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Klara and the Sun (SF) - Kazuo Ishiguro ***

There is always a significant danger when a member of the literari takes on a science fiction theme - the result can easily seem derivative and dull when covering a topic that has already been better explored by others. (Of course the literary fiction audience are unlikely to realise this.) Sadly, there is an element of this danger manifest in Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel.

The theme is a well-trodden one. A robot with strong artificial intelligence faces up to emotions and is used to explore the human condition. Here called 'artificial friends' we can see a progression to such companion robots from the current wave of cuddly robot pets, producing a device that has general artificial intelligence giving it the abilities and emotions of a human being. Klara is both a companion to and a replacement for a dying child.

Of course there is nothing wrong with exploring a well-trodden path if you have something new to say, but most what occurs in Klara and the Sun is anything but original. Most recently we've had Set my Heart to Five, with a robot discovering emotions - but there were plenty of closer parallels to this storyline earlier. One should even be familiar to film fans in the troubled movie AI, started by Kubrick and finished by Spielberg, where a robot child is manufactured for similar reasons to Klara - a story that despite the clunkiness of the film manages still to be moving, and that is done far better in the original Brian Aldiss short story.

Earlier, of course, Isaac Asimov covered robots and society over a wide range of short stories and novels - and it's a topic that has been covered many times since by master in the field. One problem that emerges once comparisons are made is that SF writers tend to know a lot more about the science. General artificial intelligence is nightmarishly complex thing to create, far beyond our current capabilities. To think that this could be done any time soon is itself unlikely. But that Klara would at the same time be totally unworldly and lacking in the abilities that even IBM's Jeopardy-winning computer Watson had to look information up and give it context from online sources is simply ignorant. We know all SF gets it wrong about the future - look at some of the technology in the original series of Star Trek, for instance - but at least it starts from what's known at the time, rather than ignoring science and technology.

I had genuinely hoped to find something new and interesting in Ishiguro's take on the subject, but the core is very much more of the same, with the addition of frankly tedious over-writing. There's a meme doing the rounds of social media headed 'Book Blurbs - glossary of terms' which defines 'Epic' as 'cowed by the author's reputation'. That has clearly happened here in a book that could do with a sweeping edit to clear out the deadwood. 

It's not all bad. But it could have been so much better.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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