Klara and the Sun: A Novel
Klara and the Sun is Kazuo Ishiguro’s newest novel, his eighth, and first since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017. The story takes place in the United States in the not-so-distant future. It is a future in which pollution often darkens the sky for days on end, adults are largely “post-employed”, and a caste system is firmly in place with those who have been “lifted” as the only ones eligible to be in the highest caste. Children spend most of their time at home. They learn remotely using “oblongs.” Josie is one of those children—a 14-year old teenager. She lives with her mother who is rarely home and Melania Housekeeper. To address the lonely lives of children in this world parents purchase Artificial Friends (AFs) to shepherd them through their teenage years until they go to college (which still seems to be a residential experience). Of course, this ensures that the children will outgrow their AFs, a situation that doesn’t raise any concern until we get to know Klara, the AF at the center of this story.
The story opens in a department store that sells AFs and here we meet Klara, a solar-powered, fourth series, B2, Artificial Friend who serves as the narrator of the book. To call Klara a robot is to sell her short; she is a highly advanced form of Artificial Intelligence. Klara is keenly observant, insightful, curious, and learns quickly. She is waiting, along with the other AFs to be chosen by the right child, echoing a theme of many favorite childhood books; Corduroy, The Best-Loved Doll, and many others. Through Klara’s eyes, we see cars and people pass the store window, the tall building across the street, a homeless man and his dog regularly appearing through the tiny slice of the world Klara can observe and we feel Klara’s deep longing to see out to the world beyond. One day, Josie and her mother enter the store. Klara describes Josie as small and pale, with a distinguishing gait. Klara deduces that the unique way she walks is due to weakness and potential pain in her hip and shoulder. Josie is drawn to Klara’s kind eyes and they quickly form a bond. Josie promises she will be back to take Klara home; a promise Manager cautions Klara not to take too seriously—the first hint we get of what typical relationships between children and their AFs are like. Josie, however, is true to her promise. She begs her mother to purchase Klara and they return to the store for a second look. Her mother is not as easily convinced but relinquishes after a series of questions that reveal Klara’s keen observational skills. Manager packs Klara up and sends her to Josie’s house.
As Klara learns about expectations of her in Josie’s home, Ishiguro slowly uncovers the existential themes this novel explores—loneliness, technology, kindness, love, death, humanness, faith, grace, and self-sacrifice. Along with Klara, we learn that Josie suffers from a mysterious, progressive illness that is making her weaker and weaker. We accompany Klara to an “interaction meeting” reluctantly hosted by Josie. “Interaction meetings” are stilted gatherings of teenagers that are supposed to remediate their lack of natural social interactions with other teens. Josie talks her unlifted childhood friend Rick into attending the “interaction meeting” and we experience the prejudice of the children and also their parents toward Rick because he is unlifted. And we start to glimpse a fuller picture of what humans really think of AFs. Klara helps us see what lies beneath the cruelty to the deep loneliness of the children, as she talks with Rick after the “interaction meeting.” Klara explains, “I can see Rick is afraid Josie might become like the others. But even though she behaved strangely just now, I believe Josie is kind underneath. And those other children. They have rough ways, but they may not be so unkind. They fear loneliness and that’s why they behave as they do.”
The book’s climax comes as Josie’s mysterious illness worsens and we see two starkly different responses to it. Josie’s mother and father have sought the help of a portrait maker, Mr. Capaldi, and plan to ask Klara to assist in their startling and disturbing plan. Klara has an idea of her own, one that is more humane, and she solicits the help of Josie’s father and Rick. Although she never reveals the details of her plan to other humans, the reader is privy to the whole thing. The plan requires great risk and self-sacrifice on the part of Klara. It depends on the kindness of the sun—which we come to understand Klara sees as a deity of sorts. Klara’s plan is to present a self-sacrificial offering, almost as a form of worship, to the sun in exchange for the restoration of Josie’s health. In this, it was difficult for me to avoid seeing Klara as a Christ figure in the story.
The story is told by Klara, in Klara’s voice, a pure, devoted, albeit somewhat stilted one—she is an AF after all. Her presence is compelling, kind, and reliable—almost like a devoted pet but that surface simplicity is deceptive. We are compelled to dig deeper…is Klara sentient? Is she capable of loving, and for that matter, what is love? What does it mean to be human? Is willingness to take risks on behalf of others only a human characteristic? Is sacrificial love or altruism limited to humans? The role of the sun as a symbol of a higher power compels the reader to consider questions of faith. And the length Josie’s parents and Klara go to in order to save Josie moves us to ponder our own mortality and that of those we love. This novel is a masterpiece. Its themes stick with you and it is the best thing I’ve read in a very long time. Pick it up, share it with a friend, read it with your book club, then talk together about its provocative themes over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. It is a novel worthy of extended time.