Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, Klara and the Sun, is a tale told by a robot signifying, well, everything: what it is to be human and humanoid, the phenomena of loneliness, prejudice, emotion, hope, personal identity and death (or its analogy).
This novel is deceptive, seemingly a child-like tale simply told, but beneath its surface, it roils with dark undercurrents. At the outset, we find ourselves in a shop in a city in near-future America offering manufactured beings called AFs (for Artificial Friends). These are humanoid robots intended for children who are in need of artificial companionship.
As AFs are solar-powered, these AFs place a premium on being assigned by the manager to the front of the shop where the sunlight is strongest. The narrator, an AF named Klara, enjoys her stints up-front for another important reason: she is unusually perceptive, using her position at the window to gather intelligence about the outside world. Here she observes situations from which she draws inferences that become hugely significant. Her speculations are always reasonable but not always valid.
Klara is purchased by the mother of a young girl named Josie whom Klara perceives, from her gait and posture, to be ill. (Josie’s older sister had died of an unspecified illness.) Her mother asks Klara to imitate the way Josie walks before deciding to buy.
Klara finds herself in a household with Josie, her divorced mother (called ‘the Mother’), and a housemaid. There is only one nearby house, and that is where her prickly boyfriend lives.
This is an America in which gifted children become ‘lifted’ (somehow intellectually enhanced) and in which many, both adults and children, are prejudiced against AFs. At an interraction party, apparently, a practice where teens are left to mingle while parents eavesdrop from the next room and intervene as required, a group of boys tease Josie for inviting her AF and goad one another to pick Klara up and throw her across the room. The interceding adults appear to be equally discourteous.
When Josie’s health takes a turn for the worse, the plot becomes interestingly tangled. Klara, believing that the sun is the source of all wellness, beseeches it to give Josie special, abundant nourishment. As an offering, she proffers a bargain that requires a sacrifice on Klara’s part that could diminish her capabilities.
At the same time, the Mother has engaged an engineer to create an AF version of Josie herself, which Klara would somehow attempt to inhabit in order to continue Josie in the event of Josie’s death. This plan would clearly require Klara to be at her best.
There is tension in plotlines here and readers might think that they can see where this is headed – but they would probably be wrong. Ishiguro sets up inflection points in his tale which don’t always lead to narratives that come to fruition or that develop at all. However, the particulars of the plot are less significant than are the issues illuminated along the way.
The theme of loneliness runs throughout: that of the Mother who has lost a child and now has another who is seriously ill; that of Josie who is often bedridden and whose only reliable friend is a purchased automaton; and that of Josie’s estranged father. There is also the theme of hope, embodied by Klara’s plan to implore the sun to bring Josie back from the brink; by the engineer’s plan to open Klara’s black-box brain to discover how she thinks; and by the Mother’s plan to import Klara’s essence into another AF if Josie should succumb.
Most significantly, Klara and the Sun is dappled with themes of personal identity and death, in one form or another. As humans come into contact with AFs and both become entangled in alliances, the narrative is strewn with ruminations about what makes a being human, what sort of interiority a human has that a humanoid does not, or may not, have. Josie’s father states:
A part of us … wants to keep believing there’s something unreachable inside each of us…The human heart…[is] something that makes us special and individual.
And, in connection with the plan that Klara might continue Josie after death, the father asks Klara:
Wouldn’t you have to learn her heart?… Because an impersonation wouldn’t do, however skillful…you’ll never become Josie in any sense that matters.”
Ishiguro is interested in what makes us, shall we say, tick.
Finally — emotion and death. Klara devotes herself, lock, stock and solenoid, to Josie’s well-being on a daily basis over several years, sacrificing her own well-being. And yet, when they separate, we see no emotion whatsoever on the narrator’s part. Analogous to the butler, Stevens, in Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, Klara has been placed in service and gives Josie her full measure of devotion.
And yet, in the final and most affecting scene, when Klara finds herself relegated, without mobility, to what she calls her slow fade (which is very slow indeed), we find Klara emotionless, placid as ever – about as far from human as one could be.
Superficially simple, Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun is a tale as rich AF.