Title: Klara and the Sun
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Publisher: Knopf Canada
Publication Date: March 2, 2021
Synopsis from Goodreads:
From her place in the store, Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, watches carefully the behaviour of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass in the street outside. She remains hopeful a customer will soon choose her, but when the possibility emerges that her circumstances may change for ever, Klara is warned not to invest too much in the promises of humans.
The last Ishiguro that I read was The Buried Giant, a novel that I wasn’t a huge fan of. I’d kind of avoided any more of his works since then, I’ll admit. I was hesitant. He’s a big name, but I was jaded by my last read. However, I was visiting indie bookstore, The Bookkeeper, and I saw Klara and the Sun on their featured reads page. I absolutely could not walk away from this cover. I came in to buy a totally different book and left with this one instead. I had to have it for my library. There are variations of this cover, but I’ve selected my favourite for the feature image of this review, specifically because it had such a draw for me.
Klara and the Sun is an interesting novel, told from the perspective of an AF, or Artificial Friend. There is something particularly special about Klara: she is much more observant than her counterparts–a feature that makes her the ideal companion for Josie. She is able to make quick study of Josie to anticipate her needs and keep her as safe as she can. Klara, due to her nature, is more human that we’d expect an AI to be, and her learning and understanding grows every day. She has her own feelings, emotions, ability to learn and adapt, and even her own deity. Although her speech can be stilted and forced–a product of her artificial nature no doubt–she is warm, caring, and compassionate in her actions. Klara is an easy character to like. She’s designed that way, both for the reader and her new owner, Josie. Klara’s “heart” is big and her capacity to demonstrate feelings of affection is large.
The remaining characters are more peripheral and are only understood through Klara’s ability to observe and comprehend them. Although she is highly observant, she still does not possess the ability to truly understand the complexity of human emotions and motivations. She can mimic, but she cannot embody. Thus, there is a bit of a disconnect in her descriptions of the other characters in the book, Josie included. The book alludes to the “heart” that humans possess that truly makes them who they are. In my understanding, although Klara could narrate the lives of her owners and their friends, she is not capable of truly sharing the “heart” of these secondary characters. Many other readers critique this book for it’s flat characters, but I choose to believe this is by design. I think that there will always be a disconnect between Klara and her ability to truly convey those around her, simply because she is a machine.
Ishiguro’s novel imagines a future not to far in advance of our present. It hints at climate change, genetic enhancement, omnipresent AI, and a dystopian society. Although Ishiguro doesn’t play out the typical dystopian narrative, his adoption of a stratified society based on enhanced genes (those who are “lifted”), and the potential for AI to replace their human companions is an all too present threat. The novel posits that these threats are actually positive and will better society, but it leads the reader through a thought exercise of the dangers that AI presents to our own world, if we allow it to grow and permeate our lives so thoroughly. It’s a very traditionally Ishiguro sci-fi take, and although the narrator often speaks simply, the world she inhabits, and in fact her very being, speaks greater volumes of the potential negative outcomes that ubiquitous integration of artificial intelligence could have on our society.