Klara and the sun is the latest (2021) science fiction novel by Kazuo Ishiguro who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017. Klara and the Sun, set somewhere in the United States, is a futurist novel of what science and artificial intelligence could do to create a dystopian society. The protagonist and narrator in the novel Klara is an AF, Artificial Friend, a humanoid robot designed as a companion for children.
It is a sad situation he portrays in the novel where children do not have children for company and need robots. On a personal note, when we first went to the United States in the early nineties as post-docs at Yale University, our 5 year old daughter was with us and went to school there. After school, In India at that time, children went out to play together at a set time in whatever parks/ play grounds/ lower floor garages that were available. In the US we found that children mostly played one on one, not in groups, and by ‘appointment’! There were playgrounds outside, but the children would call each other on phone (mobiles were not common) to decide where they would meet! In the last decade some of this has also appeared in India. But what society is the author pointing to where AFs are companions for children and live in their homes? Do children in the future completely lose touch with other children and need robots for company?
Spoiler Alert: For those who intend to read the novel, this is a spoiler alert as this post will be reveal the plot of the story.
The story begins with Klara and her friend Rosa (robots) standing in the shop window waiting to be liked, and bought, by a child to whom she would be a companion. These robots faced stiff competition from B3 robots, more advanced models, which the customers seemed to prefer. Klara is chosen by Josie, a young girl and her mother. She is taken home to live with them as a companion to Josie, who appears to be very ill.
In the novel Kazuo Ishiguro suggests that some children are ‘lifted’ like Josie and some are not like her friend Rick. You are left wondering what this could mean. Apparently the society has advanced to the level where children are genetically engineered hoping for greater abilities and academic achievement. Children like Rick, who are not ‘lifted’, do not have a place in the schools and colleges of the ‘lifted’ children hinting at a different form of inequality in the advanced futuristic society.
Klara is a solar powered robot and has developed a strong belief in the power of the sun that nourishes her. She thinks she saw the sun rejuvenate a lifeless beggar and his dog across the street while she was at the shop window. She believes that if only the sun would show some consideration and shine on Josie she would be cured. She negotiates what she thinks is an agreement with the sun to help Josie in return for destroying a ‘Cooting’ machine that creates pollution in the city. I guess this is the author’s message of the need to save the environment and reduce pollution. Klara goes to great lengths to find and destroy one such machine, but discovers that there are many more ‘Cooting’ machines. In a miraculous moment in the book, the sun made its way to Josie’s room and shone down on her bed. Josie recovers slowly.
The mother is unable to accept that Josie may not be with her for long. She works out for Josie’s ‘portrait’ to be painted. But Klara discovers that it is not a portrait being created but a model robot-cover that resembles Josie. The creator of the portrait and the Mother ask Klara to observe and imitate Josie so that she can replace her in the future. This is a weird depiction of the future society where humans can be substituted by robots. Artificial intelligence has reached a stage where human beings can be cloned! The question Ishiguro appears to pose in the novel: Is there something intrinsic in a human being that cannot be recreated or substituted by Artificial Intelligence? This is a crucial question in this era where the impression is created that all problems can be resolved by ‘machine learning’ and ‘artificial intelligence’.
The character of Klara is well created. She grapples with trying to understand human emotions. Observing Josie and her relation with Rick and hoping that Rick would eventually like her as much as he seemed to like Josie. Through Klara’s narration the story and mystery unfolds. The end is not dramatic. Josie health is restored and she leaves for college. Klara is redundant. As all technologies become obsolete so does Klara, and we finally see her in the junk yard. Interestingly some B3 robots are also in the yard. This is a simple, slow moving and thought provoking novel. Klara and the Sun is definitely recommended reading.