Kazuo Ishiguro is a talented creator of worlds that seem gentle and quaint: manor homes in a countryside of lush greenery, fancy boarding schools surrounded by gardens, or gentile houses overlooking bucolic meadows. The reader gets acclimated to the pleasant surroundings. Starts to enjoy the scenery. Notices how the birds chirp with fine English accents. Then it dawns on the reader that the main character has devoted his life to serving an obnoxious Nazi sympathizer (The Remains of the Day). Or the primary characters are clones whose organs will soon be harvested – a fate they passively accept (Never Let Me Go). Or parents subject their children to genetic editing, even though the process may be deadly, so the children can get into elite colleges – unless, of course, they die first (Klara and the Sun). The horror creeps up quietly. Then, suddenly, the monster is in the reader’s lap, licking the reader’s ear, demanding that its messy diaper be changed. And the reader wonders, how did I get here? Even though the clues were there all along.
Klara and the Sun takes place in an alternate reality of the United States, but the reader will find much that is familiar, except (importantly) for the extremely-advanced artificial intelligence. Klara is an artificial friend (think highly-sophisticated robot), and she narrates the story. Artificial friends (AFs) are sold in stores and frequently are purchased to keep teenagers (in well-off families) company. Each AF has a unique set of skills, and Klara’s is her ability to observe and learn. She can empathize.
Klara is selected by Josie, who is 14 years old. However, Josie’s mother has different plans. Klara will be groomed to become much more than an AF – a future that is hinted at when they are still in the store and Josie’s mother directs Klara to mimic Josie’s awkward way of walking. Josie has been “lifted” – a clever euphemism (rhymes with gifted) that sounds so much better than “subjected to genetic editing without having any say about it.” But the process has left her weak and sickly, all of which is manifested by her overly-cautious way of walking.
Not all children are lifted. Some parents can’t afford it. Other parents find it too risky. Though the story takes place in an alternate reality, the reader can take great comfort knowing that disingenuous platitudes still exist – as does the desperate need to pretend that social inequities don’t exist. Parents in this alternative United States still tell themselves and each other that not all children need to be lifted – that “there are all kinds of ways to lead a successful life.” No doubt this is as true as it has ever been, but we can’t help thinking all these parents spouting platitudes had their children lifted.
But why are we talking about children? The book is not called Klara and Josie – a hip new indie duo. It is Klara and the Sun for a reason – just, maybe, not a very good one – though the reader could argue (based upon the ending) that Klara’s relationship with the Sun is the key relationship in the story. First, the Sun is essential to everyone – duh. But it is especially important to Klara, because she runs on solar power. In a book where no humans express any religious belief, Klara determines that the Sun is a god. She prays to her Sun god to heal Josie. Like any human religious zealot, she commits acts of vandalism to appease her god. And depending on the reader’s point of view, Klara is either rewarded for her faith or deceived by it. But the true dilemma has little to do with religion, so ultimately Klara’s relationship with the Sun is a bit distracting.
As with all his books, Mr. Ishiguro excels at human interactions, and he asks crucial questions in Klara and the Sun. Such as, why are we talking about humans at all, when the story is narrated by a super-cool empathy machine? Are humans all that special when machines can be groomed to replicate them so perfectly? As Josie’s father puts it, “[s]cience has now proved beyond doubt there’s nothing so unique about my daughter, nothing there our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, transfer.” That’s depressing. Fortunately, Klara has a rebuttal. “Mr. Capaldi (an engineer/scientist) believed there was nothing special inside Josie that couldn’t be continued. He told the Mother he’d searched and found nothing like that. But I believe now he was searching in the wrong place. There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her.”
Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans