It seems to be a perennial question but one focused on a future we anticipate and aren’t sure yet what to do with: what is humanity’s ethical obligation to the consciousnesses we make? We see this question in the replicants of Blade Runner to the clones of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go to the entertaining android “hosts” of Westworld. I often find these stories frustrating because they act as if they are asking a very serious question—but are they people and, if so, we ought to treat the better, right?—and that the answer in these stories is always, “Um, YES! YES THEY ARE PEOPLE TOO, YOU MONSTERS!”
This rote response reminds me of my frustration teaching Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” to undergrads, all of whom said that they would for sure totally be one of the ones who walk away. Never mind that our world is far less utopian than the one LeGuin created and yet they do not walk away. I don’t think I would teach that story again, at least without something to converse with it, because LeGuin’s fictional world is too clean-cut, the baddies too obvious, the wretched source of their ease too specific, and the remedy (walking away) too achievable. In this way, LeGuin asks a profound question but in a way easy for readers to not recognize our own world and complicity within it.
However, this year we have two new, intriguing additions to this micro-genre within science/speculative fiction: Klara and the Sun, a new Ishiguro (and as you know, I am a fan), and The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey. Ishiguro uses androids, child companions known as “Artificial Friends” or “AFs.” Gailey uses clones. But both of them are circling around the perennial question but in new and interesting ways.
Klara the AF narrates Klara and the Sun, including her journey to befriend Josie, who Klara loves deeply. Powered by solar energy, Klara has also developed her own private religion focused on the Sun and his bounty. Josie is ill because she has been “lifted,” a mostly unexplained procedure, available to affluent families, that makes children more intelligent and capable of learning and, therefore, the only ones who can compete for college admission and the jobs that follow, but that also comes with side effects that can result in death. Klara leans into her faith in the sun in her attempts to cure Josie’s illness.
I’m not going to lie: I did not love Klara and the Sun. It felt like a retread of ideas, concepts, and characters Ishiguro has trod before, and like a step back from the new depth he reached with the ideas that obsess him artistically in The Buried Giant. Plus I am such an Ishiguro fan that my expectations were high. I will however say this for “Klara.” The novel asks that same question, “But are they people?” and this novel seems to answer, “No, they’re not.” This answer differs from the one he landed on with the clones of Never Let Me Go. As such, it provides an important addition to the micro-genre by pushing us to think more deeply about the question and then ask, “If the answer is ‘no,’ then what? What is our ethical obligation to these beings, to those from the other-than-human world?”
Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife, by contrast, I loved. The pitch is that a leading-edge researcher into cloning discovers that her husband is having an affair and leaving her…for a clone of herself. Wackiness ensues. When I first heard about this premise, it intrigued me. And yet I still did not expect the book I got, which turned out smarter and weirder and more complicated and horrifying than I assumed. I do not want to say too much about this text because I so enjoyed uncovering its strange delights as a reader. But I will say that it neatly sidesteps the perennial question and sets up a cast of characters where the husband is a devil, but that does not mean that the wife—either of them—is a martyr or a saint.
- Speculative fiction and Magical Realism, bonus points if by a woman or Person of Color
- Complicated friendships, particularly among or including women
- Ambiguous endings, a.k.a. endings that are to be interpreted, that don’t hand the reader an answer
- Stories about grief and trauma that come at the subject slant