By Thomas Faulhaber
[ Minor spoilers. Nothing that would ruin the book.]
Klara and the Sun is Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, just being published this past March. You may know Ishiguro from his earlier hits The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. I first encountered his work when I read Never Let Me Go a few years ago. Never Let Me Go is about the lives of human clones raised so that their organs may be harvested once they mature and deals with how they view themselves and how they choose to spend their lives knowing that they will die young to save others. It takes a simple but fascinating sci-fi premise and then makes it entirely about the people most deeply involved in that premise, never taking a more macro view and only giving us glimpses of the world beyond them through their interactions with other characters.
Klara and the Sun is the same way. It is about the life and spiritual journey of a robotic “Artificial Friend,” or “AF,” named Klara, whose purpose is to keep her owner, Josie, from getting lonely. The book is laser-focused on painting an emotional picture of each scene, and sensory details are mostly left up to the reader’s imagination. Many key details are left ambiguous or saved until it is necessary to reveal them. For example, throughout the book it is mentioned that Josie’s boyfriend, Rick, can’t get into a good school because most schools don’t accept applicants who haven’t been “lifted.” Only at the end of the book is it revealed that “lifting” refers to gene editing, and that it can sometimes be dangerous, but no further detail is given.
Another example I like is how the AFs themselves are never given clear physical descriptions. We know that they have expressive faces, that they have humanoid bodies with limbs and fingers, and that they are similar in size to the teenagers they keep company, but we know they aren’t indistinguishable from people because everyone Klara encounters is instantly able to recognize her as an AF just by looking at her. We never know what the giveaway is, or even if they look like people at all. Perhaps they wear shirts that say “AF” on them, or perhaps they have shiny metallic skin. We never find out, and I think it’s better that way. Because the book is a story about a non-human observer learning about the human psyche by observing people’s interpersonal and internal conflicts, it is purer and more succinct when it focuses on the psychological aspects of each scene.
Klara and the Sun is a book about spirituality in two different ways. First, like Never Let Me Go, it explores the life of a conscious person with a single known purpose, separating them from people in general. The difference is that the clones in Never Let Me Go passively await their fate, which will eventually be imposed on them by forces outside of their control, while Klara seeks by her nature to achieve her purpose. At the end of the book, Klara feels she has achieved her purpose, and is content to do nothing but sit alone and think indefinitely without even considering her ultimate fate. This is emblematic of the difference between AFs and humans in Klara’s world, since a human would never feel at peace doing nothing with no one, day-in-day-out, just patiently waiting for death. Klara values nothing other than keeping Josie from being lonely, and her life inherently has meaning in this way. The central question of spirituality is that of purpose, so Klara is a story about a conscious being with a singular and concrete purpose in life, which she can reach before death and then feel completed, and how she views us humans who have no such luxury.
The other important spiritual conflict in the story is far more unclear. The AFs believe that the Sun is a higher power. Klara prays to it directly twice in the book, and she receives visions when she does so. Whether or not the Sun is actually supernatural in this book is a question which is kept in the reader’s mind throughout the whole story and never clearly answered. I was confused about this when I finished the book and it’s the main reason the story left an impression on me. I’m not totally convinced this is truly a mark of skill because leaving an important question open-ended isn’t difficult and can appear lazy, but I’m still thinking about it, so I think it was at least a good choice for that reason.
The one complaint I have about Klara is that the dialogue is very awkward. You’d expect a robot to talk in an awkward, overly formal way, but so do all of the human characters. The characters use vulgar language a couple of times in the book and it feels very forced and out-of-place, like Ishiguro knew how stiff it all sounded and included occasional swearing just to mitigate that. Other than that, I really enjoyed the book. Wikipedia says Sony is going to adapt it into a movie which, as you can probably guess based on what I’ve praised about the book, I don’t think is a great idea, but I could see it working with a bit of creativity.