For as long as artificial intelligence has existed in the public consciousness, it has been interwoven with an anxiety over its misuse. That such a sentiment perseveres is clear. From entrepreneur-cum-provocateur Elon Musk’s claims that AI will supersede human intelligence ‘in less than five years’, to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace’s announcement that the British armies’ troop capacity will be slashed in favour of funding automated drones and cyberwarfare, the narrative that technological advancement in robotics is synonymous with violence and human redundancy has become commonplace. Yet, Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2021 novel Klara and the Sun throws a spanner in the proverbial machine of this narrative, presenting a world in which artificial intelligence has been used with largely positive effects. The AIs of Ishiguro’s novel pose no existential threat to humanity, and aside from a cleaner’s brief moment of perplexity over whether to treat one like a guest or ‘like a vacuum cleaner,’ they are treated just as humans are.
The eponymous Klara is an AF, an ‘Artificial Friend’ constructed for the purpose of alleviating teenage loneliness in a time when children take their lessons from ‘screen professors’ on ‘oblongs’; landing in our current lockdown state, this hits rather close to home. We follow her from her days awaiting sale in a metropolitan store to her assimilation into the family of Josie, a young girl with a serious — possibly fatal — illness, for which her mother bears an odd sense of responsibility. The world Ishiguro crafts in Klara and the Sun has a comfortable ambiguity, one that evokes a future facing the same issues as our own present. Pollution that blacks out the sky, increased mechanisation and a pandemic of loneliness; if the novel can be considered dystopian, it is due to its presentation of a hyperbolic present.
In Klara, Ishiguro crafts a memorable first-person narrative voice, simultaneously robotic and infantile, scrupulous yet naïve. Ishiguro never allows Klara to fall into the uncanny valley, refusing to refer to her – or any other of the AFs’ – physical appearances, instead merely stating that she has short, dark hair and appears somewhat ‘French’. This is not to say that Klara’s robotic status is forgotten; frequently throughout the novel Klara’s visual processing is overwhelmed, as her ocular field breaks down into a cubist fracturing of the landscape, with elements becoming either hyper-focussed (such as the minute expression of a woman’s eye) whilst others clip in and out of each other, the world reduced to a series of blank ‘cones’. Such narrative quirks work a treat, drawing attention to the juxtaposition of Klara’s spiritual self with her mechanical body.
This juxtaposition of the natural and the engineered is furthered in Klara’s worship of ‘the Sun’. Originally stemming from the fact that AFs are solar powered, Klara’s relationship with the sun becomes spiritual as the novel progresses, leading to her beginning to pray for the sun to heal Josie’s malady. For me, it is this juxtaposition that is the novel’s most striking feature, something that Ishiguro appears to be well aware of, making it the titular focus. This paganistic worship of the sun, nearly to the level of deification, by a purely mechanical vessel is certainly a striking image, one that Ishiguro revels in depicting. In that Klara is programmed for self-sacrifice for the benefit of humans, the self-abnegation of religious worship seems like a logical step. The plethora of descriptions of light within the novel border on fetishism on Klara’s part; they are sumptuous and rich, reifying through language the depth of Klara’s devotion for a star that she never truly understands. At one point Klara’s mechanical vision mingles with her discovery of natural beauty as she recalls how: ‘The red glow inside the barn was still dense, but now had an almost gentle aspect – so much so that the various segments into which my surroundings were partitioned appeared to be drifting amidst the Sun’s last rays.’
Klara’s discovery and gradual decoding of human love is depicted with beautiful simplicity by Ishiguro, and the treatment of the consciousness of artificial intelligence throughout is excellent. Yet, Ishiguro’s treatment of genetic editing is slightly less compelling. In order to combat the ‘savage meritocracy’ (to quote from Ishiguro’s 2017 Nobel Prize Lecture) of the world, the parents in the novel have resorted to genetically editing their children to grant them specific worldly advantages, a process termed ‘lifting’. Such a process creates a demarcated caste system within the world of Klara and the Sun, with those who remain ‘unlifted’ becoming an acknowledged underclass, barred from both education and employment. The continued awareness of this system is made clear in Klara’s constant references to clothes, furniture and any physical belonging as ‘high-status’, as opposed to describing any physical quality. Such a binary class system enforced by technological advancements will be familiar to readers of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. The experience of the ‘unlifted’ underclass is depicted in the character of Rick, Josie’s friend and love interest within the novel, who seeks to scale this genetic barrier by making a special case to Atlas Brookings, a college known to be particularly generous to ‘unlifted’ youths. As the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that gene editing is not only a social, but also a physical evil: both Josie’s illness and the previous death of her sister Sal are a result of this process of ‘lifting’, demonstrating it to be little more than a mortal lottery. However, this subject is rendered merely a backdrop against which questions of AI sentience are presented and explored far more extensively. When combined with Klara’s childish perspective, the presentation of gene editing within the novel is left overly vague (it is not clear whether such a process is pre or postpartum, for example), lacking the requisite specificity to become wholly compelling. Perhaps the gene editing sub-plot could have been allowed a bit more time to stew – it is certainly interesting enough to warrant a novel by itself.
Whilst Klara and the Sun is undoubtedly a strong work – Ishiguro has led us to expect nothing less – it is not the Nobel Prize recipient’s best. It lacks the emotional intensity of The Buried Giant, the meticulous narrative drive of Never Let Me Go and the masterful commingling of both that is The Remains of the Day. One shouldn’t approach Klara and the Sun expecting the minute sci-fi world building of Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov or Ian M. Banks. And yet this is not to turn people off Ishiguro’s novel. It is a fascinating study of whether a machine can fully become human, and whether there truly is a such a thing as a soul, one that ‘our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, [or] transfer’. After all, what can be more human than Klara’s closing remark that ‘I have my memories to go through and place in the right order’? Even the fact that a Nobel Laureate is writing a novel that is through-and-through sci-fi is a massive victory for the legitimisation of science fiction scholarship. If there are moments in which the novel’s narrative minimalism can leave it feeling slightly hollow, these are outshone by the familiar lucidity of Ishiguro’s prose and the conceptual strength of Klara as a narrator. Klara and the Sun is a novel of elegance and poise, and with Sony 3000 recently acquiring the novel’s film rights, it doesn’t seem as though Klara’s bond with the Sun will be sundered any time soon.