Billionaire blogger Bill Gates is highlighting a Prometheus Best Novel finalist among his favorite books of the year.
On the book page of Gates’ blog, he’s currently recommending Klara and the Sun, by Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro.
Almost all the books Gates recommends on his blog are non-fiction, but occasionally a novel pops up – such as Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (an epic sf/fantasy perhaps best known for the ambitious film version of its multi-era reincarnation saga.)
To my mind, that makes Gates’ rare thumb ups for works of fiction – especially when they fall into the genre of science fiction – even more notable and worth mentioning.
KLARA AND THE SUN
Gates headlines his capsule review of Klara and the Sun as “A thought-provoking tale of friendship and robots.”
Here’s the summary sentence Gates writes, just under his headline, to describe his basic overall reaction to reading the novel: “Klara and the Sunmade me think about what life with super intelligent machines might look like.”
Gates, a fan of Ishiguro’s earlier novel Remains of the Day, writes that his latest novel is “just as thoughtful and beautifully written as you’d expect from him.”
Here’s an excerpt from Gates’ blog review that helps to explain why he was drawn to the novel:
“Most fiction about robots seems to fall into one of two categories: stories about how they’re going to kill us all or stories about how robots become an integral part of our lives. Although I enjoy the former — the first two Terminator movies are classics for a reason, and there are some terrific episodes of Black Mirror that tackle the subject — I’m drawn more to books and movies that paint robots in a positive light,” he writes.
“Robots are going to play a huge role in our future, and fiction is a great way to explore what exactly that might mean…. The Klara in the title is an “artificial friend” who provides companionship to a sick 14-year-old girl named Josie. The story takes place in a dystopian future where children have been genetically “lifted’ to be smarter. The process of lifting is risky, and it’s the cause of Josie’s illness. Children only attend school online, so many kids have robot friends like Klara to try and make up for the lack of socialization. We don’t find out much about the world outside of Josie’s home, but there are references to frequent terrorism and environmental catastrophe.
“Klara is programmed to be deeply empathetic and curious about the world. Because the book is told in the first person, we see everything from her perspective, which is both fascinating and odd. There are long stretches where you’ll almost forget that she isn’t human.”
… As I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but think about which parts of it paint a picture of our likely future—and which parts were pure fiction. I believe we’ll someday have both companion and utilitarian robots in our lives. Klara is mostly a companion. She’s not doing much of what you’d expect from a utilitarian robot, like bringing you things or preparing your meals. Her purpose is almost entirely social, and although I don’t know if we’ll ever have robots as emotionally sophisticated as she is, we might see pretty good companion robots emerge in the next decade.”
Gates then wonders whether people will treat such robots as mere “pieces of technology” or something more…. which raises some libertarian issues that LFS members found especially intriguing to consider in judging the novel.
“I’m inclined to think like Josie and see robots as machines, no matter how intelligent and human-like they become. In A Thousand Brains, Jeff Hawkins explores at length what moral obligation we have to our machines. Should we feel bad about pulling the plug on an artificial intelligence if it’s as human-like as Klara? Hawkins concludes that the answer is no. I agree with him, although I can imagine a future where other people might not.”
Overall, Gates’ blog review offers a fair, and fairly accurate, description of Ishiguro’s poetic and poignant novel, along with some timely thoughts about what might happen in real life regarding such A.I.s over the coming decades.
SENTIENCE AND RIGHTS
Some LFS members, though, will find in the novel additional possibilities and questions related to the foundations of basic rights, and whether intelligent A.I.s might evolve some day to the degree that they achieve real personhood.
If so, what rights might they gain? And what would happen if their personhood and potential rights aren’t recognized?
Of course, Gates isn’t recommending Ishiguro’s novel because it’s been recognized by the Libertarian Futurist Society as one of five 2022 Best Novel finalists, along with books by Karl Gallagher, Wil McCarthy and Lionel Shriver.
In fact, it’s doubtful that Gates has heard of the Libertarian Futurist Society or the Prometheus Awards.
Yet, his comments about Klara and the Sun might offer an additional perspective to consider as LFS members read and weigh this year’s slate of Best Novel finalists.
For more about Bill Gates’ book recommendations, see this previous Prometheus Blog article about a libertarian sf classic that’s one of his favorites.
* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.
Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights and differences.
Through recognizing the literature of liberty and the many different but complementary visions of a free future via the Prometheus Awards, the LFS hopes to help spread better visions of the future that help humanity overcome tyranny, slavery and war and achieve universal liberty and human rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.