Klara and the Sun

Klara and the Sun

Klara and the Sun
Genre: Dystopian/Sci-Fi
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Publication Year: 2021
Length: 307 pages

If you’ve previously read one of Ishiguro’s book, you start to recognize a pattern with his writing. Reasonably simplistic language with rather mundane scenarios that, over time, begin to expose themselves as something different. Something a bit more sad. And a lot more sinister. I’m thinking of Never Let Me Go in particular. A seemingly innocent story about a group of students at a boarding school that turns out to be a dystopian tale of something very different. His shifts are subtle and done with little fanfare and an almost aggressive disinterest in the “twist.” Klara and the Sun could take place in a similar world as Never Let Me Go. Nog the same world, but one on a similar trajectory. A story set in an unconfirmed future era (or parallel world) in an unnamed part of the US (a location change from his usual UK) that gives away the fact it’s either a future time or alternative universe from jump — unlike Never Let Me Go — because we have AI androids. Otherwise, without these robots, this could be 2020. Or 2002.

Ishiguro starts his tale in a retail store on a generic city street. A store that happens to sell Artificial Friends (AFs). These are sentient AI bots that we understand look like children. Meant to be paired with a child. Oddly we’re never really given a description of the AFs, including our POV narrator, an AF named Klara. Klara is apparently a very bright and observant AF and we spend a good chunk of the start of the book with her inside the store, her entire world scope limited to the interior of the store and the street in front of it. Which she can only see when the Manager places her in the front window. I feel like Ishiguro took this as a writing challenge more than anything. And, frankly, this whole front section drags a bit as he describes all the little bits and pieces of the store displays, the placement of the other AFs and Klara’s ongoing relationship with the sun. Seeing as the AFs are solar-powered. Which seems like a design flaw considering there are large swaths of the calendar when sun is in little abundance. And generally humans and their robot counterparts live inside houses. But I’m no scientist.

Eventually a girl named Josie — after some false starts — picks Klara as her AF amongst the many other AFs in the store. And she is installed in her home with her, her mom and their housekeeper. It is evident from the start that Josie is unwell. Which may be the reason for her needing an AF. Since Klara is so observant and can keep her company when she’s ill, as well as sense when she’s having a bad day or needs meds, etc. That said, Ishiguro never really makes clear how the whole AF program works. We understand some other children have them, but it’s unclear who gets one. Is it only the wealthy? Only children whose parents worry about their loneliness. It’s these details — or lack there of — that makes his books feel like they’re only messing around with the sci-fi of it all and not going full bore. Because it’s not about the details. It’s not about the science in the fiction. It’s about the creepiness along the edges. The gut punches. And, to some extent, the ambiguity. Which he clearly sees as a feature and not a bug. Because this book is chock full of ambiguity right down to the last sentence. And it’s purposeful, no doubt.

Any time you put the narrative of a story in one person’s — or in this case one robot’s — hands you have the possibility of that narrator being unreliable. Which in this case Ishiguro falsely bolsters Klara’s reliability over and over again. Telling us how keen Klara’s powers of observation and recall are. But then hinting between the lines using tense and some other factors that perhaps her recollections aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. I don’t think introducing this unreliability was meant as Reddit bait, but that’s essentially what he’s done. It’s not to the level of The Sixth Sense or anything, but there are certainly elements in the jumbled possibilities that could lead to these conclusions. We don’t think of robots as fallible — and especially don’t think of Klara that way — but, as it turns out, their human frailties are exactly the type of thing Ishiguro explores in this story about how we treat AI and its “humanness.”

First, there is some Gattica here. If you’ve seen that movie — and any of the other types of genetic fuckery films — some of this will feel familiar. Again, Ishiguro is very subtle with his science, and very vague. But suffice it to say that there are some children who are made to be on a certain track to success. And others that are not. We’re not told exactly how this occurs or who can afford or be given access to this advantage, but you just know it’s a thing. I don’t want to give too much away, but the narrative keeps mentioning things like kids being “lifted” and about Josie posing for a portrait. And all these kind of things that Ishiguro just throws out there regularly while we read them and are essentially in the dark, just as Klara is, until the meaning of things is exposed to her. And us. We can guess what’s up, but we are often never ahead of the narrator. Not behind her. It’s very on point for his storytelling.

There are a ton of themes going on here. Besides our treatment of AI, we explore the blind faith of religion, humans polluting the earth and the breakdown of society. Klara — maybe because she is powered by the sun — essentially worships it. She refers to it as a Him and believes it has curative power and can answer her prayers in a real world way. A smart and logical robot who still thinks that if she asks the sun and promises things to Him that he will return her prayers in the form of healing her friend and owner, Josie. An incredibly naive stance for an AI. There are also nods in the story to the crumbling of society. It’s never really given a name or directly addressed other than the mention of walled, protected communities starting up all over. Presumably to keep something bad out. Other humans? Robots? Who knows; Ishiguro never says.

I’m going to do it again. The Spielberg movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence. There is absolutely no way Ishiguro didn’t watch that movie and ask himself if there weren’t too many similarities. There is some inversion, sure, but there is a sick child, a child who could be construed as a replacement who will never get sick and never die and the conundrum of what to do with said robot in this construct. It can’t be a coincidence. Anyway, you’ll see. Now, theories. I got ‘em. And I doubt the author will ever confirm what’s what. But when you unwind some of the details that seem just kind of tossed-off during the story, it becomes evident that not everything is as it seems. And I’m not talking about the obvious twist in the story line like the one we hit in Never Let Me Go, where the mundane becomes so much darker. It goes to the fact that just because we’re told something, it doesn’t make it so. The sleight of hand, the narrative plotting, the timing of events. It’s all ultimately subjective. And depending on what order you put it in and whose perspective you get it from, facts aren’t always facts. Who’s dead, who’s alive, who’s a manager, who is human, who isn’t. It’s all a jumble that no technology can solve.