Klara and the Sun: A novel
“Klara and the Sun is about families, about the future of work, about disability and the nature of (post) humanity. It’s a novel that questions the very foundations of reality in a world without consensus.”
The premise of Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, Klara and the Sun, feels like well-worn ground. Its main character is part robot, part toy, powered by artificial intelligence and solar cells. Her geneology is clear, beginning from the Velveteen Rabbit and travelling through Brian Aldiss’ Supertoys Last All Summer Long (the basis for the film A.I.). She’s covered in the tiny plastic fingerprints of Pixar’s Toy Story films, and her seed grows from countless stories narrated by animals. Yet in spite of those visible roots, Klara and the Sun is anything but derivative. Instead, as is so often the case with Ishiguro’s novels, new potential flowers up from ground that was apparently worn to bare earth.
Klara is an Artificial Friend (AF), a human-sized robot-doll, artificially intelligent, suitable to be a companion for an adolescent. She is charming, poised, and perhaps a little too observant. The store manager, who watches Klara with the intensity of a nanny, remarks, “You never miss a thing, do you?” She doesn’t: Klara is a highly focused, detail-oriented observer, more aware of the world than any mortal girl is likely to be.
She’s also deeply naïve, limited by her short life, inhuman environment, and AI brain. Subtly but clearly, Ishiguro builds a narrator who isn’t human and whose desires aren’t human desires. Klara is nearly completely selfless. Inhumanly, she doesn’t fear for herself, or feel humiliation or shame. She might look like a teenage girl, but in many ways she’s the antithesis of one: self-possessed, utterly calm, without ego in any sense of the world.
Klara pairs with Josie, a chronically ill teenager. The two seem drawn together as soulmates, utterly certain of their being made for each other. In a world where most teens reject AFs as irritating hangers-on, Klara seems unusually blessed. Yet in spite of Josie’s charm and attachment to her AF, there’s something deeply wrong with her.
What, exactly, is wrong with Josie is the tension at the novel’s heart. Klara’s first view of Josie is of someone both determined and fragile: “She was pale and thin, and as she came towards us, I could see her walk wasn’t like that of the other passers-by. She wasn’t slow exactly, but she seemed to take stock after each step to make sure she was still safe and wouldn’t fall. I estimated her age as fourteen and a half.” The tentativeness she sees reveals a world of hidden dangers for which Klara has no name.
Josie’s fragility is only one manifestation of a larger wrongness. Children across this country are solitary beings, without siblings and apparently without friends, living in beautiful, empty houses and studying in isolation. They don’t know how to be with people. Their senses are sometimes warped. Something has happened to them, which made AFs necessary.
Kazuo Ishiguro is the master novelist of beautiful worlds with rotten cores. From elegant European cities to apparently idyllic boarding schools, he has spent his career building worlds whose gloss only emphasizes the quiet horror beneath. In Never Let Me Go, children in an apparent school for the gifted are organ-donor clones marking time before their bodies are needed to sustain the lives of others. In The Buried Giant, post-Arthurian England barely conceals terrible trauma beneath its green hills and deep mist. In Klara and the Sun, the rotten heart lies between layers of polished glass in echoing designer homes where children languish.
In spite of that horror, this is a novel without villains. Each character is, in his or her own way, genuinely trying to be good. The characters struggle because “good” is constantly changing, challenging their deepest values, and because they understand one another imperfectly, as human beings must. In contrast, Klara understands both humanly and inhumanly, with impossible detail and no depth.
Klara’s naïveté as a narrator is only one layer of this magnificent narrative. She doesn’t grasp the whole of any situation, but there’s more here than the struggle to parse a world beyond the narrator’s experience. Klara and the Sun is about families, about the future of work, about disability and the nature of (post) humanity. It’s a novel that questions the very foundations of reality in a world without consensus. And unlike so many of its sources, Ishiguro’s book is deeply, startlingly optimistic in its vision of individual and human life.