Kazuo Ishiguro: Klara and the Sun
Klara is an AF, i.e. an artificial friend, in other words a robot specially designed to be the friend of a child, a sophisticated doll, if you like. At the beginning of the novel, she lives in a New York shop which sells AFs. AFs are fully cognitive, have feelings, observational skills and can walk and talk like humans. During the course of the book, we will gradually learn that they do have some less obvious differences from humans, such as the way they see.
AFs are, as the title implies, solar-powered. This means that they must be kept in reasonable daylight to continue functioning. It also means, at least in Klara’s case, they are sort of sun worshippers and consider the sun as a living being, with a mind of its own. Klara’s view of how the sun functions is a key part of the book.
There are differences between the AFs, even between those made to the same specifications. For example, Klara has much more observational skills than Rosa, her fellow AF in the New York shop, even though they are both B2s. B3s, which are gradually replacing the B2s as the top-of-the-line model, are more sophisticated in many ways. However, as the title tells us, this book is primarily about Klara.
The opening part of the book is about Klara (and Rosa and others) in the New York shop. None of them has even been outdoors, of course, and they spend their time in different locations in the shop, according to the whim of Manager, waiting to be purchased.
Klara is moved around but prefers being up front, not just because she has more chance of being sold, but because she can get more sun and see more. She certainly observes what is going on. Three times, a girl called Josie comes to see her and is interested in her mother, Chrissie, buying her. Clearly, the AFs want to be bought and, in that, they are probably like human orphans, wanting to be fostered or adopted or even cats and dogs in a similar situation. Ishiguro has, of course, dealt dealt with this issue before.
Eventually, Josie’s mother does buy her, because Josie wants Klara and not one of the new B3s. Josie has health problems, which is an issue, though we do not know the details. We do know that her sister died because of some health problem. Her mother, Chrissie, is divorced but seemingly has a good job. Josie is looked after by Melania Housekeeper (as Klara calls her) and has on-line classes.
For Klara, moving to a house is a big change but she soon more or less fits in. Mother goes to work every day and Melania Housekeeper and Klara stay with Josie. At times, Josie is ill and Klara has nothing to do. Josie’s education is entirely through an online system so she has little contact with other children. There is one exception. Next door are Rick, a boy about her age, and his mother Helen. Rick’s father is never mentioned and is clearly not there. Josie and Rick are very close. Indeed, they seem to have a plan which involves spending their life together. However, Josie is lifted and Rick is not.
Lifting is genetic editing to improve the person intellectually. It is presumably costly. However, it it is essential for getting into most colleges. As a result, Rick’s further educational possibilities are limited. This becomes apparent when there is a meeting of various children, primarily to help with their socialisation. Rick and Klara are both present. Rick is mocked for not being lifted and Klara because she is only a B2.
Klara gradually finds her way around and ventures outside, which she finds difficult, not least because her vision skills cause complications. However, she is closely studying Josie and learning a lot about her. It is clear that Klara is particularly sensitive and aware and can pick up on things humans may not. Issues between Josie and Rick and between Josie and her mother, as well Melania with Klara all cause problems.
We are gradually, but only gradually, learning about lifting, Josie’s illness, Josie’s deceased sister Sal, Josie’s father and Rick’s background. Klara is learning about humans and how they will do anything to avoid loneliness (not an issue for her), the friction between humans and Josie’s illness. It is Klara who has an idea to cure Josie, an idea that seems to us to be nonsensical, which she keeps to herself but plays a key role.
Things become more complicated when Josie, her mother and Klara go to New York, accompanied by Rick and his mother, Helen. Rick and Helen are going to see Vance, an old flame of Helen, who may be able to get Rick into a college which takes non-lifted students. Chrissie and Josie are going because an artist is painting Josie’s portrait. They are also going to meet Josie’s father, Paul. Things go wrong for both parties. Chrissie and Paul fight, Helen and Vance fight. The children are caught in the middle.
The idea that there is a relatively thin line between humans and robots is not new. The famous example is Philip K. Dick‘s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, even more famous as the film Blade Runner but we have also seen it in, for example, Ian McEwan‘s Machines Like Me and many other sci-fi works. Indeed, Ishiguro himself has touched on it in Never Let Me Go, though with clones and not robots.
It is clear that the AFs are similar to humans. However, we know that both humans and AFs can distinguish humans from AFs without difficulty. We do not know how. Do they look like the android robots that exist now? The AFs obviously have key differences. They get their energy and nourishment exclusively from the sun. They do not and, presumably, cannot eat or drink. They do not seem to need sleep. We do not know how much they know. Helen is thinking of asking for Klara’s help in teaching Rick but how much does she know? We do know that she does not understand even the basics of how the sun works or a piece of construction machinery or, indeed, herself. In other words she does not seem to have absorbed all of Wikipedia. Can she speak and understand other languages, explain quantum theory or repair a broken piece of equipment? Does she have super strength? We quite simply do not know.
We do see a few differences that the humans do not. Her vision is different. She often cannot see the entire visual perspective but divides it up into boxes, which causes problems, e,g, when she is outside. More particularly, we see how she thinks. She is undoubtedly more astute than the humans suspect. She is quite capable of not only taking appropriate action when she wants to. She is also very good at persuading humans to do so. She is also very good at learning how humans function (and do not function). She has no pride so is happy to learn from her mistakes.
But how do the humans see her? It is clear that views vary from seeing her, as one woman puts it, in the same category as a vacuum cleaner to those who consider her as a human substitute. Indeed,this is one of the key plot elements of this novel.
This novel is, of course about the future. However, there are relatively few futuristic aspects. New York still has traffic and parking problems. There are no driverless cars mentioned. The two houses we see seem very much like ordinary, conventional houses. There are no smart homes. While people seem to have an oblong – something like a mobile phone/tablet computer – there do not seem to be other sophisticated devices. The role of the robot seems to be limited to being an AF. There is no evidence of a housework or other helping household robot. Even the demand for AFs seem to be decreasing.
There are three main futuristic elements. Online education did exist when Ishiguro was writing this book but, since the pandemic, it has really taken off and it is not even vaguely futuristic any more. Android robots also exist, not as friends but as sex toys and for other purposes. While gene editing is not, as far as I know, used on humans, it is certainly used on plants and animals and will undoubtedly be used on humans in the near future.
What makes this novel so fascinating, apart from the the human-robot interaction and seeing much of the story from Klara’s point of view, is Ishiguro’s trademark ability to instil a sense of foreboding. Is this the way of the future for us? As well as the aspects mentioned, there is also one other slightly menacing one. We see indications that a group of people have set up an armed militia to protect themselves Though it is not clear what the threat is, the implication is that there is going to be chaos in the near future and people will need to defend themselves. This may be Ishiguro mocking a persistent US meme but it may also be, as far as Ishiguro is concerned, a genuine concern.
I had been somewhat disappointed with Ishiguro’s previous novel but this novel deserves all the praise that has been heaped on it and clearly shows Ishiguro back to form.
First published in 2021 by Faber & Faber