Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Book Review by PeachyTO
Please note there are SOME SPOILERS WITHIN this analysis, so read Ishiguro's excellent novel first, if you prefer, and come back after for the discussion!
Also, this is a repost of my review, with some slight edits, first published on my old site in September 2021.
I was looking to expand my reading horizons and was unaware of where to start when I spotted this bright red book in my library stack. Perfect timing; I could tackle one of my long overdue books and commence my journey into sci-fi with a trusted author.
Kazuo Ishiguro is a thoughtful writer, melodically attuned to the jangly realness of the human journey. His mega-hits: Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, are still with me a decade later, so needless to say, I felt pumped for an encore.
Artificial intelligence and gene editing are chilling realities, the former leading the charge in controlling the masses with manipulated computer algorithms, while the latter threatens to produce designer babies.
To be clear, this is the current human experience in reference, not Ishiguro's world. Straight up, the new techno-feudalism that our AI evolution is ushering us into as a society is smelling pretty funky.
But, back to the book, I was thrilled to learn that these two modern-technology themes formed the basis of its foundation.
In my review of The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, I shared some of the concerns and appreciation I pondered regarding DNA manipulation, as well as the ground-breaking strides that have taken place within the field.
Klara and the Sun was my foray into AI, and since reading it last month, I've felt disturbed by the questions Ishiguro has left me with surrounding AF (artificial friend) engineering and how it could mould our future.
Will these machines stifle humanity's physical contact even more than the internet has? Can the chemistry and connection achieved through the human heart be mimicked, or worse, supplanted by an android with its keen AI and programming? In the end, will more humans end up alone?
"Do you believe in the human heart? I don't mean simply the organ obviously. I'm speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?"
Through the vision sensors of Klara, one of the older model humanoid AFs in the shop fronting the busy metropolitan street, we began Part 1 and the slow burn through the dystopian tale.
With each in rotation for display in the front window, the uniquely designed friends eagerly awaited a turn to soak up the Sun's solar energy and draw in curious passersby. Manager discouraged them from looking at the people unless they approached the AF first, and only then should they respond in kind.
Josie had engaged Klara in the display window periodically over previous weeks and had taken a shine to her. The excited AF secretly waited and wished that the girl would one day return and take her home.
That day finally arrived, and although the Mother was inclined to purchase one of the newer B3 models, there was only one friend that Josie had in mind.
After Manager informed them of Klara's exceptional observational abilities, the hesitant Mother had the droid perform a few strange requests to her strict satisfaction. After successful completion, they agreed that the older model droid was the perfect fit for the sickly child. So began, along with Part 2 of the novel, the start of her life with her human family.
Klara may technically be a robot, but suppress the urge to refer to her that way, as using the R-word is improper etiquette. Nurturing, respectful, loyal, and encouraging, she comprised a desirable host of traits for a companion to a child by any measure.
As a devout solar-charged android, Klara's faith in the Sun and Its power was present throughout, at times emerging as that of a human worshipping their God. She called upon the divine light to intervene and heal the ill children in the way a mother would pray to her maker for the life of her ailing child.
Just like Man, she seemingly struggled with her faith and even committed acts of sacrifice, attempting to lessen the dreaded Pollution in reverence to the great Sun.
"And it was clear the sun was unwilling to make any promise about Josie, because for all his kindness, he wasn't yet able to see Josie separately from the other humans, some of whom had angered him very much on account of their Pollution and inconsideration, and I suddenly felt foolish to have come to this place to make such a request."
In Ishiguro's scarcely delineated world, there seemed to be many children in need of healing. From what I could surmise, the gene-editing chosen by the parents with 'Courage' came at the cost of a weakened immune system for the modified child.
They rolled the dice for a chance at a future where the odds would be forever in their favour. But if, against all odds, a parent opted to let their child enjoy their youth in health with minimal risk of serious illness, unlike the children of families with 'Courage,' the institutional deck will be eternally stacked against them.
Accordingly, this tyrannical illusion of choice placed them either in their rightful role as modern-day serfs or possibly too ill to make it past their teens unless the gamble of their parent's courage had paid off.
Josie was one of the 'lifted' children, all thanks to the Mother's bravery. She was tutored through her 'oblong' in place of attending school, only rarely interacting in person with other socially awkward children in strangely crafted social settings meant to prepare them for the social element of college one day.
As she struggled to maintain her health throughout, sometimes not well enough to even sit in bed, Klara's primary responsibility was to keep vigil and help the girl find comfort.
Josie's best friend and neighbour Rick was not 'lifted' and provided Josie a peek into an old-school childhood filled with running, playing, and exploring.
Rick was always eager to hang out with Josie when her health allowed it. Smitten, they preferred each other's company over all else, with Klara often presenting as a third wheel. One of the sadder parts of the book for me was observing the forces aligned to pull them apart when they wanted nothing more than to be together.
Although the parents of the unedited aren't flat-out labelled 'Cowardly,' the message seemed clear: not being brave enough to put your children's life on the line marked you as a traitor to your community and deserving of a lower station in society as a consequence.
Damn! That is not a world I would want to live in.
Ishiguro must have written this book pre-pandemic, but it seemed to parallel the virus hell we're in quite aptly. Between children schooling in isolation via computer screens to divisive narratives of intolerance strategically placed to shame dissenters into submission if they dare chose not to have their children 'lifted,' or currently, COVID-vaccinated, this all seemed eerily familiar.
Josie's relationship with the Mother was fascinating to me. I craved more access to their thoughts and motivations and regularly wished for some changing points of view between Klara, the Mother, and Josie. But that would take the focus off of Klara when she was the clear star of this show.
Klara's omnipotent ability to understand the manipulation volley between the Mother and Josie so accurately through mere observation was unsettling.
Will future robots be so advanced as to anticipate human behaviour, even while the flawed human, addled with emotion, is unaware themselves? That's some scary shit and doesn't leave us much of a fighting chance in a future battle against the machines.
Ishiguro's innate understanding of the psychology of people and their motivations, is one of the things I love about his writing. In Klara and the Sun, we are offered a window into a humanoid's grid-squared mind, and I was intrigued by the inventiveness of his descriptions as he attempted to understand and convey the robot as he does the man.
Coming from a subhuman vantage point, for an inexperienced sci-fi reader like me, much of this story felt fresh and new, if not underdeveloped. I never realised how much I thirsted for other-worldliness until having read it. This point alone proves a win for the genre's prospect for entry on my shelves.
In short, I've been missing out!
That said, moving along to the downside, other than for Klara, I never formed any connection to the characters. I didn't care for or dislike them. I wondered if this was intentional, to let Klara and her star shine.
Maybe it was because people had become less admirable due to their dystopian circumstances, more polarised and less likable?
Am I blaming the author for sharing a world that is too upsetting or unappealing to appreciate on its merits? Maybe.
In my view, the measure of an important book is the amount of time I spend thinking about it after I've closed the cover. Klara and the Sun brought to mind detrimental topics such as AI, DNA manipulation, environmental contamination, and modern feudalism, having left this work of speculative fiction hovering around me and jumping out from behind corners ever since I put it down; a literary haunting.
I'm not one to reread a book, but Ishiguro's latest work is my first entry onto my Future Book Club list. I prefer the solace found in differing perspectives from the valued readers in my midst, thus serving as a great way to attempt neutrality and remain questioning. Most importantly, other readers can help add a lightness to grave concepts, making them slightly less frightening as you collectively share in the burden of the conclusions.
Below is the bookmark I was inspired to make whilst learning about Klara and her special relationship with the Sun. I've amassed a collection of about thirty designs when reading through some great back books back in 2021. I'm hoping to add more to my collection in the future whenever I might find some spare time.