Klara and The Sun is Kazuo Ishiguro’s eighth novel. If you’re not familiar with his name, the author won a Nobel Prize in Literature and his latest novel – and the theme of this month’s book club – was longlisted for The 2021 Booker Prize. Ishiguro tells a human story through the lens of an artificially intelligent machine called Klara. He explores human feelings, emotions and behaviours in a quite different and more technological world than the one we live in now.
The story is narrated under Klara’s perspective of her surroundings and observations. It starts with her accounts of the store she’s being displayed at – she’s an AF, meaning an artificial friend. Though it gets clearer in the following chapters, it can be a bit confusing to understand what the term means and what an AF’s purpose is. With human characteristics – Klara has dark hair and ‘kind’ eyes – extremely intelligent but expected to take commands, keep kids company and supervise them, they’re like a friendly nanny but one that has no authority whatsoever.
In the time and place of Klara and The Sun – a future America – children hardly socialise as they’re home-schooled through what they call oblongs – we can imagine as some sort of computer – and therefore need some companionship. Going back to Klara’s first experiences at the store, she learns through observation about the outside world while waiting for someone to choose her. She mentions the ‘sun’s patterns’ quite often and we then gather that AFs are solar-powered.
Following months of waiting, Klara is finally taken home by Josie and her mum after being tested on her capabilities of observing and imitating Josie’s characteristics, an unusual episode that plays an important part as the story develops. Josie’s an ill and fragile young girl and Klara’s role is not only to keep her company but also to study, understand and learn about her behaviour and how to best help during her worst days. As time goes by, the mum – Klara refers to her as Mother – who was initially reluctant of the idea of bringing an AF home becomes fond of Klara.
Some of the words used by Klara to describe characteristics and aspects of the people and things she’s surrounded by are unusual: expensive clothes and houses are ‘high rank’ and privileged children are ‘lifted’, which means genetically modified. In this future world, some workers were replaced by A.I., like Josie’s father who isn’t present often. Many parts of both Josie’s life and this new future society are briefly mentioned in the book – her sister who passed away, the ‘fascistic leanings’, the rivalry between communities.
Apart from the Mother, Josie’s friend Rick is one of the only other characters who take a central part in Josie’s life and whom she’s very close to. Even though they live different realities as he isn’t ‘lifted’ nor lives in a ‘high rank’ house, they’re childhood friends and had envisioned a life plan together – the only thing that could get in their way being Josie’s illness. We follow their story, one that has plenty of emotions, mixed feelings and difficult moments through Klara’s vision – a machine that doesn’t have one nor the other, or does she?
One of the biggest chapters of the book is when Josie gets so ill she’s confined to her bed and Klara decides to reach out to the Sun, asking for its ‘special nourishment’ to help Josie heal, as she believes in its special powers. It unfolds with her sacrificing her functionality and wellbeing – if we can actually use this expression in regards to a machine – to honour her promise and assist Josie. How can she not have feelings?
The central theme of Klara and The Sun isn’t artificial intelligence nor how the near future will look like. It’s about seeing human connections, feelings and behaviours through different lenses – ones that even aren’t supposed to feel or connect can do exactly this, sometimes in an even more genuine and honest way than humans. Klara can’t be mistaken for a human narrator as we’re constantly reminded of her machine characteristics – her mobility issues, her vision through squares and panels, her vocabulary. However, her affection, sensibility and compassion are her most human traits and can’t be denied.
This book left us wondering if we’re becoming too similar to machines – replacing and being replaced, shutting down our feelings and downplaying our emotions, living through screens. It made us pause, reflect, and most of all – feel something.
By Manuela Rio Tinto