Another sublime novel from one of my all-time favourite authors, Klara and the Sun could be seen as a companion piece to Ishiguro’s dystopian romance Never Let Me Go, exploring similar themes of love, the danger of unchecked technological advances, and what it means to be human and not-quite-human.
Whereas Never Let Me Go explored the scenario of clones, Klara and the Sun takes on another classic sci-fi trope, artificial intelligence. This topic of course has already been extensively covered by the countless novels, movies and TV series, but no subject is truly beaten to death if it can still get a unique, distinctive treatment. Ishiguro’s delicate writing is unsentimental, detached even, with an oddly formal, stilted narration and dialogue, but something about it gets under my skin like almost no other writer does, probably because of this quiet, restrained sense of tragedy and human failings.
Klara is an Artificial Friend (or AF), an android designed to provide companionship for the teenage children of the well-off parents during their lonely years before college. Why exactly children in this not-so-distant future need artificial companions is revealed slowly over the course of the story, and piecing the details of this radically transformed society together from hints and suggestions is one of the main pleasures of the novel. So I’ll just say that in this world, many children are home-schooled by the means of remote learning and get to hang out with their peers at “interaction meetings” – evenings of forced awkward fun in which teenagers gather at one another’s houses in order to practice social skills. We may not be there yet as a society with interaction meetings, but children enduring remote learning is an eerie thing to read about while in strict lockdown.
When we first meet Klara, she is on display in a specialised AF store, waiting to be noticed and taken home. While all AFs are meant to be highly sophisticated machines capable of learning and growth, Klara is unusually observant and curious, particularly when it comes to human behaviour and emotions. Like all AFs, Klara is powered by solar energy, and so it’s not a great leap to her to see sun as a god-like omnipotent being, capable of benevolence and casting his life-giving rays on AFs and humans alike.
Eventually, Klara is chosen by Josie, a bright but sickly young girl suffering from an unnamed illness that killed her younger sister and could very well end her life. She leaves the store and moves to a remote and peaceful country house, where Josie lives with her mother and a prickly Eastern European housekeeper. There Klara also meets Rick, Josie’s teenage neighbour and possibly more-than-friend who, we’re given to understand, occupies a lower rung on the social ladder in the ways beyond class and wealth.
The story unfolds in a gentle unhurried way for the first two thirds of the book, with Klara’s narration taking the reader through her life at the store and later as Josie’s devoted companion, before the main plot that until then was outside of Klara’s awareness kicks in the last third. It’s not a jarring change of gears, but a noticeable one nonetheless.
With Klara, Ishiguro strikes the right balance between alien and endearing, naive and perceptive. At times her unemotional statements remind the reader that she is a machine, but her devotion and commitment to Josie feel as pure as that of the Giving Tree from a children’s story, and there’s something moving about her childlike faith in the sun. In fact there are times when the novel feels closer to a fable than science fiction, which helps sell some of the characters’ decisions that otherwise would teeter on improbable. There are also entertaining quirks to Klara’s non-human perception of the world: to the AFs it’s a series of boxes and squares, occasionally distorted by glitches. When later in the book Klara happens to temporarily lose some of her cognitive abilities, people appear to her as formations of cylinders and cones, smooth and featureless, distinguished only by their voices.
Ishiguro’s books always leave me with a deeper awareness of the beauty and fragility of life, and I always put them down feeling both uplifted and saddened. Though the consequences of technological advancements are not as devastating as in Never Let Me Go, Klara and the Sun is likewise filled with beautifully written anxieties about where our future might be taking us.