KAZUO ISHIGURO Klara and the Sun. Reviewed by Paul Anderson
Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel is as much about what it is to be human as it is about artificial intelligence.
Klara and the Sun is Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel since he was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature. He touches on AI towards the end of his Nobel Lecture and evidently was already ‘very deep’ into writing the novel.
Klara is the narrator, and she is an AF, an Artificial Friend. She is bought, as one might a domestic appliance, as a companion for Josie, to prevent the teenager from becoming lonely. The book is about her two key relationships: with Josie, her client and raison d’être, and with ‘the Sun’, her essential energy source and object of worship. Fundamentally it’s a story about what it means to be loved. The full designation Artificial Friend (rather than AF) is, carefully, only given once, indicative of Ishiguro’s style, which is more or less jargon-free science fiction.
Josie is 14 and a half years old at the start of the book. That’s Klara’s estimate, anyway: a party-trick of hers. Josie is ‘pale and thin’, anxious and unwell — as is Cassie, her mum. Time and place are not specified, but it’s not impossible to recognise this world as somewhere in America – mum is mom, the sky is gray (not grey) and later on there are references to a couple of States. The time, concerningly, is a future that may not be that far off.
At first, we are downtown, in a city where taxis dominate the traffic. Josie and her mom are shopping for an AF. There is Pollution; mysterious Cootings Machines and overhaul men who may have something to do with the climate. It’s ambiguous. Sunshine is notable whenever it breaks through. The sun’s patterns striate the book and are always significant.
Klara is curious, empathetic — she is special. Josie intuits this when she sees her in the shop window. Klara is a B2 model, ‘fourth series’. B3s are the latest but Josie has made up her mind: it’s Klara or no AF. Ishiguro described Klara as ‘a tabula rasa’ in an interview on ABC Radio National’s The Book Show. Hers is no droid super-intelligence, like say C-3P0 in Star Wars, although there is the same deference and awkward perambulation. Klara stiltedly addresses people in the third-person rather than saying ‘you’: she refers to Josie’s ‘adult’ as The Mother, to her store owner as Manager. Klara has never been outside. She is naïve, not omniscient. The little she knows has been self-taught through acute observation from ‘front-store’. When disoriented, her vision becomes partitioned, like a Zoom gallery view.
When I next looked, the street outside had become partitioned into several vertical panels – from my position I could see three of them quite clearly without leaning forward. The amount of dark smoke appeared to vary from panel to panel, so that it was almost as if contrasting shades of gray were being displayed for selection. But even where the smoke was at its most dense, I could still pick out many details. In one panel, for instance, there was a section of the overhaul men’s wooden barrier, and seemingly now attached to it, the front part of a taxi. In the neighboring panel, diagonally cutting off its top corner, was a metal bar which I recognised as belonging to one of the high traffic signals. Indeed, looking more closely, I could decipher the dark edge of a bird’s outline perched upon it. At one point I saw a runner pass from one panel into the next, and as he crossed, his figure altered both in terms of size and trajectory. Then the Pollution became so bad that, even from the magazines table side, I could no longer see the gap of sky, and the window itself, which the glass men cleaned so proudly for Manager, became covered with dirty dots.
Next, we are in the country, in Josie’s home, somewhere within a day’s drive of the city. Klara is now in service to Josie. There are two neighbouring single-parent families separated by grasslands — Josie and her mom (Cassie); and Rick, Josie’s childhood friend, and his mom (Miss Helen). There is one other building on top of a hill, Mr McBain’s Barn. The sky is clearer out here and this isolated set-up has a picture-book quality. The families have a weird relationship: quasi-incestuous, presumptuous at times.
Josie is ‘home-tutored by screen professors’ on her ‘oblong’. Josie and Rick are sweethearts, kind of, but are no longer equals in a new meritocracy. Josie has been ‘lifted’, genetically enhanced for educational advantage; Rick has not, and consequently college, specifically Atlas Brookings, is out of his league. However, Josie is ill, potentially terminally. A play-date is arranged for Josie, a (social) ‘interaction meeting’, where she is forced to get along with a peer group of similarly lifted kids while their parents hover. Josie invites Rick and, although he feels out of place, he averts a physical threat to Klara. We see their three-way friendship.
Meanwhile Josie’s mom is stricken with guilt and grief. She works in something ‘high-ranking’, maybe law. Hers is a punishing, six-days-a-week schedule and, although she loves Josie, she’s just not there for her daughter.
Klara has hyper-emotional intelligence, especially tuned into any tension, fear or ‘danger topics for Josie’. She can read the room and recalibrate: ‘give privacy’ when appropriate. Josie treats Klara as almost an equal, like a surrogate sister; occasionally the AF is ordered about. Klara demonstrates more agency when making a series of pilgrimages to the barn to petition the Sun in desperate pleas for Josie’s recovery. (Stay with me here.) There are pro- and anti-AF characters and glimpses of AF abuse in the book. Cassie and Miss Helen use Klara: both initiate self-serving schemes intended to benefit their respective children, which would exploit her. Is this wrong, morally, ethically? Or merely transactional? ‘You’ll be loved like nothing else in the world,’ says Cassie. Readers may ask, what’s in it for Klara?
Klara has her own growing up to do and we see most of her lifespan over the course of the book, about three years. Thus she is humanised as her character is developed. Her sun-worship is innate: Klara is sentient and superstitious. A ‘slow fade’ of her faculties is accepted towards the end of her life/utility.
The story is told in medias res — we are dropped into a world in which, sadly, it is normal for teens to have artificial friends and where, for some, genetic editing goes hand-in-hand with private tutoring. Some breakdown in society is inferred. Humans are being substituted by AFs in employment. Josie’s dad (Paul) has been retrenched from something in clean energy despite his expertise. Alternative communities are sprouting in the city; he now lives in one and talks of ‘defending ourselves should the need arise’. It’s not as sinisterly dystopic (yet) as, say, the future-city in Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness (2019) — and it may be on its way — it’s just that Ishiguro keeps this content in the background. He may have built a world but he does not explicate. It’s coherent and strangely almost familiar.
The book has a straightforward structure, six parts, and a compelling narrative arc. Ishiguro explains this ‘method of movement’ in his introduction to the thirtieth anniversary edition of his second novel, An Artist of The Floating World (2016): he adroitly foreshadows what is to come. Here is Klara, wrapping up the previous 20 pages on Josie’s interaction meeting:
I was happy then that nothing changed between us on account of the meeting. However, not long afterwards, something else came along which did for a time make our friendship less warm. This was the trip to Morgan’s Falls, and it came to trouble me because I couldn’t for a long time see how it had created coldness between us, or how I might have avoided such a thing happening.
Genre elements become more extreme in part four where the families journey together to the city with various agendas. Josie is to resume sitting for her ‘portrait’ with Mr Capaldi. This verges on a Frankenstein-like parable. Paul helps Klara in her deluded acts of self-sacrifice and vandalism, for Josie. It’s convoluted: ‘Hope,’ he said. ‘Damn thing never leaves you alone.’ Ishiguro is able to pull back from all the madness and resolve the plot, ending with a coda.
This book could be read as a counterpoint to Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2015). It too is science fiction, similar in tone. Klara and the Sun is arguably less dystopian; certainly it’s less earnest. Klara has feelings or asserts them. But are these learned from humans or true? Ishiguro leaves this hanging — how could he do otherwise? — and avoids over-intellectualising.
Klara and the Sun is easy to read — that’s a compliment. It will stay with you. I am still unpeeling the layers. Ishiguro’s prose is not ostentatious. What you consistently get is that voice, a submissive affect; and rewarding philosophical explorations. Klara and the Sun is of intelligent design, as much about what makes us unique as it is AI. Read it and be nourished.
Kazuo Ishiguro Klara and the Sun Faber 2021 PB 320pp $32.99
Paul Anderson is an editor and volunteer with Dirt Lane Press. He was one of the editorial committee for the 2020 UTS writers’ anthology Empty Sky published by Brio Books.
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