Klara and the Sun  – ★★★
In Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book, Klara is an AF (Artificial Friend) or a highly advanced girl-robot created to be a companion for a child. Together with another AF Rosa, Klara spends her time shifting positions inside the store in a hope that some child will eventually choose her and she will fulfil her destiny. Relying on and worshipping the Sun, Klara never misses an opportunity to catch its rays: “…the big thing, silently understood by us all, was the Sun and his nourishment” [Ishiguro, 2021: 5]. She is both puzzled by and interested in humans. Then comes Josie, a kind, but sick child. As Klara enters Josie’s world, she gets to know more about humans and life, including its sorrows and unpredictability.
Klara and the Sun is Toy Story (together with the toy’s existential crisis) meets Never Let Me Go by way of one robot’s obsession with the Sun. It is a bitter-sweet and curious book with one fascinating narrator and a theme of hope. However, it also has a very “thin” story with vague world-building, severely under-explored themes, and characters and topics “recycled” from the author’s Never Let Me Go. A torrent of never-ending and sometimes pointless dialogue in the story does little service to Ishiguro, an author who is capable of far greater depth, nuance, subtlety, emotion, evocativeness and intelligence, than he delivered in this latest trendy, crowd-pleasing, YA-like book.
The great thing about Klara and the Sun is its beginning, as well as its most unusual and fascinating narrator. It is interesting to get to know the world through the eyes of one synthetic girl who longs to know more of what is happening outside her shop. First, it is the shop which is Klara’s whole world, then Josie and her home. Throughout the novel, we are not entirely sure how the dystopian world presented by Ishiguro really works and are kept in a kind of suspense because many hints are dropped as to the exact functioning of everything, from the children’s education to the genes-modifying procedures. Klara is an excellent character. She is naïve, but intelligent, ignorant, but also highly perceptive and curious about the outside world. I admire Ishiguro’s skill of making a seemingly impossible situation feel very real in the story and fantastical concepts – close to our hearts. As in Never Let Me Go, his readers start relating to, and have feelings for, the seemingly “impossible” people and situations.
An interesting theme touched upon by Kazuo Ishiguro in his new book is looking at humanity from a completely objective, totally different perspective. Humans can only look and assess other human beings from the perspective of themselves and their brain limitations. Thus, Ishiguro does something different in his story by having a robot’s perspective. Klara also can only see the world from her own internal position and set of beliefs, and although everyone is trying their best in the story, they often find themselves at cross-purposes since, arguably, no character in the story has the full picture of the situation (and we, readers, least of all).
In some way, Klara is Stevens, an English butler, from Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Both Klara and Stevens are “fixed” in their roles and live to please others (their “masters”). Both are also perplexed and accommodating towards “outsiders”, while remaining loyal to their chosen people. Klara and Stevens both live in their secluded worlds with little hope for personal happiness. Instead, their whole worlds revolve around serving others, sacrificing themselves for their “masters”. Also, both Klara and Stevens can only assess the outside world from their own limited experience of it and knowledge. Ishiguro is definitely interested in this psychological situation, and it also reminds of the plot in Never Let Me Go, where certain children also have only limited knowledge about the outside world and were raised specifically to serve others, with their destinies already mapped out for them from their birth (as in the case of Klara).
One of the most unfortunate aspects of Klara and the Sun is that, unlike such literary masterpieces as The Remains of the Day, The Unconsoled or even Never Let Me Go, we hardly see in this new book Kazuo Ishiguro’s evocative prose, and the author hardly even attempts to explore interesting themes he hints at and briefly introduces, let alone answers any related questions. Such topics as the meaning of “a human heart”, “the heart of a robot”, “identity”, “morality vs. scientific progress” are alluded to in some dialogues and can be clearly seen from Klara’s position and the unfolding situation, but Ishiguro never even attempts to make an even cursory exploration of them, limiting himself only to very brief comments on them through the children and their parents’ talk in the story.
The story in Klara and the Sun is also very “thin”. The narrative “runs dry” half-way through, entangled in day-to-day interactions of the characters: Josie, her mother and their neighbour, boy Rick. In fact, the whole story in the book can be written in under eight lines. Klara and the Sun could even have probably been better as a forty minutes’ play (especially given all the dialogue) or a short illustrated novella. As a sci-fi, the book is also woefully unremarkable. Kazuo Ishiguro intentionally leaves many things about his dystopian world and the functioning of Klara vague, and, apart from AF, oblongs and advanced polluting machines, there is hardly anything else concrete.
However, one of the most pitiful elements about Klara and the Sun is that first Ishiguro entices us with one fascinating robot and her unique perception of one intriguing world – only then to deliver his Never Let Me Go narrative, themes and characters. In the novel’s second half, we see a shift of perspective from Klara to humans – Josie and her friend Rick. Thus, what have started as one curious-robot-story is then “hijacked” by an ordinary story of friendship between two children, one of whom is severely ill. As in Never Let Me Go, in the new story, we have teenage love that nears tragedy, the possibility of dying young, and the same doomed Romeo and Juliet-type characters. As in that novel also, we have certain societal rules in Klara and the Sun which dictate that “something is to be done” to children, and children are divided into two categories: those who are “special” and those who are not. In Klara and the Sun, we even have the same “girl, girl, boy” group of young people who make big and special plans for themselves, but the outside world and its rules would probably prevent them from realising them. The character of Rick in the new novel also appears similar to the character of Tommy from Never Let Me Go, for example, regarding the sensitivity and attachment of both young men, etc.
Another unfortunate aspect of the book is its endlessly exasperating dialogues, instead of evocative descriptions or thought-provoking/beautiful prose. Sometimes it is even very hard to believe that certain lines are really spoken by children in the story, and some dialogues just do not have a natural flow to them. Any underlying emotion or nuance that Ishiguro is undoubtedly capable of showing was probably “swallowed up” by the torrent of dialogues in Klara and the Sun.
Klara and the Sun is probably Kazuo Ishiguro’s most commercial book that follows all kinds of recent trends, from YA to artificial intelligence and environmental concerns. The author entices us with a fascinating robot and a promise of silently-endured heartache, but, despite these sci-fi “pretences”, what we have inside is a very ordinary, “thin”, vague and predictable human story portrayed through “Never Let Me Go”-type characters and without any of the interesting themes explored. The interesting personality of Klara is simply insufficient for a good novel, and, instead of evocative writing, we also have overbearing dialogues, as Ishiguro seems incapable of sustaining the momentum in the book’s second half, falling back on very familiar to him tropes from his other books. In sum, Klara and the Sun may be a book that is a“ fast sell”, but it is also unlikely to amount to anything truly enduring.