Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun is thought-provoking and heart-rending in equal parts. Beautifully written, Ishiguro paints a well-imagined future seen through the eyes of the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Klara the Artificial Friend (or AF). AFs are robotic companions for older children and teenagers. Given AFs are expensive, the children of upper class families tend to own them. As a form of artificial intelligence, AFs are primarily programed to be empathic companions, high in EQ rather than IQ, with no god-like intelligence or seemless connection to data streams. AFs have basic programming allowing them to interact with people and to learn and remember. However, in that respect Klara exceeds the abilities of other AFs. Not only does Klara learn from observation, she also constructs teleological explanations for the world. Unbeknownst to everyone around her, Klara develops a sun-worshipping mythology. Her focus on the sun as a kind of divine entity has an atavistic quality, drawing an interesting parallel with the religions of ancient humans. At the same time Klara is an unreliable narrator. To convey this, Ishiguro is careful to include descriptions from Klara’s point of view that show that she can’t always capture and process sensory data. There are multiple scenes of everyday events becoming divided in multiple “boxes” as Klara analyzes the visual data.

Klara serves as a companion to Josie, a preteen girl burdened with life-threatening health issues. Josie’s mother is an accomplished attorney who spends the majority of her time at the office. She is divorced and estranged from Josie’s father, an engineer who lost his job to an AI replacement. We learn Josie’s health problems stem from her being “lifted,” in vitro genetic engineering aimed at improving intelligence, creativity, and other innate talents. When not sick, Josie spends the majority of her time in virtual teaching sessions with tutors. Other than Klara, Josie’s only other friendship is with her neighbor Rick, a precocious boy facing a diminished future because he never received the lifting procedure. Given the teenage characters I feared the novel would branch off into YA territory, but fortunately Klara’s narration forecloses the reader from Josie’s and Rick’s inner lives. All we know if what Klara observes. And, in that respect, the novel defied my apprehension of maudlin scenes and plot turns offered for shock value.

Ishiguro’s vision for the future is bleak but feasible, however unlikely (I discuss this below). AI and gene editing are both widespread technologies in this world. AI economically displaced many people, causing them to pursue a form of “exit” and form voluntary collectives to live off the land (as well as organize self-defense in the face of growing civil strife and crime). For the rest, employment is two-tiered: basic service jobs or high status jobs that AI cannot perform (at least not yet). Increased competition for high status jobs led to demented parenting decisions among the well-off. In order to prevent class slippage, the elites of the next generation are gene edited as embryos in order to be smarter, more creative, more skilled. However, as an emerging technology, children who are “lifted” face potential health risks as a side effect (not only is Josie sick, but her older sister Sal died from the effects of lifting). Despite the risks, the general sense Ishiguro conveys is that lifted children are the only ones who can secure high-status positions (very similar to the world depicted in the 1997 movie Gattaca).

Klara is an outsider to human affairs. She simply observes and interprets her experiences. The novel serves, in effect, as an autobiography of Klara’s life. Her innocence and sweetness make her endearing. Moreover, I expect many readers will be like me and find it hard to like any of the novel’s human characters. Josie’s mother is grotesque, a cold and vain woman. Josie’s father is a self-absorbed egoist. Josie takes after her parents, a vain, selfish little creature. Rick may be the most redeeming, but in the end he forgets about Klara and also resorts to selling his drone technology for surveillance applications. Other people Klara encounters are morally and spiritually vacant: Rick’s hysterical mother; the desperate, failing store manager; Capaldi the pseudo-scientist). While each is awful in their own way, all characters share a lack of basic human empathy, especially in comparison to Klara.

I think this is the main theme of Ishiguro’s story. Evolutionary concepts are all over this novel, especially the suggestion that empathy is a “negative selection” trait. The AFs only exist because socially isolated “lifted” children need empathic companionship that their career-obsessed parents fail to provide. Despite being robots, AFs display sentience, are human-like in appearance, and possess unique personalities. As readers we connect with Klara. She may not have feelings, but we have feelings and don’t want to be cruel to anything that is sentient–the same traits causing us to be kind to domestic pets and anthropomorphize animals. In contrast, the human characters in Klara and the Sun rarely display any concern for Klara. This is particularly true when it comes to Josie. Regardless of Josie being the center of Klara’s world, as she’s going off to college Josie only manages to offer an uncaring goodbye despite knowing Klara was heading to a junkyard. This is more than shallow or unsentimental; Josie’s lack of empathy is Ishiguro’s ultimate indictment of this dystopian future. Lifted children are raised to be highly competitive, if not ruthless, so they can better compete for finite college admissions and high-status jobs. For the rest of humanity, empathy is a luxury they can no longer afford. In the face of AI supplanting people, humanity responded by becoming more machine-like. Even the next generation of AFs (the “B3s”) showed themselves to be competitive and disingenuous.

I think this is a brilliant novel and very much worth reading. Nevertheless I had some concerns and criticisms:

  1. I’m glad Ishiguro doesn’t commit the my biggest pet peeve in near-future sci-fi: making new technology over-determinative in shaping the world. For instance, the world of the short-lived television show Humans (about sophisticated androids who are smarter and stronger than human beings) showed no other signs of benefiting from the technology that went into making sophisticated androids–basically, it was early twenty-first century plus sophisticated androids. Ishiguro’s world is far more complicated. However, I found it hard to believe that a world with AFs would not have other forms of robotic labor. I would expect robots assisting tradesmen, running errands, serving as executive assistants, and doing minimal domestic tasks. It is hard to accept “toy for preteens” is the first application of this technology.
  2. There is a real disconnect in the mother’s plan for Klara to replace Josie in the event of her death using Capaldi’s macabre “portrait.” We are told AFs have a limited life span. Furthermore, Klara is sent off to expire only a few years after being However, I suppose there may have been a way to extend Klara’s lifespan. Also, in fairness, anyone who has seen the series Westworld knows that AI’s sense of time may be different from humans. For all we know Klara sat in the junkyard for decades before being visited by the manager at the end of her life. We learn the manager is older though we don’t know how many years past.
  3. Finally, my biggest issue with this novel is its misanthropic and tech-pessimist vision. While I think there’s something to the idea that elites get less empathic with each generation, I find it hard to believe parents would take helicoptering to life threatening extremes. Also, I’m not a tech optimist, but Ishiguro’s vision misses the wealth-creating impact of AI, robotics, and genetic engineering. Holding aside the probable second and third order impacts of smarter people and machines such as new discoveries and new means of exploration (for instance, imagine AI on deep space missions), society would be richer from gains in productivity alone. Turning labor from an operating to a fixed capital cost would dramatically lower marginal costs of production. To the extent AI replaces knowledge workers, AI services would be virtually free given low marginal costs in adding processing power and storage. Also, tech pessimists always forget that humans find new purposes. A wealthier society affords more demand for leisure, the arts, sports, bespoke goods, and specialized services. In a sense Ishiguro makes the same error as protectionists who only see immediate negative effects and look past long-term gains. This is an area where the state could always intervene to prevent human misery; of course, it is more likely democratic governments would work against the diffusion of AI (oddly, the state barely mentioned in Ishiguro’s novel–a welcome change from too much sci-fi involving government agencies).
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