Image of the cover of Kazuo Ishiguro's Klara and the Sun: a light yellow hand with a small cartoon sun in it

One for the Books: With ‘Klara and the Sun,’ a Nobel Laureate is still going strong

Klara and the Sun is the latest novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017. I found the book emotionally engaging, thought-provoking and interestingly different. And it’s a good read.

Technically a work of science fiction, this is really a tale about the human condition, and it’s a love story on several levels, set in a future very much like our present. It reminds me of an episode of The Twilight Zone or the Stephen Spielberg movie A.I. — social commentary in the form of a cautionary fable.

Klara looks like a young girl, but she’s really an AF, an Artificial Friend. Wealthy people buy such “friends,” which are advanced robots, as companions for their children. We meet Klara as she’s sitting in the robot shop, waiting to be chosen by a family.

The AFs in the shop have emotions. They get happy when a customer shows interest in them; they get sad when a customer rejects them. Klara’s a B2, a group of especially empathetic AFs. “Every Artificial Friend is unique,” but Klara, says the shop manager, is even more special because of “her appetite for observing and learning. Her ability to absorb and blend everything she sees around her is quite amazing. As a result, she now has the most sophisticated understanding of any AF in this store.” Klara notices details and draws conclusions — sometimes incorrectly — from what she sees. She even understands that other AFs cannot do this.

Klara forms a fast friendship with a window-shopping child and holds out hope that the girl will come back to choose her. But the manager tells her children can be cruel: “Children make promises all the time. They come to the window, they promise all kinds of things. They promise to come back, they ask you not to let anyone else take you away. It happens all the time. But more often than not, the child never comes back. Or worse, the child comes back and ignores the poor AF who’s waited, and instead chooses another. It’s just the way children are.”

Klara is finally selected as the companion of a young girl who has medical problems. The girl’s mother seems not to approve of Klara and acts strangely around her. The girl’s illness is never quite explained, and she has a boyfriend with a problem that isn’t quite explained, except both may involve a dangerous procedure called “lifting,” which seems to be a form of genetic engineering. Kids who have been lifted look down on those who have not.

Prejudice is also displayed by some robots against other robots, and by society against artificial entities. One woman complains when the family tries to take Klara into the theater with them: “First they take the jobs. Then they take the seats at the theater?”

Metaphorically, the book is more a wire frame than a sculpture: Not every character is filled in, not everything is made clear, not every plot point is wrapped up. The reader has to set aside some technical criticisms (such as why a robot that’s able to interpret people’s motivations can’t figure out the day/night cycle of the sun) and go with the story. But there’s always something going on beneath the surface, and there are a couple of mysteries, as well: What happened to the girl’s sister? What’s up with the creepy guy working on the girl’s portrait?

Because the AFs get their energy from the sun, Klara assumes it is the source of all good things. You could say she worships it. She also decides the large industrial machine outside the shop is evil because it puts out all the pollution in her world.

I noticed that Ishiguro uses several spiritual tropes: good vs. evil, “prayer,” suffering, healing, “blood” and sacrifice. The author makes readers ask themselves: What is love? What does it mean to be human? Does a robot “think” and therefore “exist”? Can a robot love? The father asks Klara: “Do you believe in the human heart? … Do you think there is … something that makes each of us special and individual?”

I really got caught up in it. I enjoyed the lovely, melancholy, tranquil ending, and I’ve thought about the book often since finishing it.

Happy reading!

©2021 Mary Louise Ruehr

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Mary Louise Ruehr is a books columnist for The Portager. Her One for the Books column previously appeared in the Record-Courier, where she was an editor.

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