Klara and the Sun
by Kazuo Ishiguro
‘Josie came hurrying to me. She put her arms round me and held me. When I gazed over the child’s head, I saw Manager smiling happily and the Mother, her face drawn and serious, looking down to search in her shoulder bag.’
Klara, the eponymous narrator of this tale, is a robot – an artificial friend (AF) designed to be a companion and give pleasure to children. Although not the latest model, she is unusually intelligent and observant. She records everything that happens in the street outside the store where she is on display – the people, the taxis and the sun’s passage across the sky and its setting behind the RPO building opposite. AFs are solar powered and Klara is curious about what happens to the sun after it sets. She thinks of it as a living being.
Two phenomena impress her deeply. The first concerns the Beggar Man and how he is apparently resurrected from the dead when the sun’s rays fall upon him; the second is what she calls the Cootings Machine, presumably some kind of road-mending machine that daily belches out pollution into the atmosphere.
Klara is eventually purchased for Josie, a sickly teenager, who has been “lifted”, that is manipulated genetically to give her greater educational and work opportunities. Rather like the world of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Klara’s world is divided into two levels, all the advantages being awarded to the upper. However, “lifting” appears to carry some risk, of illness certainly, but even of death. Josie’s sister Sal has – we are told – already passed.
Josie lives with her mother Chrissie in an upper class house on the prairie. Most of her education is conducted on-line, with only occasional meeting of her peer group. Her nearest neighbour (apart from a farmer whom we never get to meet) is Rick, her friend from childhood, an “unlifted” boy who also lives with his mother, Helen, and dreams of going to college – something he is unlikely to do given the society in which they live. Josie and Rick have planned a future together.
‘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 …. on account of their Pollution and inconsideration ….’
Klara notices that here in the country the sun sets behind a farmer’s barn. She reasons that if she can only discover exactly where it goes, she can make a special plea for it to shine on Josie so she can recover like the Beggar Man. As a trade for Josie’s good health, she also figure that somehow she must destroy the Cootings Machine. However, for her plan to succeed she needs the help of Rick and of Josie’s estranged father, Paul.
‘I reached the Purple Door unnoticed and keyed in the code …. There came the usual short hum, but this too went unnoticed by those below. I was then inside Mr Capaldi’s studio and closed the door behind me.’
During one of Josie’s better spells, Chrissie invites Klara to accompany her, Josie, Rick and Helen to the city. Josie and Chrissie are to meet Paul and visit Mr Capaldi for a sitting of Josie’s portrait. Helen will meet a former lover who may have influence enough to find Rick a college place. At this point, the novel takes on a darker note as we discover more of what Chrissie and Capaldi are planning. What exactly is being created in his studio?
Klara takes Paul into her confidence and recognising her good intentions agrees to help find the Cootings Machine and destroy it. But doing so will present Klara with a dilemma. What sort of sacrifice is she prepared to make to give Josie a future?
‘I stared at the Cootings Machine sitting in the centre of the yard, separated from the other parked vehicles. The Sun was falling between two silhouette buildings in the mid-distance …. “I feel very foolish,” I said finally. “No, it’s not easy,” the Father said. “On top of which, what you’re proposing would count as criminal damage.” ‘
Billed in some reviews as dystopic sci-fi, Klara and the Sun is less science fiction and more literary. It is certainly dystopic, but this world is less harsh than that of Never Let Me Go and, in my mind, not unlike that of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. Already AI is no fiction and this reader anyway can’t help wondering what the next developments in technology will bring!
I have always been fond of robot stories. The best of them ask, or imply, the deepest questions about life and intelligence. What are they and can they truly be replicated? Can science reproduce love and the human heart? In Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro forces us to confront these themes yet again. It is a thoughtful novel, clever and surprisingly emotional. The childlike innocence of Klara will not be easy to forget.