manufactured sentient being? Once DNA is altered, is a biological child still fully human? Who cares more for Josie: her status-obsessed mother, or a robot who implores the Sun to heal Josie and engages in an unusual escapade she thinks will help? When Calpaldi opines that, “there’s nothing so unique” about humans that “our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, and transfer,” is he offering a dose of harsh truth, or setting the stage for the end of the Anthropocene?


What a book! Even if you think you don’t like science fiction, Ishiguro will take you on an intellectual journey that raises many questions and trusts readers to answer them. Many years ago, novelist Philip K. Dick queried whether androids had souls in the ways humans conceptualized them. If consciousness is a measure, Ishiguro suggests that placing robots in the service of a biological species might be a form of enslavement. Is it okay to discard/dismantle a robot whose neural networks continue to function? In our time, much has been about climate change, plague, and war. Maybe this is our version of Data’s dilemma and Calpaldi’s assertion.


As only the most confident writers can do, Ishiguro prefers open-ended possibilities to dogmatism. If, however, we believe what AI boosters say, the conundrums Ishiguro posits are ones that will soon jump from the pages of science fiction and into the realms of ethics and politics– two “human” pursuits that historically have not been good friends, AF or biological.


Rob Weir


Moonflower Murders Too Long and complex, Yet Rewarding





By Anthony Horowitz

Harper, 608 pages.



You know you’re in for a complex mystery when the word murder appears in the plural. This one delivers in more ways than one, as it’s also a murder mystery novel that takes us inside another fictional murder mystery.


Susan Ryeland is living in Crete, where she runs a boutique hotel with her life/business partner Andreas Patakis. She’s there because she quit her publishing job after the death of Alan Conway, the author of Atticus Pund Takes a Case. He was an unpleasant part of her roster of clients and she wase happy to put that life behind her. If only the hotel wasn’t shedding money like autumn leaves.


As fate would have it, Lawrence Treherne offers her $10,000 to come to Sussex as his guest at Branlow Hall, an upscale hotel that puts hers to shame. She naturally wants to know how she, a former publisher, can possibly assist in finding his missing daughter Cicely. Treherne is convinced that the answer lies in Conway’s book, which his daughter was reading when she disappeared, and that Susan can decode it better than anyone. Her curiosity is piqued when she is told that Alan died in the same room in the Mayflower wing of the hotel in which Frank Parris was murdered. Although a Romanian staff member, Stefan Codrescu, was convicted that murder, Treherne thinks maybe Stefan is innocent, though he’s vague on why. It is curious, though, that Parris was killed the very day of Cecily’s in-house wedding.


To say that Susan knows her way around a case of souvlaki better than a murder case is an understatement. It doesn’t help that she knows Richard Locke, the detective who investigated Parris’s murder and Cecily’s disappearance, and the two despise each other. That’s pretty much the case with everyone she meets: Treherne’s wife; his older daughter Lisa, who runs the hotel and sees Susan as a sponge; Eloise, the nanny to Cecily’s daughter Roxanna; the Wilsons, who  retained possession of a house Parris wanted to sell; Alan’s ex-wife Melissa, whom he left when he came out as gay; Cicely’s husband Aiden MacNeil; and several others, including the spa and night managers. The plot thickens when Susan learns that Parris served as Alan’s introduction to gay life. Maybe Susan needs to re-read Alan’s novel, which she is loathe to do because she hated it the first time around.


The Moonflower Murders is multifaceted–even “The Marriage of Figaro” factors in–which is both a strength and a weakness. As Susan begins to take stock of motives, including who was sleeping with whom, she increasingly feels like she either needs to go back to Andreas or return to publishing–anything except be at Branlow Hall around so many awful people. Just about everyone is a suspect. The only thing she knows for certain is that no one is telling the unvarnished truth and for the life of her, she cannot see how two deaths eight years apart are related to a young mother’s disappearance. For all she can fathom, maybe Cicely is dead and everyone she met had a hand in it. Or perhaps Cicely decided to leave motherhood and her awful family behind and move somewhere like Crete!


In a book as multilayered as The Moonflower Murders, logic holes and improbabilities are perhaps inevitable. There are several such moments in the novel and I was not the first to think that several were

unconvincingly contrived. Plus, I always furl my brow when solving a puzzle rests upon obscure clues that require preternatural prescience to consider, let alone identify as key. Horowitz compensates for plot head-scratchers through strong character development. Trust me when I say you will meet numerous hard-to-digest people in this book. Trust me also when I say it’s hard to look away.


Rob Weir






What Do You Mean?




As former students can attest, I am a bear about precise wording. For example, I never let history students use the term “American people” and insisted they identify which Americans they meant: men, women, white people, people of color, upper-class Americans, the middle class, working people….


In that vein, I have some vocabulary reform suggestions. I'd ban making verbs from perfectly good nouns such as priority or conference. In fact, I support criminal penalties for all business speak. But let's start with a few other words.


·      Let’s lose the F-bomb. Nothing says pathetic hipster or junior high school boy like a splatter of F-bombs. The word has become so boorish that it’s used to describe everything except having sex.


·      Stop confusing the words hero and victim. If a firefighter risks life and limb to carry someone from a burning building, that's heroic. If the same person perishes with a hose in hand battling a blaze set by an arsonist, that firefighter is a victim. Heroism is a conscious act; victimization is not.


·      I've grown suspicious of the label activist, especially when self-applied. Activists place their lives and liberty on the line to redress grievances. Those who lobby elected officials, sign petitions, post on social media, or carry protest signs are not activists; they’re citizens.


·      My personal sample is just two, but do you see a groundswell of urgency among people with physical challenges to be called differently abled? The two folks I know well definitely see themselves as disabled and scoff at terms that suggest otherwise.


·      I read a lot of literature from indigenous writers. I'm betting if you gave most of them and their constituencies a choice between being called: (A) Native Americans, or (B) Indians, (B) would win in a landslide.


·      Can we please make a distinction between racists and fools? Not everything that upsets someone is racist. I recently saw a post from someone–okay, a fool–who insists that the word “jimmies,” as in ice cream sprinkles, is racist because it disrespectfully references blackness. Ummm… they're made of chocolate, not licorice, and it would be an amazing stretch to connect jimmies to something like Jim Crow. As Tom Lehrer once remarked, “If you’ve got nothing to say, the least you can do is shut up about it.”


·      Along similar lines, I pay more attention when a person of color uses the term “racist” than when it comes from some privileged white person from tony suburbs.


·      The word stupidity knows no racial or class boundaries. It’s not racist or classist to call out African-Americans, Latinos, or poor rural whites for being resistant to being vaccinated against Covid. Sadly, the vax rate among all three is low. That was structural at first–not enough access–but that has given way to paranoia about not trusting the government or the vaccine. Yes, I know about the Tuskegee experiments, thalidomide, and other such horrors, but this isn't the same situation. If there was any validity to assertions that the vaccine is dangerous or a plot to eliminate people of color, the streets would already be littered with deformed white corpses. History should never be an excuse not to flip the calendar forward.


·      In the same groove, when did the word rights cease being enumerated Constitutional privileges and mutate into wingnut libertarianism? Rights are not a synonym for the liberty of individuals to do whatever they please. Anyone who thinks they have a “right” to eschew Covid-19 shots is a bio-terrorist. Under what precept of law, civil society, or morality is it acceptable for individuals to jeopardize public health just because they feel like it? If this nonsense continues, I can guarantee another lockdown, probably with an attendant economic collapse. It's time to reclaim what John Dewey called the Great Community. An anti-vaxer has only the right to stay at home. Get vaccinated or no school, no job, no travel. I recall my boyhood when nurses came into my grade school, students lined up, and each got a polio jab. There was no discussion.


·      A hoax is something that's not objectively, demonstrably, or scientifically true. It's not the same as something you simply don't wish to believe. To those who think Covid or climate change is a hoax, I can only say I hope the little green men in the Mothership treat you well.


·      Religious tolerance must either be universal or abandoned. It cannot, for example, be filtered through a Southern Baptist value system. The founders of the United States knew the history of the Inquisition, the wars of religion, witch trials, and “official” religions. That’s why the Constitution specifies Congress can make “no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Liberals are often as bad, if not worse, than conservatives. If you're one of those with a knee-jerk acceptance of all Muslim beliefs, but ridicule Christians and make Antisemitic remarks, you are merely a bigot with different targets.


·      To end on a light note, gardening is agronomy aimed at maximizing the growth of flowers, fruits, and vegetables. People like me are Darwinian scatterers who believe if a plant survives, it was fit enough to do so on its own.


Rob Weir