Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
*Some Spoilers Within*
While looking to expand my reading horizons and unaware of where to start, I spotted this bright red book in my library stack. Perfect timing; I can tackle one of my overdue books and commence my journey into sci-fi with a trusted author.
Kazuo Ishiguro is a thoughtful writer, melodically attuned to the jangly realness of the human journey. His mega-hits: Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, are still with me a decade later, so needless to say, I felt pumped for an encore.
Artificial intelligence and gene editing are chilling realities, the former leading the charge in controlling the masses with manipulated computer algorithms, while the latter threatens to produce designer babies. And to be clear, this is the current human experience in reference, not Ishiguro’s world. This new techno-feudalism that our AI evolution is ushering us into as a society is smelling pretty funky.
But, back to the book, I was thrilled to learn that these two modern-technology themes were the basis of its foundation.
In my review of The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, I share some of the concerns and appreciation I noted regarding DNA manipulation, as well as the ground-breaking strides that have taken place within the field.
Klara and the Sun was my foray into AI, and since reading it last month, I feel haunted by the questions Ishiguro has left me with surrounding AF (artificial friend) engineering and how it could mould our future.
Will these machines stifle physical human contact even more than the internet has? Can the chemistry and connection achieved through the human heart be mimicked or even supplanted by androids with their keen AI and programming? In the end, will more humans end up alone?
‘”Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?”’
It is through the eyes of Klara, one of the older model humanoid AFs in the shop fronting the busy metropolitan street, that we begin Part 1 and the slow burn through this dystopian tale.
With AFs in rotation for display in the window, they all eagerly await a turn to soak up the Sun’s solar energy and draw in curious onlookers and passersby. Manager discourages them from looking at the people unless they approach the AF first, and only then the AF must respond in kind.
Josie had engaged Klara in the display window a couple of times in previous weeks and had taken a shine to her. The excited AF secretly waited and wished that the girl would one day return and take her home.
That day finally arrived, and although the Mother was inclined to purchase one of the newer B3 models, there was only one friend that Josie had in mind.
After Manager informed the Mother of Klara’s exceptional observational abilities, and the Mother had the droid perform a few strange requests to her satisfaction, it seemed that mayhaps she was the perfect fit for the sickly child after all. And so began, along with Part 2 of the novel, the start of her life with her new human family.
Klara is, technically, a robot, but suppress the urge to refer to her that way, as using the R-word is improper etiquette. She is nurturing, respectful, loyal, and encouraging, a desirable host of traits for a companion to a child, by any measure.
As a devout solar-charged android, Klara’s faith in the Sun and Its power is present throughout and at times seemed reminiscent of a human worshipping their God. She calls upon the divine light to intervene and heal the ill children in the way a mother would pray to her maker for the life of her ailing child.
Just like Man, she seemingly struggles with her faith and even commits acts of sacrifice in an attempt to lessen the dreaded Pollution, in reverence to the great Sun.
‘And it was clear the sun was unwilling to make any promise about Josie, because for all his kindness, he wasn’t yet able to see Josie separately from the other humans, some of whom had angered him very much on account of their Pollution and inconsideration, and I suddenly felt foolish to have come to this place to make such a request.’
In Ishiguro’s scarcely delineated world, there seem to be many children in need of healing. From what I could surmise, the gene-editing chosen by the parents with ‘Courage’ comes at the cost of a weakened immune system for the modified child.
Roll the dice for a chance at a future where the odds will be forever in your favour!
But if, against all odds, you choose to let your child enjoy their youth in health with minimal risk of serious illness, unlike the children of families with ‘Courage,’ the institutional deck will be eternally stacked against them. The system design accordingly offering them no other option than to assume their rightful role as a modern-day serf.
Josie is one of the ‘lifted’ children, thanks to the Mother’s bravery. She is tutored through her ‘oblong’ in place of attending school, only rarely interacting in person with other socially awkward children in strangely crafted social settings, in the hopes of preparing for the social element of college one day.
As she struggles to maintain her health throughout, sometimes not well enough to even sit up in bed, Klara’s primary responsibility is to keep vigil and help the girl find comfort.
Josie’s best friend and neighbour Rick is not ‘lifted’ and provides Josie a peek into an old-school childhood filled with running, playing, and exploring.
Rick is always eager to hang out with Josie when her health will allow it. They are smitten and prefer each other’s company over all else, Klara presenting as a 3rd wheel at times. One of the sadder parts of the book for me was observing the forces aligned to pull them apart when they want nothing more than to be together.
Although the parents of the unedited aren’t appointed the antithetical moniker Cowardly, the message seems clear: not being brave enough to put your children’s life on the line marks you as a traitor to your community and deserving of a lower station in society as a consequence.
Damn! That is not a world I would want to live in!
Ishiguro must have written this book pre-pandemic, but it seems to parallel the virus hell we’re in quite aptly. Between children schooling in isolation via computer screens to divisive narratives of intolerance strategically placed to shame dissenters into submission if they dare choose not to have their children ‘lifted,’ or currently, Covid-vaccinated, this all seems eerily familiar.
Josie’s relationship with the Mother was fascinating for me. I craved more access to their thoughts and motivations; wished for some changing points of view between Klara, the Mother, and Josie. But that would take the focus off Klara, and she is the star of this show.
Klara’s omnipotent ability to understand the manipulation-volley between the Mother and Josie so accurately through mere observation was freaky. Will future robots be so advanced that they can anticipate human behaviour, even while the flawed human is dizzied by emotion? That’s some scary shit and doesn’t leave us much of a fighting chance in a future battle against the machines.
Ishiguro’s expertise in the psychology of people and their motivations is one of the things I love about his writing. In Klara and the Sun, we are offered a window into a humanoid’s grid-squared mind, and it was fun to see the inventiveness of his descriptions as he attempted to understand and convey the robot as he does the man.
Coming from a subhuman vantage point, so much of this story feels fresh and new, if not under-developed. I never realised how much I thirsted for other-worldliness in a story until having read it, this point alone proving a win for the genre. In short, I’ve been missing out!
That said, other than for Klara, there was never any real connection to the characters formed. I didn’t care for nor dislike them, they were just…meh. I wonder if this is intentional, to let Klara and her star shine? Maybe it was because people had become less admirable due to their dystopian circumstances; more polarised; less likable? Am I blaming the author for sharing a world that is too unappealing and upsetting to appreciate on its merits? Maybe.
The measure of an important book, in my view, is the amount of time I spend thinking about it after I’ve closed the cover. Klara and the Sun bringing to mind topics such as AI, DNA manipulation, pollution, and modern feudalism have left this piece of speculative fiction hovering around me and jumping out from behind corners ever since I put it down; a literary haunting.
I’m not one to reread a book, but this one is headed to the Future-Book-Club list to be properly analysed at a later date. I prefer to take comfort in the solace of differing perspectives from respected readers in my midst, which serves as a great way to attempt neutrality and remain questioning. But most importantly, other people help make processing grave concepts more fun and slightly less frightening, as you collectively share the burden of the conclusions.
Have you read Klara and the Sun? What do you think about gene-editing and AI becoming part of the everyday human experience? As always, I’d love to know your thoughts on these important yet jarring technological advances, so let’s talk in the comments!