Reviewed by Rod McLary
Klara is a robot although, in this new book by Nobel Prize winning author Kazuo Ishiguro, she is more properly called an Artificial Friend – an AF. The word ‘robot’ is used only once through the entire book and then pejoratively. AFs are bought from stores to provide friendship to children who are physically and socially isolated. In the world which Klara inhabits – a world which seems not too far in the future from our own – children are schooled at home through the use of ‘oblongs’ or tablets.
Klara is first seen in a store along with a number of other AFs. Complimented by the store manager for her ‘outstanding observational qualities’, Klara spends her time watching through the store window the street and its traffic and pedestrians. Imbued with some human emotions, Klara feels disappointment when moved away from the window and relegated to a place further back in the store. She believes that such a spot was not conducive to her being selected by a customer to be an active AF.
AFs are solar-powered and Klara – through whose eyes we view this new world – believes the Sun to be a powerful being who has the power to give and restore life to both humans and AFs. This belief first emerges when Klara observes a ‘Beggar man’ lying on the footpath opposite the store and appearing to have died. Ignored by the passers-by, he lies unmoving until the Sun reaches him when he suddenly awakes and sits up. In perhaps an application of the pathetic fallacy, Klara assumes that the Sun with ‘a special kind of nourishment’  had saved him. Further on in the novel, Klara recalls this incident and seeks the Sun’s intervention to again save someone from death.
In time, Klara is chosen by a fourteen-year-old girl Josie whose face, when she saw Klara, ‘filled with joy’ ; and after the purchase is completed, Klara moves in with Josie and her mother.
For all Klara’s ‘observational qualities’, there are limits on her capacity to correctly interpret the physical world. She describes her first entry into a kitchen as – ‘the kitchen was especially difficult to navigate because so many of its elements would change their relationships to one another moment by moment’ . In observing the Sun’s path through the sky, Klara assumes the Sun goes to rest in the barn in the property across the road. When under stress or in difficult circumstances, Klara’s picture of the world fragments into what almost seems pixelated images.
As he did in his earlier novel Never Let Me Go, the author alludes to a more sinister and frightening element in this new world. Josie – along with her peers – has been ‘lifted’. The exact meaning of being ‘lifted’ is never made explicit and this lack of specificity enhances the feeling of uncertainty and discomfort which runs through the book. Only close to the novel’s conclusion does some sense of what it means to be ‘lifted’ and the possible consequences for the child emerge.
Because of their home-schooling and their consequent lack of social contact with those peers who have been ‘lifted’, children are brought together periodically for ‘interaction meetings’ where they are expected to socialise and resolve any conflicts which may arise between them. Again, a sinister element is introduced by the author. The behaviour of two of the boys towards Klara – even though she is an AF – draws attention to their lack of appropriate socialising. One boy says to the other ‘just throw her over. Let’s test her coordination’ . The second boy responds ‘My B3 [a later model of AF], you can swing her right through the air, lands on her feet every time’ .
Again, reminiscent of Never Let Me Go, Josie becomes ill as a consequence of being ‘lifted’. Kazuo Ishiguro artfully draws the gradual decline in Josie – ‘strange breathing, and her semi-waking in the morning, eyes open but empty’  echoing the occasional references in the earlier parts of the novel to an older sister who had died. It is at this point that the question at the heart of the novel becomes apparent – what does it mean to love? And it is Klara – the Artificial Friend – whose actions in response to Josie’s illness define the word.
While a synopsis of Klara and the Sun may suggest an imagined dystopian world awaiting us in the far future, it is more a description of a world which is almost upon us. Already, the world has Artificial Intelligence – that is, intelligence demonstrated by machines as opposed to natural intelligence which involves consciousness and emotionality. There are philosophical arguments about the mind which can be held; and ethical questions around the creation of machines with human-like intelligence which can be asked. While these arguments and questions have not been resolved in Klara and the Sun, the novel depicts a world in which there are machines which can think and feel.
The conclusion though – a very moving and poignant one – leaves no doubt that, in the end, for all her sensitivity Klara is only a machine.
Kazuo Ishiguro has created an all too plausible world which has at its heart a robot who – unlike some of the people around her – demonstrates sensitivity and affection, perhaps even love, for another being. If emotionality is an indication of natural intelligence, then Klara at least has made the transition from artificial intelligence to natural intelligence. Klara and the Sun is a beautiful novel written with tenderness and care. While perhaps not reaching the heights of the author’s greatest works, it is absolutely a novel which demands to be read and enjoyed – even if it is with a chill in the heart when Ishiguro’s perceived future world is laid out before us.
Kazuo Ishiguro has written eight previous novels all of which have earned him honours from around the world. In 1989, he was awarded the Man Booker Prize for Remains of the Day and a further three of his novels [including Never Let Me Go] have been shortlisted for that prize. In 2017, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the citation of which described him as a writer who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.
Klara and the Sun
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Allen and Unwin
ISBN 978 0 571 36488 6