By Isabel Cramer
Welcome to a future, perhaps even parallel, Earth. Highly sophisticated artificial intelligence is a part of everyday life in Kazuo Ishiguro’s compelling Klara and the Sun. Ishiguro asks all the big questions in his latest novel: What does it mean to be human? Can science transcend death? Is parenthood truly selfless? The list seems endless for this philosophy-filled novel. Klara and the Sun manages to bring existential and ethical questions to the table page after page.
The novel launches into action in an Artificial Friend (abbreviated to AF) store, presumably in the United States. Several series of automatons are sold as playmates for children and teenagers — among the store’s wares we find “Girl AF” Klara. We are introduced to Klara as the narrator of the story, and as we spend more time with her, it quickly becomes apparent that she is not human, but rather an artificial, robotic being that closely resembles a human both in physique and (supposedly) psyche.
We gradually begin to discover and navigate the shop (and subsequently the wider world) through Klara’s eyes. Previously being positioned mid-store alongside her friend Rosa, the pair is moved to the shop window to represent the store — as well as to increase their chances of being bought. Here, we start to understand the near-religious importance of the Sun (always capitalized, like “God”) to Klara. It is mentioned that Klara’s series of AFs is solar-powered: rather than human nourishment, it is the Sun that feeds her, and it is the Sun that enables her to see. To Klara, it seems, being able to see is paramount in life. She is praised for being incredibly observant, and curiously soaks in all that she sees from her position in the shop window.
Klara’s time in the shop window ingeniously reflects how a child first encounters all sorts of inexplicable events. As Klara sees the outside world and its people for the first time, we are introduced to the AFs’ relative naivety, and their abstract way of understanding humankind. Central to Klara’s robotic innocence stands an unfaltering loyalty to 14-year-old human Josie, who Klara first meets during her time in the shop window, and who eventually buys Klara to come home with her.
Ishiguro, against the conventions of traditional sci-fi literature, includes scenes wherein very little action happens. He is known to apply this style to not only Klara and the Sun, but also in his previous novels The Remains of the Day (1989), Never Let Me Go (2005) and The Buried Giant (2015). Nevertheless, Ishiguro fills his scenes with compelling sentences resembling an intricate artwork — precise, intriguing and masterfully constructed. Hence, this style works harmoniously within Klara and the Sun.
Rather than sudden plot twists and revelations, Ishiguro prefers writing long, winding plots — by the end of the novel it is obvious how the narrative will unfold and eventually end, even if at one point the story seemed to go entirely in another direction. This is very much in line with Ishiguro’s style and his employment of rather passive scenes in his novels. In Klara and the Sun, the most important revelations (such as why Josie is sick, what the “portrait” entails, and what is going to happen to Klara) are subtly teased in front of our very eyes.
Ishiguro is a master of withholding information from his readers. The lack of information seems not so much a deliberate choice, but rather a natural process based on the nature of Ishiguro’s narrator. Klara knows as little of this great new world as the reader, and experiences everything she encounters as new and self-evident. In Ishiguro’s skilful hands, this self-evidence becomes a device with which the reader is compelled to read on. What is an “AF”? What do the Mother’s strange requests in the store entail? When will Josie’s illness be explained? Klara and the Sun keeps you on your toes.
This withholding of information is both a source of great pleasure and immense frustration. Ishiguro has his readers practically malnourished. Because Ishiguro tells us so little about his world — and seems rather uninterested in traditional worldbuilding — the reader is only fed minimal portions of information and hints about the strangeness of this parallel, future Earth.
Klara and the Sun draws from the depths of the Uncanny Valley, and what it means to be neither artificial nor human. The term Uncanny Valley, coined by Tokyo Institute of Technology professor Masahiro Mori in 1970, attempts to describe the observation of discomfort in people upon encountering uncannily human robots. Our feelings shift towards unease and strangeness when a robot crosses the “uncanny” threshold.
Ishiguro’s incorporation of the concept of the Uncanny Valley complexifies our understanding of Klara’s sentience. Is Klara truly sentient, or is AF programming sophisticated to such an extent that selflessness and perceived emotions are merely part of computer-generated coding rather than a “soul”? The novel’s events are portrayed in a uniquely abstract manner by virtue of its robotic perspective. AFs view the world as a conglomeration of “boxes”. The descriptions of the visual world through Klara’s eyes give an abstract, nearly kaleidoscopic feel, reminding the reader that they are in fact seeing this strange world through the eyes of a robot.
Klara is not so much uncanny in physique, but rather in psyche. The human characters in Klara and the Sun can easily recognize an AF upon sight, meaning that there is some significant physical difference between humans and AFs. The uncanniness is rather found in the inner workings of Klara. The human characters in the novel are, on this level, affected by Klara’s uncanniness. From our human perspective it is clear that Klara’s life as an AF was limited to her being a robot. She enjoyed a certain degree of freedom — but only as much as her masters allowed. In some parts of the novel, she seems to be more like a pet, a decorative appliance or security device rather than a friend. She had the benefits of having a place to stay and loving company — but merely because she was an expensive purchase, a sophisticated plaything for teenage Josie. Klara was ultimately waiting to be discarded, even if the narrative points toward her potentially having to “continue” Josie’s being. “Are you a guest at all? Or do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?” (Part Three), she is asked upon entering a home. Are you sentient, or not quite?
Similarly, a woman outside the theatre accuses Klara of needlessly taking up a seat: “First they take the jobs. Now they take the seats at the theatre?” (Part Four). Here we find an allusion to mechanisation as well as the fact that artificial creatures are becoming more integrated in society and being treated as human beings. So the question remains to what extent AFs are humans, or perhaps even replace humans.
The novel dives even further into this question of whether Klara is a sentient creature or rather an appliance. The Mother asks Klara to “continue” Josie — not in her own mechanical body, but in a new one which is modelled perfectly after Josie by scientist Capaldi. The uncanny quality of Klara is that she is capable of, or at least attempts to, discover and learn every part of Josie’s behaviour, mind, and heart. If Josie comes to die, Klara’s artificial mind is to be transferred to Josie’s artificial clone. Would this perhaps mean that Klara is at least sentient enough to continue and mimic a human girl?
As the novel progresses, we learn that children are being “lifted”. This is supposedly a risky form of genetic editing which drastically improves the academic performance of children — which is supposedly the reason for Josie’s illness. These modern practices are nearly parallel to tinkering with mechanical creatures (such as AFs) in order to improve their functioning. Here we return to the Uncanny Valley — because Ishiguro blurs the lines between man and machine by showcasing that humans and Artificial creatures are treated, or rather objectified, similarly in striking ways that have to do with performance rather than sentience.
Klara and the Sun is philosophical to the bone. Ishiguro, as in Never Let Me Go and The Sleeping Giant, once more addresses ethical issues from the top shelf. Klara and the Sun juggles the interplay of the temporariness of all things, including life itself. Ishiguro presents us with existential juxtapositions, where abandonment and loyalty, ungratefulness and forgiveness, dedication and expectation are starkly pitted against each other.
Klara’s unfaltering loyalty and selflessness may or may not have been part of her programming. Artificial Friends are, obviously, programmed to fulfil their function as “Friends”. Programming is made to strive for perfection, and hence the “Friend”-aspects of an Artificial Friend will likely be enhanced and presented in their most idealised form. Unlike humans, Artificial Friends such as Klara have no personal agenda that could put the feelings of others in jeopardy. However, we once again tread upon the issue of Klara’s sentience — would Klara’s unfaltering loyalty be a testament to her being passionately human, or rather to her being an artificially programmed creature? Questions revolving around Klara’s religious stance toward the Sun arise in a similar context.
“I have my memories to go through and place in the right order,” (Part Six) Klara says in the final passage of the novel. She seems nostalgic and ruminates on the wonders of her past while bathing in the Sun’s nourishment. The loneliness, isolation and finiteness of the ending scene were nearly unbearable, even if Klara seemed completely at peace with her final destiny. To me, she was human — human enough. This final scene is perhaps one of the moments where Klara is at her most human, and most artificial all at once. Ishiguro succeeds once more in bringing existential and ethical problems to the table in the one-of-a-kind surreal style we all know from him.
Isabel Cramer is a postgraduate student of English Language and Culture at Utrecht University. She is currently enrolled in the MA Literature Today, and specialises in literary adaptations. Isabel has previously worked as a designer for RevUU and currently runs a copy- and content writing business.
- Ishiguro, Kazuo. Klara and The Sun. Faber & Faber, 2021.