Like Never Let Me Go, Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro’s eighth novel, is set in a near future that feels much like the present. While the earlier novel is almost unbearably sad, this one leaves the reader in a more positive frame of mind. This might seem surprising, seeing that Klara, the first-person narrator, is a humanoid “Artificial Friend” (AF), manufactured to be a companion for children who are confined to the home because schooling is done remotely. But Klara is an exceptional AF with remarkable empathy for the fourteen-year-old Josie who chooses her.
Because Ishiguro describes everything through Klara’s necessarily limited perception, we catch only glimpses of the state of America in the near future. We are told that AIs have replaced many humans at work. The “post-employed” in turn resent the AIs, which are themselves subject to obsolescence. Parents who can afford it have their children “lifted,” or genetically modified to enable them to qualify for university. The fact that Rick, Josie’s boyfriend, was not lifted, eventually drives them apart. So there is a new caste system. Even newer AFs look down on older ones as inferior. (Is this class consciousness more English than American?)
Lifted children are taught at home on their “oblongs.” Ishiguro has said that he finished writing the novel before the start of the pandemic, which makes it that much more prescient. A consequence of this remote learning is that all lifted children need social interaction meetings to compensate for their isolation. In fact they get so lonely that they are given AFs. Like AIs, AFs disturb some adults, who either think of them as of the same order as a vacuum cleaner or think they have become too clever, too human.
We learn all his from Klara who has difficulty making sense of human actions and emotions. Nevertheless the Manager of the store where she is for sale at the beginning of the novel praises her for her uncharacteristic ability to understand emotional contradiction. “Sometimes,” the Manager agrees with her, “people feel a pain alongside their happiness.”
Klara’s detachment from the human world combined with her unusual empathy suit Ishiguro’s narrative purposes perfectly. In particular he uses Klara’s artificial sight to indicate to the reader how differently she perceives the world. She sees a landscape or a person as split into two-dimensional boxes that she has to amalgamate to get a true three-dimensional perception. Looking at Josie’s mother she observes that “her expression varied between one box and the next. In one, for instance, her eyes were laughing cruelly, but in the next they were filled with sadness.” It’s a great example of emotional contradiction.
Klara also has a unique way of talking. She never uses “you” when talking, say, to Josie’s mother. Instead she addresses her as “the Mother.” And she is excessively formal. When Josie tells her that AFs normally attend interaction meetings, Klara replies, “So Josie would wish me to be present.” She also has no sense of smell, doesn’t need to eat, and can spend all night standing facing a wall.
For Ishiguro this makes Klara the ideal narrator. Unsure with her restricted perception of what anything truly means, she is forced to sift through the data she receives to make (narrative) sense of it. Her naivety and her capacity to empathize with the feelings of others makes her a typically Ishiguran figure – puzzled, slightly distanced and yet sympathetic. Strangely we come to realize that the non-human Klara is more human than the humans, none of whom can be fully trusted, not even Josie. As the Manger warns Klara: “Children make promises all the time. . . They promise to come back. . . But more often than not the child never comes back. Or worse, the child comes back and ignores the poor AF who’s waited, and instead chooses another.” Interestingly, Ishiguro has offered a narrative explanation of the way his humanoid can solicit our sympathies as much as humans can: “Because after all, characters in books are artificial.”
“Klara” comes from the Latin word for “bright” or “shining.” She is solar-powered, which makes her think of the sun, which she personalizes, as a divinity. It turns out that Josie is suffering from a life-threatening illness caused by her “lifting.” Klara appeals to the sun to help heal her. But she also sacrifices a vital component of her mechanism to win the sun’s help. It is this sacrifice, rather than her strange religious belief in the sun, that is significant. She would willingly give up her existence if it led to Josie’s recovery. With this act of devotion reveals how far Klara’s humanity exceeds that of any of the human characters.
Throughout the novel Ishiguro uses Klara as a way of measuring the actions and feelings of humans. Don’t humans have a spiritual sense of identity that no machine could acquire? The novel asks the question, could she ever replace Josie if Josie died from her illness? A friend of Josie’s mother thinks this is achievable. Josie’s father doubts it. Wouldn’t Klara have to learn Josie’s heart? He’s speaking figuratively. By the human heart he means “something that makes each of us special and individual.” Klara thinks that it is within her abilities. But she proceeds to envisage the heart as a house with many rooms. Each could be studied until they became like Klara’s “home.” As a robotic figure she can only construct emotions, let alone identity, by physical means.
Ishiguro raises this issue, but refrains from resolving it. How close are we to being matched by machines, even emotionally? Maybe not yet. But we’re close, if Klara is an instance of nonhuman humanity. Like humans, she ends the novel waiting to “fade.” The sun will no longer be able to recharge her. She will lose her ability to shine as brightly as the humans she serves and loves. But she leaves the reader with the imponderable question – what is it to be human?
Klara and the Sun
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Knopf; 320 p.
Brian Finney is the author of nine books, including a biography of Christopher Isherwood that won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. His last two books have been novels – Money Matters, which was a finalist in the American Fiction Awards in 2019, and Dangerous Conjectures, released in March 2021. For more information visit his website: www.bhfinney.com