Klara and the Sun (1), is Kazuo Ishiguru’s most recent novel. It is a careful exploration of sentience, relationship and affection in a world increasingly reliant on artificial intelligence and genetic ‘enhancement’.
I found this book brilliant and haunting, with its combination of formal restraint and devastating insight. For readers familiar with Ishiguru’s work, its greatest resonance is with Never Let Me Go, though there are also echoes of The Remains of the Day. Klara is an AF (Artificial Friend), manufactured to befriend young people of the elite class during their adolescent years. These children themselves are, in most cases ‘lifted’ through genetic enhancement, to gain access to the colleges which act as gateways to elite roles in adulthood. In almost all cases, ‘lifting’ is a requirement for entry. Unfortunately, lifting is also hazardous for the young people concerned.
We meet Klara in the store where she is waiting to be bought. She has been manufactured to be sensitive, empathetic and observant. She watches and learns as customers come and go. Solar powered, she also develops an animistic devotion to the sun. She loves being close to the shop window. It improves her chances of purchase. It allows her to watch the street and its life. Above all improves her access to the sun and his nourishment. From the perspective of the reader, she is excruciatingly hopeful and content with her lot.
Most of the book is about Klara’s relationship with Josie, who chooses her as Artificial Friend. Klara has an unstinting love and loyalty for Josie, which is genuinely reciprocated to a degree, though not entirely reliably. Josie has had problems with being uplifted and her health is poor. As different characters come into play, we learn more about life in the elite of Klara’s world, their varying attitudes to Artificial Friends, and the place of non-elite humans. The story unfolds. Klara retains her love and loyalty towards Josie, and her devotional faith in the sun and his nourishment, from beginning to end.
Ishiguru creates a world that has fairy tale aspect, so his book is not exactly speculation about a possible future. Nonetheless, his themes are pertinent to possible futures, especially in the realm of AI. The writing combines beauty, economy and precision, all the better to wring the heart of the sensitive reader. My hope lies in the intimation that sentient beings can indeed find nourishment, even in a dystopic world.
(1) Kazuo Ishiguru Clara and the Sun London: Faber & Faber, 2021