The Sun always has ways to reach us.
From her place in the store, Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, watches carefully the behaviour of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass in the street outside. She remains hopeful a customer will soon choose her, but when the possibility emerges that her circumstances may change for ever, Klara is warned not to invest too much in the promises of humans.
In Klara and the Sun, his first novel since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, Kazuo Ishiguro looks at our rapidly-changing modern world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator to explore a fundamental question: what does it mean to love?
I realise that I’m in the minority here, but Klara and the Sun left be feeling a little underwhelmed. It’s not a bad novel – there are certainly positives and at no point did I feel like giving up on it – but I finished it feeling rather “meh” about the whole experience.
Klara is an artificial friend – or AF, as they are referred to – who we first meet in the store where she waits to be chosen. It quickly becomes apparent that Klara is rather unusual, displaying curiosity at the world around her and trying to fathom out human nature. It sets her apart from the AFs around her who seem content to merely observe and accept what they see at face value. I wondered what it was about Klara that made her different – one assumes that, as artificial friends, they are programmed to behave a certain way – but there’s no answer to this, despite those observational qualities proving key to the novel.
This first section of the novel was one of the better parts from my perspective. It eases the reader in gently and allows us to learn more about Klara, AFs, and a little of the world in which the novel is set. Told from Klara’s perspective, we see the world through a relatively unemotional gaze, and it’s interesting to observe human behaviour from the perspective of someone whose understanding of it is limited. Some of what we do is not entirely logical, after all. Whether they understand everything they observe or not, AFs do appear to be intelligent, and this brings me to my first issue with the novel. AFs are solar-powered, using direct sunlight to recharge. But they don’t understand what the sun is, and revere it with something approaching religious fervour – referring to it as Him and expressing gratitude for the nourishment He provides. I struggled with this. In other respects they are intelligent, and yet seem to worship the sun in much the same way as older civilisations did. I couldn’t quite marry up these two contradictory – to me, at least – concepts.
Klara is chosen by Josie, a teenager who suffers from an unspecified illness. I believe that we don’t know what Josie’s illness is because Klara doesn’t know, and in some respects that’s ok. Klara is given as much information as she needs to perform her duties as an AF, and is able to infer further details to an extent, but doesn’t understand everything. It does make it a little difficult to engage with the characters of the novel who are always one step removed, and it leaves a lot of questions unanswered for the reader as Klara – and therefore the reader – glean snippets of information with little context and no subsequent explanation.
The world building in Klara and the Sun is kept to a very high level but has a slightly dystopian feel to it. Many roles undertaken by humans – even specialist roles – are now performed by machines, although what those displaced individuals do instead isn’t clear. Parents can choose to “lift” their children – that is, to genetically modify them to enhance their intelligence. To what end, given that displacement of even skilled workers isn’t explained, although there do seem to be some roles that are still carried out by humans. This lifting is a choice, although many higher education establishments refuse to take on any unenhanced children, and one assumes that the lifted versus natural divide runs along class lines. The lifting also carries a risk and seems to be what made Josie ill, although why that’s the case again goes unexplained.
Many have loved this novel, and so it’s clearly one that’s just not for me. I wanted to understand the world in more detail alongside the impact that technological developments have had on humans – the good, the bad, and the ugly. I had a few unanswered questions by the end of the novel and wanted more information, although I have to admit that it finishes on a particularly poignant note.
Have you read Klara and the Sun? I’d love to know what others think of this one!