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Klara and the Sun
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B+ : well-developed tale, neatly spun around loneliness and faith
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From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
The Klara of the title is an android, a so-called Artificial Friend (AF) designed to provide companionship to children and adolescents. A "top-range B2", she is not quite the latest model -- the B3s have enhancements that she lacks -- but her artificial intelligence is quite advanced: the sales pitch the Manager at the store where she is on display makes regarding her emphasizes 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, B3s not excepted.Of course, one of the reasons she has the most sophisticated understanding is because she's been sitting in the store for a while. Impressive though AFs are, they're apparently also quite a luxury item -- and there's the question of personal fit of child and AF; as a consequence, they don't exactly seem to be flying off the shelves (and once the B3s are in stock, these naturally attract more interest as the latest thing). Klara still gets her turn in the front-window display, but, as she continues not find a buyer, she's clearly sinking in the store's pecking order.
Klara is also the narrator of this story. Her observations are not exactly child-like, but they are in many ways similarly limited. There is only so much she has been exposed to, and while she can piece together things she observes and picks up information where she can -- including, for example, magazines -- much of the world remains a mystery to her. (She also, curiously, does not tend to ask much for explanations or instruction, either in the store or later; she tends to put things together for herself, for better and worse.) Nevertheless, she makes a great effort at understanding, especially the human world; she's determined to be an ideal companion to the child she's matched with -- certain that her time will come.
Some children do take an interest in Klara, notably Josie, a pale and thin girl Klara estimates to be fourteen or so. When the girl first engages with Klara -- through the window-barrier, rather than actually in person -- she tells her that just driving by the day before: "I saw you, and I thought that's her, the AF I've been looking for !" Despite this, Josie and her mother don't immediately purchase her -- but Klara takes Josie's plea: "You won't go away, right ?" to heart, and she is still available when Josie and her mother finally come to the store to possibly select an AF.
Josie's mother wonders whether a more advanced B3 might not be better, but Josie has her heart set on Klara and the mother lets herself be talked into it -- though not before testing Klara's abilities, of observation and, somewhat creepily, of mimicry, having Klara imitate Josie's slightly shuffling gait.
Klara takes and adapts to her new home and position relatively well. The home she finds herself in is an isolated one, with only one other house nearby. Josie's parents are separated, and Josie lives alone with her mother and protective housekeeper Melania, who is no great fan of the technological marvel that's brought into the house. Josie is also sickly, suffering from an unidentified but serious illness -- but it's not (just) that which keeps her at home: apparently it is common for children her age to study from home, tutored on their oblongs -- apparently tablet-like devices.
Klara and the Sun is set in a near-future, the world -- as glimpsed through Klara's (equivalent of) eyes -- still mostly closely resembling our own, but with some distinct technological advances. As we also learn, there has been some structural upheaval to society, an economic-technological transformation that has left many people -- even talented engineers, like Josie's father -- outside the new mainstream. (This has also led to some resentment of the AFs -- revealed in one confrontation-scene on a rare occasion that Klara is taken back into the urban environment, when someone complains: "First they take the jobs. Then they take the seats at the theater ?")
The most ominous novelty in this brave new world is the possibility of genetic enhancement: we learn that Josie is among the many children who have been 'lifted', as the creepy euphemism has it. The procedure is still a risky one -- Josie's illness seems to be due to it, and we learn that Josie had a sister, Sal, who also suffered from a debilitating illness that killed her due to it -- but the leg-up that it gives to children, enhancing their potential, is apparently so great that parents are willing to risk it -- but it also further separates societies into yet another form of haves and have-nots. Among Josie's mother's issues is the guilt she continues to be racked by: did she do the right thing in having Josie 'lifted' ?
One reason AFs are popular is because they are meant to help combat children's loneliness, to act as the companions children otherwise lack. Josie certainly lives an isolated life -- though that seems in part due also to the fact that they live out in the middle of near-nowhere. But school is apparently no longer the usual gathering place for kids -- they learn on their oblongs, alone -- and beyond AFs, parents try to organize 'interaction meetings', social gatherings for kids who otherwise have little occasion to get together. (Early on in the story there is such an interaction meeting at Josie's home, bringing together a whole group of lifted kids; whatever else the genetic enhancement does for them, it doesn't do much for their personalities.)
Loneliness is a major theme in the novel, with Klara seeing it as a major part of her duty to try to alleviate Josie's. Observant as she is, she notes -- after having lived and interacted with humans for a considerable time -- "Perhaps all humans are lonely. At least potentially". More than potentially, Ishiguro suggests: an almost overwhelming sense of loneliness pervades the story, beginning with Klara's situation at the beginning of the book, when she is still in the store: while she does not feel it as such, what amounts to her isolation very much mirrors human loneliness, a condition that she then identifies in many around her, not least Josie and Josie's mother (and, indeed, that Ishiguro seems to suggests is part of the human condition).
Josie herself does, in fact, have one close, age-appropriate friendship all the while -- the boy next door, Rick -- and the devoted Rick plays an important part in her life. His mother, however, chose not to have him lifted -- severely limiting his future possibilities, especially as far as education goes, despite the fact that he is obviously a very gifted child. Rick and his mother also live in relative isolation -- theirs is the only other house in the vicinity -- and Josie cuts to the quick of this world they are all living in in pointing out to Rick:
'But doesn't your mom mind not having friends ?'Josie, too, at the start of the story only has an individual friend -- Rick -- and Klara is brought into the household as a supplemental companion -- she is literally an: 'Artificial Friend'. (The 'friends' that come over for the 'interaction meeting' hardly qualify as such; perceptively, Klara diagnoses: "They have rough ways, but they may not be so unkind. They fear loneliness and that's why they behave as they do".) One of the novel's big questions is whether Josie will ever have, or be able to have 'society', too: whether she will become, in some form, part of her mother's world, and the world her mother so desperately wants for her, or remain, like Rick and his mother -- or, worse, in death --, essentially out-cast. For much of the novel, her sickly state prevents her from even possibly really taking part, delaying any decision (or reckoning).
If loneliness is one major theme of the novel, another is faith. Klara is solar-powered, and she literally thirsts for and basks in the sun; she comes to see, already in the store, the Sun as the source not merely of energy but what amounts to goodness in its largest sense; she essentially deifies and worships the Sun. Seeing also what the Sun gives her, she sees in it (or him, as she considers it) the potential to heal Josie; she turns to the Sun to try to help the sickly girl. She even comes to believe she can address the Sun, and conceives a way, by way of making an offering to him, of helping Josie -- an ultimately far-fetched plan that, somewhat too conveniently, she can put in motion, at potentially great cost to herself.
Klara's belief in the powers, healing and otherwise, of the Sun are absolute, and her convincing herself of this is presented much like human belief in religion -- true (and obviously deluded) faith, rather than anything in any way rational or founded in facts. Strikingly, Klara is not the only one to show blind faith: at various points she enlists Rick as well as Josie's father to help her, and they do so, almost no questions asked. It's a sign of everyone's desperation: they all want to help Josie, but do not know how; they'll grasp at any straws. (So also Josie's mother -- who grasps at quite a few out-there straws, some involving Klara.) The denouement then, the decisive scene where everything then changes, is also strikingly essentially religious -- a resolution more or less out of the blue, though with Ishiguro strongly implying that the absolute faith the characters, including Klara, showed, was decisive.
Ishiguro unfolds his story in a series of neat feints. From the reader's worry, early one, that Klara won't find a buyer, he advances the story in a series of steps where things could go different ways. The central question throughout, of course, is whether Josie is doomed, or whether she will be cured. Ishiguro nicely adds to the tension by making clear that Josie's mother is contemplating a Plan B, in case Josie doesn't make it, and so throughout there's the question of which way things will go. (We also learn a little bit more about Josie's sister's fate, with Mr Capaldi, the man helping Josie's mother with this undertaking, reässuring her that this time things would go much better: "We've come a long, long way since then". (He also reminds her: "You have to keep faith", but that's something these characters are not in short supply of -- though Josie's mother is, indeed, the one who most often expresses doubt(s)).)
Klara and the Sun is (well-)driven by its narrator. Klara has limitations, especially in understanding, but she is observant and thoughtful; she also has a real personality. Josie's mother at one point envies her for having no feelings, but Klara does not see it that way:
I believe I have many feelings. The more I observe, the more feelings become available to me.Yet Ishiguro gives her a different way of feeling: where readers will feel an almost mournful loneliness on her behalf on occasions, Klara seems content with her situation. There are some nice touches, where he subtly reminds that Klara is (just) a machine, as in a quiet moment where she stands by the refrigerator -- a favored spot -- "listening to its comforting sounds". Striking, however, is also how the human connection remains always slightly strained; Klara is always another -- and one who understands and accepts her place. Melania Housekeeper is extreme in her reaction, of treating her simply like a machine, but even Josie and her mother often also do. Klara has a role to play, but she also is aware that she must often step -- and, specifically, look -- aside. Still, there's an odd feel to Josie's relationship with Klara, an honest enthusiasm on the side of the girl that's tempered by what seems to be her sense that Klara is an appliance who serves a specific purpose for her, and can be ignored beyond that. If Klara is clearly honestly devoted to Josie, Josie -- as excited as she is about her companion -- never really seems to make a loving connection to Klara; Klara can conclude: "It was the best home for me. And Josie was the best teenager" -- but the relationship itself stands apart from those two claims. Indeed, it's notable that, elsewhere in the novel, the mentions and glimpses of other AFs tend not to be nearly as positive; the successful pairing of AF and child apparently more difficult than expected. (As Klara is ominously told about her former B3 store-mate: "Things didn't go as well for Rosa as they did for you".)
Ishiguro seems to suggest -- insist, even -- the AI-human differences are, indeed, too great to bridge; so also he presents public sentiment as having turned against AFs by the end: "there's growing and widespread concern about AFs right now. people saying how you've become too clever", the creepy Mr Capaldi tells Klara.
For much of the novel, in different way, Ishiguro toys with Klara becoming, essentially, 'human'. The way she presents herself to readers, she in many ways does come across as human -- yet he never lets go of some fundamental differences; her otherness is also always evident. And in his conclusion, Ishiguro clearly comes down on one side of the big question. It may also be hard for some readers to accept that Klara seems satisfied with her ultimate lot -- feeling, for her, that overwhelming, aching human loneliness that she seems oblivious to -- but then that also hammers home Ishiguro's point: she is other, and she is 'happy', to the extent that she feels happiness, with her lot.
Neatly developed, Klara and the Sun is agreeably unsettling. Ishiguro plays quite expertly with expectations, slow and careful in what he reveals -- aided by the use of narrator who is limited in perception and understanding. He captures the parent-child dynamic well, with both Josie and Rick's mothers (fathers being notably absent here), with parents wanting the best for their children yet uncertain of what that best might involve -- and the cost of providing it. The relationship between Rick and Josie, a natural childhood one, also develops and unfolds in neat parallel to that between Josie and Klara -- though here too the narrative comes up against some of the limitations of Klara's self-awareness; we see her react to those in Josie's household, but get too little sense of their reactions and feelings towards the machine.
Klara's voice, the teenage protagonist at the heart of the novel, and the parent-child issues addressed, lend the novel something of a YA-feel. So, too , some of the twists -- notably Klara's unlikely and very convenient means of doing something she believes might aid Josie (with help from Josie's father) -- feel a bit too simple for an adult novel, but otherwise the novel's approach works quite well. Certainly, it is an engaging story, and one that is surprisingly suspenseful, with Ishiguro's dangling of possible twists very well done.
A moving novel, Klara and the Sun effectively addresses quite a variety of big issues. If Ishiguro does not see and work these through to the extent a hard science-fiction novel might, there's something to be said for his much more open-ended approach. Only the fall-back on faith seems a bit too easy of an out and explanation of too much here -- and his embrace of the true-human (it's what's inside, the human heart, that matters, above else, he seems to suggest) that feels a bit too easily taken (on faith ?).
- M.A.Orthofer, 3 March 2021
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Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Japan in 1954 and moved to Great Britain when he was five. He won the Booker Prize for his novel The Remains of the Day, has received an OBE, and was named Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 2017, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
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