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Klara and the Sun coverIn 2021, a book about a robot companion was published. The world of this robot companion is a little down the road from our own: a world with genetic engineering so common that an unmodified child might be subject to ridicule, even as others risk death from side effects of the treatment. The book follows this robot as it processes its gradually expanding universe, the people in it, its intended roles in their lives, and the possibility of agency to effect change.

Was this book Robert Cargill’s Day Zero, a prequel to Sea of Rust that follows a “nannybot” named Pounce at the cusp of humanity’s decline? Or Sarah Pinsker’s We Are Satellites, which explores the socio-domestic consequences of intelligence-boosting technology?

No, it was Klara and the Sun, by Nobel-Prize-winning Kazuo Ishiguro—and in the words of Robert Frost, that has made all the difference.

Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” offers a perfect analogy for the stark binary often made between “literary” and “genre” fiction in contemporary Western publishing and attendant criticism. Even though the poem’s ending claims that taking one road over the other was a significant choice for the speaker, the body of the poem makes clear that the choice’s significance was not driven by the road’s intrinsic superiority. The other was “just as fair” and both had been “worn … really about the same.” The significance lies simply in the fact that one road became the story of the speaker’s life, and the other did not, because he “could not travel both / And be one traveler.”

So it is with most artists, who find their way into different “roads” of creative expression based on myriad factors unrelated to the intrinsic superiority of any given medium or genre. But just as Frost’s closing line is often misread to suggest that the “road less traveled by” is always better, the tug of exceptionalism also leads many in publishing to enforce strict divisions between “types” of content, and to elevate certain styles and their artists as self-evidently above the madding crowd—even when the work itself is close kin to what abundantly exists elsewhere.

Thus, when Klara and the Sun was reviewed by publications trading in upmarket fiction this past year, it received a critical treatment both predictable and instructive—because it was as far removed as possible from the book’s natural peer-group in the world of science fiction.

What references to science fiction do exist in reviews of Klara published by The Atlantic, LA Times, The New Republic, The New Yorker, NPR, and The Washington Post consistently avoid comparison to contemporary SF novels; broadly gesture at the genre as simplistic in style, scope, and execution; and dwell—if they must—on far older references to the genre’s devices.

Judith Shulevitz’s Atlantic review is perhaps the most engaged with—and the most resigned about engaging with—genre comparisons. “I guess you could call this novel science fiction,” she writes. “It certainly makes a contribution to the centuries-old disputation over whether machines have the potential to feel.” That disputation is not explored in the review, though; instead, she invokes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), before aligning the book with the work of C. S. Lewis and Hans Christian Andersen—children’s fantasy tales. To her, the story of this robot companion “doesn’t strive for uncanniness[, but rather, i]t aspires to enchantment,” a mode that makes folklore and spiritual allegory more relevant points of comparison.

This evasion into other literary forms is shared by Rumaan Alam of The New Republic, who hand-waves the obvious genre context with a blanket “[s]ci-fi milieu notwithstanding.” Though he concedes that questions about genetic modification and the possibility of transcending death are raised explicitly in the text, he still asserts that these aren’t really what the book wants us to wrestle with. Klara, for him, is fundamentally about parenthood and its sacrifices. For Alam, its closest literary kin is Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1964).

Annalisa Quinn from NPR veers more into the territory of full-on genre derision, when writing of Klara that “this isn’t a story in which a robot would ‘turn stupidly on his creator for no purpose but to demonstrate, for one more weary time, the crime and punishment of Faust,’ as Isaac Asimov wrote of a certain kind of robot replacement fiction.” The fact that there are other, more nuanced forms of “robot replacement fiction” is not at all discussed. Asimov is briefly raised as a cudgel from within the genre, and brought down hard upon the rest.

Charles Finch of LA Times also gestures at the existence of contemporaries that Ishiguro seemingly surpasses, without naming anyone in this supposed peer group. Of the subject matter in Klara, Finch claims that “[m]any novelists have grappled with it, but Ishiguro is not many other novelists.” Ishiguro is instead compared with Louis Erdrich and Fyodor Dostoevsky in his aptitude for “pure” mystery. (Not incorrectly, either; Ishiguro’s books are well-known for their slow-build intrigue, until a key revelation dawns with quiet devastation.)

Ron Charles of The Washington Post adds to this run of unexamined claims of authorial exceptionalism when he writes, “Leave it to Kazuo Ishiguro to articulate our inchoate anxieties about the future we’re building”—as if no one else is writing on these uncertainties? As if whole subgenres of science fiction aren’t dedicated to similar themes? Charles sources the origin of the word “robot” to a century-old play by Karel Čapek, calls the book “genre-straddling” without naming the genres it’s straddling, invokes Henry James (another master of suspense), and claims that “[a]nother author would have been eager to elaborate on the dystopian features of the not-too-distant era”—as if Ishiguro is the only one who would ever have thought to depict troubled futures from a more intimate POV? Granted, the piece concludes that “[o]f course, tales of sensitive robots determined to help us survive our self-destructive impulses are not unknown in the canon of science fiction.” Just don’t expect this grudging admission to yield the name of even a single one.

Exceptional Authors: A Scarcity Mentality in Literary Reviews

But the pièce de résistance in this range of upmarket commentary is easily James Wood’s, in The New Yorker—for in his analysis, the broader projects that shape contemporary review are on both plainest and most elegant display. Wood is famous (or perhaps notorious) in literary publishing for a time when his reviews of high-brow and upmarket literature were anticipated by readers not just for the deft, artful strokes of his dismissals and celebratory deconstructions, but also as themselves literary taste-makers. With the introduction of terms like “hysterical realism,” Wood’s reviews often served to suggest a clarifying shape for broader literary movements—not to anywhere near universal agreement, of course, but as a reliable accelerant for heated conversations that were centred squarely on the work and its contexts.

Rare is the thoughtful person who believes his performative bombast forever, though, and in recent years Wood’s craft has taken a gentler turn, favouring the psychological portrait of the praiseworthy artist and their art. This is what we see in his review of Klara, which Wood treats as the latest vehicle with which to understand the abiding and singular genius of the author. A richly historical piece, Wood’s review reminds readers of a Martian-postcard-poetry craze in the 1980s, before delving into Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Nabokov, and Martin Amis. The binding thread? Estrangement in great literature (with Albert Camus and Thomas Mann thrown in as failures in this mode, to Nabokov’s cranky mind).

Within this erudite arena of “the greats,” Klara serves for Wood as the latest evidence that Ishiguro is the “contemporary novel’s truest inheritor” of Nabokovian estrangement. But Wood is not through with the lofty associations yet: we’re given Franz Kafka next, and W. G. Sebald, and after invocations of Toy Story (1995) and Corduroy (1968), it’s on to Pascal, theological readings of Ishiguro’s latest work, and praise for how “this master, so utterly unlike his peers, goes about creating his ordinary, strange, godless allegories.”

Wood’s review shares elements with the others—the invocation of children’s literature, the reference to an esoteric episode in SF history, the contemporary “peers” who go unnamed—but whereas Shulevitz claims Klara as a story of enchantment, Wood argues that:

two kinds of estrangement operate in Ishiguro’s novel. There’s the relatively straightforward defamiliarization of science fiction. Ishiguro only lightly shades in his dystopian world, probably because he isn’t especially committed to the systemic faux realism required by full-blown science fiction.

This is a doozy of a reductive claim about science fiction, but if we take it at face value, and for a moment accept that one kind of estrangement might be more germane to the form than another, what might that second kind encompass? In answer, Wood proceeds to claim that:

[s]ubtler than this teasing nomenclature are the cloudier hermeneutics that have always interested Ishiguro. Klara is a fast learner, but she’s only as competent as her algorithms permit, and the world outside the shop can overwhelm her.

In what way is this not also part of the project of “full-blown science fiction”? The divination of deeper relational, instructive, and linguistic meanings invoked by Wood’s use of “cloudier hermeneutics” is absolutely at the crux of contemporary science fiction—so much so that the genre routinely finds itself embroiled in heated online debate about its uses and abuses of standpoint epistemology (i.e., the importance of negotiating knowledge from different subject-positions) in stories set on far-flung worlds and transformed local realms alike.

To treat science fiction, as all of these reviewers did, as the mere slapping-on of new words to made-up objects—a simplistic and unthinking exercise that requires the indulgence of a literary master to elevate to psychologically significant art—is certainly a choice, and one clearly made in service to the celebration of a given author of repute. But was it a necessary choice, even to achieve this aim?

Machines Like Me coverPerhaps contemporaries more firmly established in science fiction were not to these reviewers’ tastes, but Ishiguro’s latest novel could also have been contrasted with that of another British upmarket novelist who recently produced a work of science fiction, an alt-history with a guileless companion-bot in a more progressive 1982: Ian McEwan, in his Machines Like Me (2019). In the world of this novel, the brutality of homophobia didn’t drive Alan Turing to kill himself, so he was able to accelerate the pace of technological innovation. Thatcher’s reign also ended early, and JFK’s did not.

What a lively conversation this upmarket duo would have invited, too, because Marcel Theroux’s review of Machines Like Me (2019) for The Guardian reveals critical disagreement about what is normative to science fiction and what lies outside its aims. Whereas Wood would later claim that Ishiguro’s work “only lightly shades in his dystopian world, probably because he isn’t especially committed to the systemic faux realism required by full-blown science fiction,” Theroux argued that the act of “sketching out an unfamiliar reality through hints and allusions, but never explaining it too completely … is the default mode of modern SF … economical and of special usefulness to makers of strange worlds.”

Theroux then criticized McEwan for offering too much technical detail, whereas The New Yorker’s Julian Lucas came to the work’s defense on this accord, by claiming that, despite its extensive exploration of technical themes, the book was not “meant to be a feat of hard-sci-fi engineering.” Why not? Because, for Lucas, McEwan’s aim is far grander: “to probe the moral consequences of what philosophers call ‘the problem of other minds.’” In a sitcom version of this article, this would be the part of our episode where we’d cut to Neal Stephenson, author of highly technical philosophical SF like The Diamond Age (1995) and Snow Crash (1992), as he stares at the camera straight-on, with a knowing weariness and immense restraint.

Upmarket reviewers are not alone, however, in trying to elevate notions of singular genius through sweeping dismissal of whole fields of possible peers; the authors they review do it, too. McEwan notoriously tried to distinguish his work from science fiction in 2019 by claiming that, with respect to the novel’s topics, “[t]here could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you”—as if this focus was at all lacking in contemporary SF books, short stories, TV shows, and films.

In his fixation on dividing lines in literature, McEwan is joined by Margaret Atwood, who notoriously attempted to divide speculative and science-fiction by suggesting that Jules Verne and H. G. Wells belonged to different schools of fantastical imagination that could be delineated as possible and impossible futures—even though her example from Wells, The War of the Worlds, was considered so possible at the time of its initial publication (1897, serially) that, even forty years later, it still caused a famous scare during its first radio broadcast, in 1938. [1]

The fact that many upmarket authors and reviewers are besotted by rigid literary divisions, though, is not surprising, for the same reason that they demurred from comparing Ishiguro even with other “high-brow” authors writing science fiction: to grant space to other literatures or authors would only diminish the specific myth of authorial exceptionalism on which so much of market positioning and critical analysis relies. A larger question rears its head, then: one that revolves less around the purpose of the review and more about what is lost when its definitions are drawn too narrowly.

The Author in SFF: An Abundance Mentality

Let’s consider an alt-history of literary reviewing, in which Klara was more broadly introduced in relation to its most obvious peer-group. For this latest novel, Ishiguro’s contemporaries in science fiction are legion—although it also bears noting that many of the story elements he uses, far from being atypical (as was suggested by some upmarket reviewers), are in fact popular to the point of gentle ridicule within contemporary genre discourse. In Genevieve Valentine’s 2011 humour article, “Six A.I. Types Who Annoy Us to Death” (Lightspeed), we find Klara’s character-type, the “Innocent,” given this teasing definition:

Into a harsh, uncaring world, an artificial life form is made. It struggles with identity, with human consequences, with the birth of feelings it doesn’t recognize. It doesn’t do a thing to draw our ire; it’s often the most sympathetic life form around. It doesn’t mislead humans; it’s more often misunderstood just trying to be itself.

Unsurprising, then, that Ian Mond’s fairly warm review of Klara, in the prominent SFF publication Locus Magazine, reveals him to be less impressed than Wood was by Ishiguro’s “cloudier hermeneutics.” As Mond writes:

I was less in love with Ishiguro’s take on arti­ficial intelligence. It’s not bad by any stretch. I did like Klara’s deification of the Sun, including her promise to slay the Cootings machine if the Sun intervened to save Josie’s life. But Klara’s observation of human interaction, especially the intimate bond between Josie and Rick … isn’t something we haven’t seen many, many times before in genre fiction and popular media.

And although Paul Kincaid, writing for Strange Horizons, takes a more authorial-genius approach to his review of Klara, highly celebratory of Ishiguro’s overall career, he too is less than satisfied with Ishiguro’s follow-through in this latest piece: a “feeble, unearned” end that “fatally undermines” the book’s familiar logic until that point.

Mixed reviews are only to be expected, though, when reviewers come from a literary community in which Klara’s topical and thematic considerations are themselves quotidian. Recent genre work in similar veins, after all, is wide-reaching and nuanced: from the theological components of Ken MacLeod’s gumshoe robot-noir, The Night Sessions (2008, BSFA winner for Best Novel); to relational-power and parental-obligation questions posed by Ted Chiang’s The Lifecycle of Software Objects (2010, Locus and Hugo Award winner for Novella); to questions of self-actualization and individual agency in Becky Chambers’s A Closed and Common Orbit (2017); from a wide range of spiritual and caretaking themes in Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts’s 2018 Mother of Invention anthology (including, most relevantly, Rosaleen Love’s “Bright Shores,” Justina Robson’s “S’elfie,” and Bogi Takács’s “An Errant Holy Spark”); to the direct questions of artificial caretaking and identity formation in Martin L. Shoemaker’s Today I Am Carey (2019, based on 2015 Nebula Award Finalist “Today I Am Paul”); to familial replacement in stories like Sarah Pinsker’s “The Low Hum of Her,” in Sooner or Later Everything Falls to the Sea (2019), A. Que’s “Song Xiuyun” (October 2019, translated by Emily Jin for Clarkesworld), and Ray Nayler’s “Father” (July/August 2020, Asimov’s); to the life-saving efforts of an artificial caregiver in R. P. Sand’s “Ask the Fireflies” (September 2020, Clarkesworld).

Among many others, of course.

Uncanny Issue 42 coverIn a recent article for Uncanny, Ada Palmer offers a masterclass in the relative ease with which a fuller portrait of human discourse through literature can be advanced by literary analysis—and the difference made by this approach to critical intentionality. “Expanding our Empathy Sphere Using F&SF: A History” weaves a tale of storytellers across time and culture who have used a full range of literary forms, traditions, and contexts to carry forward the conversation that informs how we think about, respond to, and act on the call for greater fellow-feeling. Histories of commercial science fiction, along with both fabled and commercial fantasies (book, film, graphic novel, play, and ballet alike), sit easily on the page alongside Shakespeare’s Henry VI (1591) and The Tempest (c. 1610), Thomas More, Robert Graves, Voltaire, The Nutcracker (1892), Montesquieu, Julio Cortázar, George Orwell, Descartes, and Bentham. Why shouldn’t they?

For the author of the book under analysis, the work of a review is twofold: to help the author see how the work has been interpreted, and—more pragmatically—to sell the book. But the work of the literary review for readers is different, because we come to any new artistic object from a whirlwind of “genre-straddling” background cultural references and personal experiences, a landscape of pure affect that not only constitutes the “cloud[y] hermeneutics” of our lives to date, but also shapes how we will experience whatever falls next into our laps.

In light of that backdrop, we tend to come to book reviews a-wondering: will this resonate with my current needs and interests? Does it contain signs and portents that might carry me fruitfully through the current fray? Or is it mere sound and fury? And even then, even if this new work would signify nothing of note for me personally right now, is it still at least important to know that the book exists, and a bit about the kind of work it might be doing for others? Does its existence tell me anything about where others can now be found in their own cultural landscapes, and which of their own needs and interests it might be answering?

Western literary analysis has undergone a century of growing pains, thanks to the overt commercialization of so many distinct genre categories: a highly US-driven schism that has proven fruitful for the marketplace, but less so for our ability to see ourselves as united in our day’s journey through the “yellow wood” of Frost’s diverging roads. (Not that the preceding world of literary criticism was much more egalitarian: marking an author as exceptional by diminishing others is an approach that hearkens back to nineteenth-century biographical myth-making around ideas of individual genius, with those selected for “genius” status generally having benefitted from measures of class-based access in the first place.)

Yet even in our current, more overt period of genre-category promotion, of classifying literary output within a range of boxes intended to help with market segmentation and other big-data-driven publishing practices, other approaches to criticism persist. One of the most fearless is that which seeks to celebrate the author and their output as singularly worthy of admiration and readership—but in the fullness of their literary context, without strawman representations of whole other fields of discourse to bolster the high praise. In this more comprehensive approach to literary analysis, the critic is still welcome to explore specific tonal, stylistic, and historical readings of the work; they are simply also called upon to do so with greater clarity about the selections being made. Choosing to include the most obvious peer group for a new book provides readers with an immediate sense of its place in the broader discourse—and also allows the critic to illustrate with greater precision where the author’s exceptionalism leaps out.

A more holistic approach still accords with the critic’s general aim, too, in that it creates a body of analysis inviting readers to learn about other works they might enjoy, if the review’s featured author already delights, or to use even more familiar literary touchstones to cultivate interest in the new book, if doubt about its worthiness exists. The publishing market’s primary hunger for drumming up sales through critical press is still served. The more fearlessly comprehensive literary review simply also gives its readers more reason to feel well-informed in the decision to purchase or pass—and (perhaps more importantly to some) in the decision to treat a new work as a significant part of contemporary canon, whether or not it’s personally bought and read.

We do not need to perpetuate the myth of scarcity, of a literary discourse where only a few voices must inevitably carry the whole load, in order to build a thriving marketplace of ideas and experiences through prose. There are ever so many splendid roads a writer might take, but only one brief and precious day (barring real-world application of some of science fiction’s favourite concepts) in which the writer may travel upon them. To the reviewer thus falls the challenge of suggesting why the road taken by a given author has indeed made all the difference—and not just for the author, but for the future reader, too: because they, too, have many “roads” to choose between… and just as finite a spell under the same, ultimately undiscerning, sun.

Endnotes

[1] This credulity was due to our limited understanding of whether or not there could be life on the Moon, Venus, and Mars. After all, in a God-created cosmos as vast as ours had recently turned out to be, why wouldn’t said Creator have also made other worlds amenable to life? We only know better now, and scoff at the past for its wild inventiveness and spiritually informed optimism, because of our wealth of recent solar-system explorations. Even in his time, though, Verne was also hardly going to win accuracy points for his depiction of a hollow Earth, so Atwood’s proposed genre division remains arbitrary to the point of a-historicity from all sides. [return]



M. L. Clark is a Canadian immigrant to Medellín, Colombia, and a writer of speculative fiction, reviews, poetry, and cultural essays.
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