Klara and the Sun
My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs: The Nobel Lecture
Girl AF Klara is a B2 model, making her a bit out of date but not susceptible to the lack of empathy found in the newer B3 line. Every Artificial Friend (AF) is unique, and our unusually observant post-human protagonist can only watch as some of the others for sale in the same retail shop are purchased, leaving her behind. She enjoys sitting in the sunny front window to watch passersby, but is often relegated to other parts of the establishment. Fortunately, a sickly girl named Josie takes her—it?—home early in Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun.
When they get to Josie’s remote house, one of just two nearby, the profundity of Ishiguro’s decision to tell this story from Klara’s first-person point of view becomes clear. As she learns to do simple tasks, such as sitting on a stool, so too does the reader learn the conventions of the futuristic setting. In effect, by seeing the world through Klara’s eyes we readers experience an AI-like accumulation of knowledge:
The kitchen was especially difficult to navigate because so many of its elements would change their relationships to one another moment by moment. I now appreciated how in the store—surely out of consideration for us—Manager had carefully kept all the items, even smaller ones like the bracelets or the silver earrings box, in their correct places. Throughout Josie’s house, however, and in the kitchen in particular, Melania Housekeeper would constantly move items around, obliging me to start afresh in my learning. One morning, for instance, Melania Housekeeper altered the position of her food blender four times within as many minutes.
The dissonance between Klara’s understanding and our own serves as a masterclass on literary defamiliarization. Set a few years in the future of our own world, there are AI friends in Klara and the Sun, for example, but not self-driving cars. Josie, who’s approximately 14 years old, does her studies remotely by videoconferencing with her teachers from the kitchen. Make of that what you will. During an organized social event with other children, the inequalities of this society become more apparent. Most of her peers have been what’s called “lifted” while others haven’t. Her best friend Rick, for example, has an English mother who made the unusual decision to forgo this enhancement for him, which makes higher education unfeasible.
When Josie’s health deteriorates further, Klara devises a plan to help her that involves soliciting help from the sun, which raises some fascinating environment-versus-heredity questions about her programming. Also, from time to time, when she’s feeling up to it, Josie is driven back into the city to sit for some kind of suspicious portrait. Further plot complications involve Josie’s sister Sal, whose death remains unexplained, and an absent father who lost his job at the local plant.
Upon accepting the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, Ishiguro said something that might frame our thinking about Klara:
And around the corner—or have we already turned the corner?—lie the challenges posed by stunning breakthroughs in science, technology and medicine. New genetic technologies—such as the gene-editing technique CRISPR—and advances in Artificial Intelligence and robotics will bring us amazing, lifesaving benefits, but may also create savage meritocracies that resemble apartheid, and massive unemployment, including to those in the current professional elites.
It might be possible to identify these worries—especially the great inequalities born from these savage meritocracies—as the primary concerns of this novel. Yet, Klara and the Sun is no polemic, no cane-shaking diatribe about these upstart whippersnappers and their fancy new technologies. The novel isn’t reducible to one simple allegorical message any more than is the wind.
I don’t know if it started with Hal 9000 exactly, but so many AI characters harken back to Carlo Collodi’s 1881-82 serialized newspaper story La storia di un burattino. That’s where we first saw Pinocchio, the puppet that desires to become human. In Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro turns that trope on its synthetic head. While Klara might aspire to be a newer model of AF, Josie’s illness and the general frailty of human life don’t exactly make being human sound better than being artificial. So the question here isn’t if Klara wants to be real, but what it means to be real in the first place when our definition of real is already so enhanced by technology. How might we distinguish nature and artificial intelligence when we so clearly desire to hack our bodies and minds in order to exceed our natural abilities? Let me put that another way. Scientists used to believe that some huge dinosaurs had secondary walnut-sized brains in their asses to control the motor functions of their tails and hind legs, but I now know that wasn’t the case because I googled it on the secondary PTS-laden brain I carry around in my pocket. I’m not proud of my reliance on this device and, to that point, Klara and the Sun makes me wonder why we want to be puppets just as badly as puppets want to be us?
Ishiguro presented another idea in his Nobel lecture that I find even more relevant to this novel’s profound power: “My version of England would be a kind and mythical one, whose outlines, I believed, were already present in the imaginations of many people around the world, including those who had never visited the country.” It sounds to me—and his previous The Buried Giant in particular would certainly bear this out—that Ishiguro’s fiction isn’t about England as much as it’s about the origins of Englishness itself.
In his famous 1941 essay “Epic and Novel: Toward a Methodology for the Study of the Novel,” M. M. Bakhtin described a “national heroic past” in which a nation’s identity might be formed in epic terms. That nation-building era exists in a fictional past that’s cordoned off from our contemporary lives in such a way that it takes on a mythological quality. Think of the young Arthur pulling Excalibur from anvil and stone or George Washington fessing up to chopping down a cherry tree. In the United States, we might think of the heroic exploits that are already being told about the so-called Founding Fathers and, later, the cowboys of the Wild West. Those stories contribute to a rugged-individualist national identity that’s meant to be immutable. (Spoiler alert: it’s not.) We’re supposed to look back in awe and with gratitude. As Bakhtin put it, “an absolute epic distance separates the epic world from contemporary reality.”
Ishiguro’s best novels—The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant—ask us to confront that epic past and question how it contributes to a place’s current identity. More than that, they test the integrity of national identity itself and reveal that a nation-state isn’t built upon bedrock, but on myth. That is, on an agreed-upon origin story. More than that, Ishiguro’s fiction often examines the ways in which those foundational myths might be tested by disaster or massive social upheaval, such as nuclear holocaust or the rise of sentient AI.
What makes Klara and the Sun in particular so remarkable, I think, is that instead of only looking backward at our origin stories, Ishiguro here is looking forward in time as if to warn us that the myths we insist upon believing today will shape how we will live in the future. He reminds us that even our most enduring stories can be rewritten.