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Klara and the Sun

    Told from the point of view of an advanced robot, Klara and the Sun is a riveting novel by English author Kazuo Ishiguro. Klara is an AF or Artificial Friend, used by affluent teens as companions In a future American society. No longer the latest model, Klara has been programmed for empathy — she keenly observes human emotions and behaviours, responding in all instances to protect and nurture her owner.

    While not about amnesia per se, the unusual perceptions the reader is privy to, due to being granted Kara’s point of view, are reminiscent of my experience of trying to piece the world together after retrograde amnesia. Klara as a programmed robot does not have all the salient facts, and in the absence of these, she invents.

    Chilling social order

    The drip-feeding of information about what it is to be lifted, and other crucial plot elements, help make the novel an extraordinary read. Part-mystery, part-speculative novel, Klara’s perception as a lens to view this chilling social order is compelling, albeit somewhat eccentric at times. The writing is beautifully sparse. As we follow the narrator, Klara, we have access to quirks in her perception and reasoning that the characters do not. While one imagines these are due to programming glitches, Klara’s worldview gives rise to ideas about the role of faith and compassion in an increasingly automated world.

    The book opens with Klara waiting to be chosen by an owner in a shopfront window. An anxious and unwell girl, Josie, convinces her mother to buy her. Once in Josie’s home, Klara assuages Josie’s loneliness while Josie’s mother is at her demanding job. (In this world only the privileged professional class can keep working, as AI has replaced many proletarian jobs). Josie is isolated, being home-tutored online, however, this is the norm among children who have been ‘lifted’ such as she. What exactly being ‘lifted’ entails is for a long time shrouded in mystery. We slowly learn that it is both the source of Josie’s life-threatening illness and the means by which she will secure her future education if she survives. Spoiler alert: being lifted involves genetic modification to enhance a child’s intelligence, but runs the risk of killing them in the process. It is a choice parents make. Increasingly, as Josie flounders sick in bed day after day, she and her mother fear Josie might die, as did her older sister, Sal, due to the lifting process. Klara takes it upon herself to save Josie and we, the readers, are complicit with her plan.

    Klara is run on solar energy, and as a seemingly non-networked robot, has a near-religious set of beliefs about the sun. Hers is a mystical, fervent, passionate belief that the sun is actually a god-like figure from whom she can ask favours and bargain for Josie’s survival.

    Human commodification

    Notions of human commodification and replacement pervade the novel, raising implied and explicit questions like what is the cost for humanity if robots really replace humans; will they ever be able to mimic the human heart? The selfishness and fickleness of most of the characters, The Mother and Josie in particular, suggest perhaps we overrate ourselves when considering humans are irreplaceable.

    An intriguing read, raising many pertinent questions about where science and technology are taking us, this is an apt novel for our medicalised post-COVID 19 locked-in and atomised world.

    More on Kazuo Ishiguro

    Klara and the Sun is the eighth novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, a master of the novel about loneliness and broken human connections as typified by his book Remains of the Day.

    Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954 and moved to Britain at the age of five. The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go were made into acclaimed films.

    He is a Nobel Laureate and has won the Booker Prize with Remains of the Day (1989). He was given a knight­hood in 2018 for Services to Literature. He also holds the decorations of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from France and the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star from Japan. 1

    The author’s website featuring his book The Buried Giant which is relevant to anyone interested in ideas surrounding notions of remembering and forgetting.

    Footnotes

    1. See https://www.faber.co.uk/author/kazuo-ishiguro/
    Klara and the Sun a dystopia set in a technologically advanced future