Credit: Faber and Faber

Review: Klara and the Sun

By Lucy Dunn

Ishiguro’s robot-narrated novel raises hope for the future of technology.

A story of childhood naiveties interspersed with fleeting adult struggles of illness, separation, and loneliness, Kazuo Ishiguro’s tale follows a convoluted path and is yet a simple story of love. It is narrated from the perspective of “Girl AF Klara”, a human-doll replica created using futuristic artificial intelligence (AI) technology, one of many models of her kind that have been produced to provide young adolescents with companions as they transition into adulthood. Their sole purpose to improve and protect their “human”, Klara’s tale is one of unwavering devotion to her “teenager” Josie, even when this means putting her own existence in peril. 

Whilst Klara isn’t human, she has a child-like awe of the world that leaves her continually fascinated by aspects of life we wouldn’t think twice about: her detailed analyses of peoples’ ages, an “estimate” which the reader can assume to be almost always correct; her fear of pollution and the dreaded Cooting’s machine, industrial interruptions hardly new to city landscapes; and her undying faith in the power of the Sun as she watches its effect insidiously controlling the life around her.  

Klara’s world is a futuristic America, and for the most part, AFs are accepted into society, particularly amongst the privileged middle classes. However, throughout the book, technology-sceptics crop up: first, in the form of Josie’s mother. Although her cold exterior melts away, we can never quite tell what “the mother” truly thinks of Klara: does she become a second child to her, as she insinuates to Klara on their day trip, or was she only ever a back-up for if the worst were to happen to Josie? Rick, Josie’s neighbour and apparent soulmate, is initially frosty to Klara too, despite his own AI creations, but they soon become closer than perhaps any other two characters in the novel, even outdoing Rick and Josie’s relationship at points. And Paul, Josie’s dad, eventually warms to Klara like the others do, treating her like a close relative rather than his daughter’s mechanical plaything. 

A pattern emerges: immediate distrust gradually morphs into fondness for Girl AF Klara, despite previous misgivings. Resolute in her hope, she confuses and consoles Josie’s family when they fear the worst is coming, and she provides crucial support, in some shape or form, to all the main characters in the novel as they are each tormented by their own troubled lives. Although we hear of a growing and widespread distrust of AFs by humans towards the book’s end, Klara seems only to bring positivity to a story that could have otherwise been so tragic.  

Advances with AI often produce mixed reactions, but if we view robots the way that Ishiguro depicts them, then what’s not to love? Klara is devoted to her “human”, Josie, and pledges to do anything and everything within her power to bring her happiness. She’s at Josie’s side, day and night, sits with her at breakfast, observes during her lessons, adventures with her outside, and even makes friends with Rick, Josie’s best friend and lover-to-be. 

The concept of Klara and her kind is an interesting one, and it could perhaps fill a gap that we’ve always been conscious of but never fully appreciated. Klara ponders about loneliness throughout the novel, and after carefully observing all the different people she comes to meet, she arrives at the conclusion that all humans are lonely in their own way. A dismal outlook perhaps, but maybe true. 

As much as most of us may have “found ourselves” and our true friends at university, for many it’s not always like that. Have you ever needed to rant, but had no one there to listen? When your family, friends, and flatmates could all, quite literally, not be any more annoying, but as a result, you have no one left to talk it through with? Or you’ve simply been upset, on one of those days where the world is against you, and just needed someone to cry at? Klara is that someone and she provides a presence to which her human can vent, truthfully and unashamedly, if and when she needs. So, is the notion of a steadfastly loyal, ever-present friend at your side, robot or otherwise, really all that bad? 

But, if these manufactured robots were becoming progressively more perceptive and intuitive, as fears in the book suggest, could they, designed originally to be subordinates, end up threatening humanity instead of comforting it? 

The maverick artist-come-scientist Mr Capaldi certainly seems to believe that there isn’t anything particularly remarkable about humankind that can’t be reproduced immaculately by robots, as demonstrated by the eccentric plan hatched between himself and Josie’s mother. And, if human error were to be taken out of the equation, the world would likely function far more efficiently. Is it truly conceivable, though, that programmed, automated robots could ever live the type of lives we lead? Perhaps the “something special” invisible to Mr Capaldi is present in that human error and inconsistency that permeates much of our lives, and perhaps it is from mistakes that even greater creations are born. As much as Ishiguro’s AFs are a welcomed complementary addition to people, there is an indescribable originality that exists differently between each and every human in both the novel and reality, that AFs, as Klara herself admits, would never quite be able to replicate. Ishiguro’s eighth novel leaves one with a strange hopefulness for an automated future, and illustrates that harmony is possible between man and machine in view of the ever-increasing humanisation of technology; Alexa only a small and primitive example. Klara and the Sun emphasises that we shouldn’t fear AI; instead revel in our differences, to make the most out of aligning our flaws with technology’s perfections, whilst continuing to hold close our own irreplaceable creativity.


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