Reading Klara and the Sun

Klara is an AF (while I’m not sure that this is explicitly stated in the book, I think AF stands for Artificial Friend) and while this is a story told from the point of view of a robot, it really isn’t a robot story as we would traditionally think of one. There aren’t any immutable Laws of Robotics, orbital mechanics, or world-shaking new forms of social media; Klara exists in a world that should be familiar to us, and she may even be an unreliable narrator.

Klara has a couple characteristics that make you wonder how robotic she really is – she is very superstitious from the very beginning of the book, and she may be made from some form of fabric or have a casing that is very different from the usual plastic or steel we’d expect robots to be made from. She also has strange ways of perceiving or describing the world around her; while other characters frequently praise her skills of observation, her internal descriptions of the world around her leave the reader confused and unable to generate a clear picture of Klara’s experience – this is by design – Ishiguro does not want to leave the impression that this narrator could be mistaken for human.

The most interesting parts of Klara are her interactions with her human, Josie, a teenage girl. Josie is sick from an unspecified ailment, and Klara plays an important role as one of her caregivers. Josie’s mom, dad, and a neighbor also play vital roles that I should put under spoiler protection below. Before I get to that, Klara and the Sun is a great book – it makes you wonder and gives you a real sense of having heard a tale narrated by someone who wasn’t human – two thumbs up and recommended!

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Klara has a way of getting humans to do things that I wouldn’t expect a robot to be capable of: twice in the book, Klara asks a human for something that if I would think was unreasonable. Klara gets Rick to help her get to Mr. McBain’s barn, without even providing an explanation. Maybe she was aware that her superstition of the sun setting into the barn, making it a holy place, would be sillier than just asking without providing any explanation. I actually really enjoyed the feature of Klara’s superstition around the sun and its magical powers. Much of what people see as a reasonable belief stems from our tradition, our history, and growing up exposed to years of the same beliefs in our family and the groups of people that surround our family. If AFs are manufactured and not born, not inculcated with a belief system entrenched over the centuries and generations, they should develop belief systems about how the world works that are superstitious.

I’ve been thinking for years about how robots and computers are depicted as purely logical, and I don’t think that’s the most interesting avenue to pursue in robotic fiction, and I think it’s pretty likely that pattern-seeking machines, just like pattern-seeking animals, will be able to perceive patterns that aren’t really there, will find explanations that are comforting, even if they don’t experience comfort the same way I do. They’ll see pieces of information that could lead to an answer, and make the cognitive leap to the superstition, because a systematic examination of beliefs with doubt at the center is extremely difficult, and will be so for the pattern-seeking robot just as we observe its difficulty in the pattern-seeking human. Beliefs are often built piece-by-piece, rather than as a whole edifice: the science of skepticism is a work that must be imposed upon these beliefs that may have accreted over years and ages, and there’s no reason to believe that a machine built to see design (which AFs must be, in order to understand the motives of their human charges) will apply systematic skepticism unless there’s some need to program it to.

The other time Klara convinces a human to do something, it’s Josie’s dad, and Klara tells him that destroying the Cootings machine will help Josie. That’s outright exposure of the superstition here, but an important detail is that Josie’s dad is a fascist. I like Ishiguro’s boiling down (through a character’s dialogue) of fascism to a bunch of white guys with guns who are organized to do violence to immigrants and the powerless – while I’d prefer Umberto Eco’s 14-point definition, a novel has no room for such exposition, and the character correctly identifies Josie’s dad as a fascist despite his protestations that he isn’t. Fascists have two characteristics that are relevant to Klara’s request: they’re not overly concerned with avoiding violence and vandalism to the public good, and they have a strong weakness for Romantic narratives over rational ones. He’s both willing to destroy the Cootings machine (it’s not clear what the Cootings machine actually is, but it’s implied to be some sort of road construction equipment) and willing to risk Klara’s life/functioning to do it.

I’ve also got nagging questions about the Beggar Man from the beginning of the novel. Klara watches the police beat him terribly, and then sees him healed by the sun and getting up and walking away? Was he a solar-powered AF? Did Klara just imagine that the sun healed him to give the story a more pleasant ending? Who knows, but it is interesting food for thought.

Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary

Our protagonist wakes up from a coma in a spaceship where the other two people aboard are now corpses, and doesn’t know who he is or why he’s there. It’s a good start for a novel where the twists keep on coming, and I’m not going to spoil it here because there are two really good twists in the plot (and one twist that doesn’t really detract from the others.) Project Hail Mary is the best of the three books by Andy Weir that I’ve read, and as much as I liked The Martian and almost couldn’t put it down, Hail Mary surpasses it in every way.

The hallmarks of an Andy Weir book are all there – a protagonist who has to rely on their wits, scientific knowledge, and not a whole lot of help from the rest of the world. A problem that can only be solved by working the puzzle pieces intensely through a scientific process. Obstacles that more or less amount to “Yeah, I’ve done some dumb things after staying awake for thirty hours on an important project too; and, oh yes, I would not bother to double-check that I was in Earth-standard gravity after waking up from a coma with no memory of even my own name.”

I love this feature of Weir’s writing: his protagonists have very human failings. They don’t need to be opposed by a Kang the Conqueror or a Blofeld; people are really good at getting in their own way, and you don’t need evil to explain the failure of a complex project in space with very few people able to collaborate on it. Disaster is waiting in every screw not fully drilled in, on the strength of the tether in every spacewalk. I hope Weir’s future work explores this theme more; too much fiction revolves around hyper-capable phantom enemies, and not enough around our simple inability to accept that we need a Plan B worked out beforehand; we need to both firmly hold that hot tea kettle and make sure it’s not going to drop on something valuable. After ten thousand times of making tea; it’s going to drop once. There’s a rich field there because almost no one writes about this, and Weir is making it a centerpiece of his novels. It also helps build, rather than dissipate, the tension in his work. In a Bond story, you know you’re going to have a scene with the villain before everything goes very wrong. In a Weir story, that dang protagonist is on stage the whole time and you just don’t know when he’s going to mess up!

There’s a paucity of characters in most of Weir’s books, which is often a strength, but there is one character who keeps showing up in The Martian, Artemis, and Project Hail Mary: space travel. Weir has lovingly detailed the details of getting to and living on Mars, of surviving on Earth’s moon, and Hail Mary has its own ambitious, highly detailed space journey (which I’m not going to reveal, because you should definitely read this book!) A lot of work has gone into this one, it’s obvious to the reader that space travel gets half the attention of the narrative lavished on it and I enjoyed it thoroughly. The only thing I will give away is that Hail Mary has me wondering what I would bring if I had to bring my microbiology lab into space.

Double thumbs up for both thought-provoking work and writing you just can’t put down because you want to know what happens – read this book!

Reading The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Kowal drops a meteor on Washington, D.C. in the opening act of her novel. First, great way to generate some excitement (I also appreciate that she handles it with much more sensitivity than Independence Day handled the destruction of major American cities,) and second a great way to begin an alternate history story without resorting to the cliche of “this war turned out differently” that dominates the genre.

Pretty quickly Kowal pivots from the disaster (although the characters continue to see the after-effects of the Meteor and hold remembrances on Meteor Day) because that’s not what this book is about. The purpose behind the huge deviation from our timeline with a meteor impact taking out Washington, D.C.? To get the space program started earlier. The meteor hits in an alternate 1952 (Dewey is president instead of Truman,) and Elma York is a mathematician working for NACA (NASA’s precursor organization.) She survives the impact during a weekend in the Poconos with her husband, Nathaniel, an engineer who also works for NACA. Soon after the impact, Elma calculates a value for the massive amount of heat the kinetic energy from the meteor added to the Earth, and while the exact values are not revealed in the book, the expected results are startling.

Initially the soot output from uncontrollable wildfires and the impact cool the Earth’s climate for a couple years, much as volcanic eruptions have done in the recent past. After a few years though, the heat added to the Earth’s systems will tend to increase the temperature of the atmosphere, eventually to the point where life on Earth might not be possible (the numbers are a little vague here.)

People from Earth will need an escape route – and that route is into space. So the nascent space program is jump-started by a massive investment from the reformed government in Kansas City. Not only the United States, but many other nations take part in this new space program, and in the early years of its development, Elma York is a computer (the term used for mathematicians, mostly women, who did the hard work of calculation in the days before electronic and mechanical computers were reliable enough or inexpensive enough.)

The central tension of the novel comes when Elma realizes that she’d like to be an astronaut, and that the new situation, where everyone will eventually have to evacuate from Earth, demands that women are allowed to travel into space just as the men are.

Stetson Parker, the prototypical military-pilot-and-first-man-in-space, is a serious antagonist in this, as is the bureaucracy of the new U.N.-managed space agency.

A secondary struggle is Elma’s struggle with herself. Like many, she suffers from impostor syndrome, self-doubt, and a near-crippling anxiety. Her struggles with her own mind’s work to sabotage her efforts provide a running counterpoint to the successes she experiences during the story.

She also does (mostly) good work as an ally of black astronauts and pilots, whose valuable contributions are constantly devalued in the continuing Jim Crow Era of the 1950s, and while she means well, Elma finds it hard to understand and follow the struggles of those who face far more overt and violent oppression. The tone of some of these sections indicate some areas where Kowal has some difficulty successfully duplicating the voices of struggling minorities – it seems like she made it too easy on Elma.

In all, I would recommend this book – great story with great characters, and a good way of showing a more inclusive Space Race than we had in our own history. The biggest change I would make is to avoid too many puns in the private moments between Elma and her husband – it may be the relationship some people have, but it’s a little grinding on the reader after too many.

Ann Leckie’s Provenance – where is Ingray coming from?

Ingray Auskjold has a problem, and it’s fair to say that the scheme she begins the book with; freeing a prisoner from the anarchic “Compassionate Removal” and whisking him away to their homeworld, Hwae, will not solve it. Nor will solving the murder that occurs later in the book, or even winning the affections of the romantic interest character for her. I like this about Ann Leckie’s writing – that she is talented at creating characters whose concerns reveal that they have not read the blurb on the back of their own book’s dust jacket, but are living some sort of life both inside and outside the pages of the book they’re in.

Provenance Post Photo

Ingray isn’t always thinking about the events that dominate Provenance for her, she’s thinking about life, and that’s unusual enough in a novel’s protagonist that it feels oddly disconcerting. She has concerns beyond those of the immediate crisis; she’s not just trying to survive to Tuesday (well, she is trying to survive to see another day) but she is also realizing that she has to think about next month, next year, and what she really wants as a direction in life. Especially in science fiction, there are a lot of protagonists who do not reliably think about, or try to create, their futures. Mark Whatney from The Martian has reason to be so short-focused, and is believable in that context, but is Case from Neuromancer really thinking about career choices and his life beyond the MacGuffin that will free him? Or Hiro from Snow Crash? Do either of them wonder what will happen when the family gets together again for the holidays next December?

Science fiction and fantasy plots have a tendency to place their characters in situations where the immediate concerns of survival and crisis resolution absorb all the waking moments the characters have, leaving nothing for the concerns that an actual human might have for the long-term future: if you have to stop the runaway robot right now, or you have to save the world from the Dark Lich, that leaves very little room for the questions “who am I?” and “what do I want?” (nod to the Shadows and the Vorlons there.) But Ingray is wrestling with this, and as a reader who absorbs a lot of ‘standard’ science fiction and fantasy, this feels unusually strange to me. I only realized upon coming to the end of the book why it felt strange to me, and how I have for so long thought about characters who seem now unfairly stunted in their thoughts and planning in my reading. Coming to Provenance after so much Asimov and Robert Charles Wilson, authors I like, but who do not have the same talent Leckie has for characters that want to thrive after the events in their books wrap up. This might be what brings me to enjoy the characterization in a very different author, Adam Rakunas, who I might not otherwise compare to Leckie, but whose characters also want something that will tempt them from after the last page of the novel.

It reads as though Leckie is recreating science fiction in some ways, and just as surprisingly as Katherine Addison did with The Goblin Emperor, she’s writing books that pull it off. Those scenes that fans of an older form of science fiction writing might decry as ‘boring’ and that aren’t immediately related to the action that the characters are a part of; those scenes are important to Ingray, and that’s what makes them essential to this book.

I think a little about my own life, and how little I have in common with Fraa Erasmus or with Susan Calvin; and while I love those characters, it’s not my fault that I don’t see myself in them – I wasn’t designed to be in them, or them in me. There’s more than a little of myself that I can find in Ingray Auskjold, though, and that’s both a good thing for the character and a healthy thing for the novel Provenance. It’s not really a sci-fi escape caper, a murder mystery, or a thriller, although elements of those genres are found throughout the book, but those elements are all a part of the coming of age of a woman from a very different culture who needs to make her own way in her world, and find out how to go from where she’s been to where she needs to be, just as we need to make our own way in ours.