Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro – an exploration in what it means to be human through the lens of AI.
Klara and the Sun is Kazuo Ishiguro’s most recent anticipated novel and his first novel since 2015. Like his other work, Ishiguro explores what it means to be human but in a new sci-fi genre using a world of advanced artificial intelligence in the form of ‘AFs’ and a childlike format. Ishiguro said in an interview with Waterstones that this was originally meant to be a book for children but his daughter, author Natalie Ishiguro, warned him against it because it was too ‘terrifying’. Indeed, it can be so at times, as the mother navigates her grief and Klara seeks for reasons to hope as her ‘friend’ Josie navigates a mysterious illness. It is, at its core, a novel exploring the lengths to which artificial intelligence could go, steering away from the brutality and totality of Terminator and instead choosing to approach the subject with a nuance and gentleness that Ishiguro is known for. Never Let me Go explored what validated being human was, The Remains of the Day on a human’s emotional capacity, in this novel it is what separates us from machines – asking the question of what about each one of us can’t be learnt? More akin to the former, this book also explores human emotion and the complexities of hope.
At the beginning of the novel, we find Klara stood in the window of a shop, I imagine a little like seeing a mannequin in a clothes store, where she is soon noticed and chosen by 14-year-old Josie. By beginning here, Ishiguro immediately sets us the commercialism and consumerism of the AF’s, presenting the distinct difference (or perhaps similarity) between making human friends and getting artificial ones. Manufactured for this purpose, Klara is ‘born’ to be a friend and so we are first introduced to her as she discovers and observes the world for the first time. Written as a first-person narrative from her point of view, the reader is brought along with these intelligent child-like observations where she is questioning her own capability, she says “I believe I have feelings” when asked and describes what she sees in an overly comparative manner, for example when describing a girl who was interested in buying her who “was dressed that morning like a runner”. From the very beginning this character is wanting to see the “outside” in “all its detail”.
This simplistic syntax and style of writing can be repetitive at times as the naïve yet intelligent Klara pieces the world she sees before her together especially as Klara is limited in her interactions due to being under the ownership of the often bed-bound teenager Josie. In this way, Klara and the Sun is reminiscent of Pixar’s animated Toy Story films which are full of child-like innocent perspective whilst simultaneously being detached from the human. Klara becomes more serious as the novel progressively depicts a situation that feels much more real because Klara is truly and realistically animated with artificial intelligence. Like the toys in these films Klara is there to be a friend to Josie and has to discover the world around her in order to protect and help her. As Klara is only just learning about the world, so are we. Ishiguro drip feeds clues and ideas about the sometime-dystopian sometime-recognisable future that Klara and the Sun is set piquing our curiosity on every page and often leaving us to feel the gaps. This does mean, however, that the book is often full of potential happenings, that can often fall through or are decided against. Ishiguro focuses on the themes rather than main plot points but nevertheless never failed to be compelling and remained interesting throughout. Later on, Klara is asked to be philosophic, taking her observational skill into a more complex territory with the question “do you believe in the human heart?” the thing “that makes each of us special and individual”. Klara is not only faced with helping another but knowing her place within the world when she lacks ‘a human heart’.
Klara and her relationship to the human world is the main focus, but as the novel indicates, the natural world, and the sun in particular, is a thread that is interlaced throughout. As the earth is centred around the sun, Klara is too. AF’s are solar-powered, encouraged to soak up the sunshine that is available for their energy, so much so that Klara feels guilty for taking too much “I’m sorry I didn’t mean to take it all myself” she says (just one of many incidents that separate her from other AF’s or our general perceptions of AI). Around halfway through, this relationship with the sun and Klara’s selflessness takes a deeper level as her relationship to the sun becomes increasingly akin to a religious one with a God. As the sun powers her, literally, she feels as though it could help others after seeing the sun appear to bring someone back to life. This demonstration and exploration of human belief builds the reader’s sympathies for this AF – at these moments it can be difficult to tell that she is artificial at all, that is until her vision becomes pixelated. These dispersed moments call you back into the speculative world, but they also become moments that break up the plot, becoming bewildering moments that aren’t fully explained.
Although about artificial intelligence, the novel really focuses on what it means to be human and what it is that separates people from machines. As it is narrated by an Artificial Friend the reader is more sympathetic to her experience; we care for Klara and the way in which she comes to view the world around her. Despite the simplicity and repetition at times, Ishiguro’s highly anticipated new novel has been worth the wait, it is a hugely enjoyable book that brings to light some of the issues of our own time projecting them sympathetically and philosophically into a future that doesn’t feel all that far away.