I’ve loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels since his ghostly debut in A Pale View of Hills. Written in 1982, it is set in Japan, where the writer was born before his family moved to England at the age of five. Then came his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, a post-war fiction with an unreliable narrator. In his third novel, Ishiguro continued with a note to the English novel of Manners with expert finesse in Leftovers of the Day, which won the Booker Prize in 1989.
In other words, Ishiguro seamlessly transitioned from one genre to another, from historical to hypothetical, for example, and in many ways, Klara and the sun can be read as a companion to his other speculative novel, Never Let Me Go from 2005, which was all about cloning and written with such moving pathos that its denouement is nothing short of heartbreaking.
As for Klara and the Sun, this is Ishiguro’s first novel since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. The story opens in a store in which AFs are sold. “AI” is a fairly common term for us now, but in Klara we have “AF” or “artificial friend”. Klara is also the narrator of the story, and as she tries to figure out what is going on, we, the reader, do the same.
And of course, as an award-winning author, Ishiguro skillfully hides crucial information from us along the way. We are somewhere in America in the future, and Klara, blessed with her Android processor, is hoping to be chosen by a deserving human child. Josie is that child, and the title sun is the food that keeps Klara energized – a solar AI, I guess you could call her.
Pathos is the dominant chord in Ishiguro’s canon, and this latest novel, his eighth, is less orchestral than, say, his latest epic, The buried giant, and more than one set piece. In Klara and the sun, Josie is a sick child. The mystery abounds. We do not know what disease afflicts him; and we don’t know what took her sister, Sal, a death that caused her mother to try to bond with Klara.
There is also talk of an unsuccessful mourning doll in the likeness of Sal, which is quite odd and leads to one of the focal points of the novel’s plot.
In a spooky scene, Josie’s mother asks Klara to act like Josie. This becomes important later in the novel, when we are told that Klara is scheduled to replace or become Josie, if Josie does not recover. Josie’s friend Rick is “unlevered,” meaning he hasn’t had some sort of intelligence upgrade or genetic upgrade we’re led to believe. It creates a sort of class difference between these two star-studded teenage friends.
In a recent interview, Ishiguro admitted that he believed the novel to be a YA novel, but that his daughter, writer Naomi Ishiguro, had persuaded him otherwise. I am a little surprised by this; I think this novel would have appealed to the YA market, and might still find a readership there.
Technology has meant progress, but where does that leave the human? Josie’s father, who is now estranged from his mother, has been “replaced” from his engineering job, and others are in the process of being relocated. Rick’s mom is not a subtle woman, and there were times in reading this novel where I wondered, “Are all of these characters AI?”; but maybe that’s unfair, after all, our narrator is rather dishonestly referred to as a glorified vacuum cleaner at one point, and later a ‘darling robot’, so the narrator comes to us from a non-human point of view, one who tries to be as human as possible. And Klara does her best to be empathetic.
By way of fable, while we might not be very far from Kansas, we are certainly a million miles from Philip K Dick’s. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? with his empathy boxes, mood organs and renegade androids. Science fiction is now a genre frequently approached by so-called literary authors.
And many of us may think there is no surprise in this; especially when the recent pandemic catapulted us into a digital and near-dystopian future. Is realism a thing of the past, or what is realism anyway – these are the questions science fiction writers seem to be asking.
And even, Klara and the sun does not have the mind-boggling possibilities that true sci-fi fans will crave; The surreal premonitions of JG Ballard, or the transhuman parables of Margaret Atwood. Instead, Klara and the sun is a sweet and poignant story, and, of course, there is nothing wrong with that. He asks important questions about the human heart, “the hardest part of Josie” for Klara to eventually learn.
Sunday independent supplement