When writers and critics look back at the year gone by, they will probably remark upon the specific unease that comes of reading a prophetic text while living through a time of global upheaval. When you remove a sense of distance between the event and its representation, it makes for strange bedfellows: every passage that reminds you of the present also tells you, in no uncertain terms, “The worst is not, So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’ ”(to quote Lear).
Klara and the Sun would fall under that strange category of novels that end up signifying much more than they possibly intend. It’s a study of human insecurity and loneliness in a world struggling with a newfound understanding of mortality, change and technological intervention. It’s also a Kazuo Ishiguro novel – which means that certain themes long since familiar to his many fans make a triumphant return: the power of memory, the feeling that there’s more going on behind the scenes than any character lets on, and a quiet oppressiveness permeating conversations and silences.
But this one has robots in it – “Artificial Friends” or AFs, who provide company to children, and can be bought at a store and chosen as you would a favourite toy: a cross between Disney’s Toy Story and Brian Aldiss’s “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” (and also the Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg adaptation A. I, if you please).
Through Klara’s eyes
The eponymous Klara is extremely intelligent, and unusually expressive for a robot. Watching two humans emotionally embrace one another in the middle of chaotic traffic, she exclaims to her adoring store manager, “Yes, they seem so happy,” and adds, “but it’s strange because they also seem upset”. The figure of the robot is unique in literature in its capacity to unassumingly reflect upon the human condition.
Concepts we take for granted are reinvigorated through casual questions and doubts. At one point, Klara says, “Until recently, I didn’t think that humans could choose loneliness. That there were sometimes forces more powerful than the wish to avoid loneliness.” As with the figure of the animal, or the child, it offers a naiveté that is refreshing in its innocence while disarming in its simplicity.
Klara is also obsessed with the sun. While it is implied that she runs on solar power, her fascination with the sun transcends a mere instrumental attachment. She comes to view it as a godlike and beneficial presence, imbuing human and robot alike with life affirming energy. What seems at first to be a minor eccentricity quickly blossoms into a quiet infatuation as the sun comes to symbolise something that equates both humankind and sentient machine.
But the times Klara and Josie live in are anything but life affirming. The whole novel is constructed like a puzzle – in true science fictional fashion, the reader teases out small details which help piece together a depressing reality. Without revealing too much, one might say that it is a time when human loneliness is amplified several times over in a bid for artificially moderated perfectibility.
Interactions are often stunted and awkward, and tensions run high between enthusiastic converts and humans who haven’t quite made the jump in embracing the future. Very Huxleyan, but what sets the novel apart is its evocation of human weakness and mortality as understood by an artificial intelligence.
But what about Josie?
Josie, Klara’s adoptive human, is ill and shows no signs of getting any better. Klara is convinced that Josie’s sickness is eminently curable, unlike her more knowledgeable family and friends. Throughout the novel, what is supremely ironic is the figure of the robot clutching on to hope despite all evidence to the contrary.
Hope becomes not a function of necessarily knowing more, but of an inhuman openness to possibility, which the novel insists humankind is no longer capable of despite staggering technological progress. The humans themselves are thrown into stark relief as being machinelike – the grieving and anxious mother, mechanically going through the motions of denial and acceptance; Rick, the “unlifted” friend, confident in his innate abilities yet consigned forever as inferior; Josie herself, disabled and tragically become replaceable in a world that has learned to market and sell uniqueness and companionship for profit, while rendering the companions themselves as dispensable.
Klara and the Sun is Ishiguro writing in the speculative vein of Never Let Me Go. Readers of that novel know by now that an Ishiguro novel does not succeed or fail by virtue of profound twists alone. And yet, it would be a disservice to reveal anything more. The whole point of the novel is to immerse oneself through the eyes of the loving and tragic Klara, at once trusting and understanding yet casually making her reader privy to shocking truths about human behaviour, consistently catching us by surprise.
As with most novels by Ishiguro, this one too is written with immense sensitivity, compassion and clarity. Occasionally reminiscent of EM Forster’s “The Machine Stops” and Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun, it nevertheless charts its own territory, not so much through the ingenuity of its ideas as through the delicacy of their treatment.
Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber & Faber.