Books

Kazuo Ishiguro
Klara and the Sun

The slick, silver, flying-car-future found in 20th-century fictions always seems to be a decade or two away but never quite here. The only notable flying car in recent history needed the assistance of an enormous rocket, was piloted by a mannequin, and its flight was a singular reality manifested by the wealthiest man on the planet. As William Gibson notes, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” Perhaps the Tesla Roadster signifies what might be the biggest fiction of all – that such a world could ever be anything but exclusive.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun envisages a future that has arrived for some, and will never arrive for others. As with his previous bestseller Never Let Me Go (2005), Klara and the Sun is set in a world adjacent to our own, with biotechnics at the core of society. Children of the wealthy are genetically engineered, or “lifted”, to ensure a bright future; those who are especially fortunate own an “Artificial Friend” or AF, a sentient robot with artificial intelligence-capabilities who serves as companion and servant.

The novel is narrated by Klara, an emotionally intelligent AF purchased as a companion to Josie, a teenager whose genetic modification has caused unexpected health problems. Moving to Josie’s family home in the rural Midwest, Klara attends to Josie’s needs as we watch her learn about her new environment. Klara meets Rick, Josie’s lifelong friend whose family could not afford to pay for him to be “lifted”, resulting in social ostracisation and diminishing prospects. As Josie’s health deteriorates, Klara discovers an unspoken grief that permeates the household, and also the strange implications it may hold for her own life.

Klara joins Ishiguro’s stable of mildly unreliable servant narrators such as Stevens, the butler from The Remains of the Day, or Kathy H., the doomed clone of Never Let Me Go. There is a strong sense that Ishiguro is revisiting The Remains of the Day, this time against a background of sublime technological development. This is not to say that Klara and the Sun is simply new and improved, with robots!, but rather that the two novels trace very similar lines. Significantly, where Stevens sublimates his emotions in order to adhere to his vision of a “great butler”, Klara does the reverse: programmed to care, she studies and desires human emotion.

Indeed, Klara has more in common with Stevens and Kathy H. than disastrous exercises in contemporary AI such as Microsoft’s AI chatbot which, after 16 hours on Twitter, became a virulently racist Holocaust denier. She is also unlike Apple’s Siri, whose functionality and encyclopaedic knowledge is inextricable from the internet. Klara is autonomous; she is strictly programmed to care and serve. When Klara perceives unfamiliar human feelings, she attempts to “find the beginnings of such a feeling in my mind”. Her attempts at feeling are described in Ishiguro’s characteristically spare prose. Early in the novel, she recognises that upon understanding emotions she can find them in herself:

“… there were things we saw from the window – other kinds of emotions I didn’t at first understand – of which I did eventually find some versions of myself, even if they were perhaps like the shadows made across the floor by the ceiling lamps …”

Such shadows of feeling allow Ishiguro to sidestep any questions about a robot’s soul or consciousness. The novel is rather a 30o-plus-page experiment in posthuman narrative: Ishiguro insistently represents the limits of Klara’s particular programming. This is often signposted through purposefully awkward language; the reader must field odd capitalisations and descriptors serving as proper nouns – such as Josie’s mother, who is not given a name, but instead called “the Mother”. When Klara cannot comprehend a situation, her interface glitches into boxes of separate emotion:

“The Mother leaned closer over the tabletop and her eyes narrowed till her face filled eight boxes, leaving only the peripheral boxes for the waterfall, and for a moment it felt to me 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.”

A major conceit is Klara’s strange relationship with the sun, which she deifies and addresses as “the Sun”. While a reader might ask Alexa for the weather, Klara believes the Sun has a god-like agency, feels “lucky” to see “him” when sunlight appears, and earnestly bargains with him, to her detriment. In interviews, Ishiguro said that he initially conceived Klara and the Sun as a children’s book, and this origin is clear. In what is otherwise a well-realised attempt at posthuman narration, Klara’s faith in the Sun is a tiresome dramatic irony that might have been better realised in a book for young readers.

Klara’s limitations allow Ishiguro to cast an estranging eye on a speculative world, a trick that allows him to avoid creating detailed world-building. Reading Ishiguro is like entering a dimly lit room, waiting for the details to come into focus as the room blurs and sharpens upon command. He is an atomising writer. At a line level, Ishiguro is, as always, prosaic.

With a British reticence and odd penchant for cliché, at times it is easy to mistake his writing for easy reading. But he demands a patient reader, a reader who is ready to work, to painstakingly piece together a world intentionally obscured. If you can bear some banality, it makes each epiphany all the more striking. 

Leah Jing McIntosh

Allen & Unwin, 320pp, $44.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 17, 2021 as "Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun".

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Reviewer: Leah Jing McIntosh