Klara and the Sun

Kazuo Ishiguro

Faber & Faber, £20

Review by Rosemary Goring

Klara and her associate Rosa sit in the shop window, watching the busy street. They are given a short spell in this prime position, but if they are not sold, will be returned to mid or even rear store, where their chances of being sought out by customers are slimmer. Even worse, they will be far from the rays of the sun, which is the source of their energy.

Like mannequins of old, Klara and Rosa are models, but not of the human form. Kazuo Ishiguro gives scant detail about their appearance, other than that Klara, with her neat, short hair, looks “kind of French” or “cute”. She has an encouraging smile, is eager to please, and speaks clearly. These are excellent attributes for an AF, or artificial friend, a product purchased by families who cannot give their children the time and attention they require. Already slightly outdated – the upgraded B3 version has a sense of smell – Klara is in danger of being left on the shelf. One girl has promised to come back with her mother to buy her, but she has yet to do so.

Narrated by Klara, Ishiguro’s first novel since he won the Nobel Prize thrums with emotional life, curiosity, and an unsettling, sinister undercurrent. In this near future era, in what appears to be a large American city, with canyons of streets filled with cabs and contaminants, artificial intelligence is far more advanced than at present. Klara has been trained to be observant, in order to best serve her owners, but as the shop manager often remarks, “you are quite remarkable. You notice and absorb so much”.

Eventually Josie, the young teenager who admired her, keeps her promise. Before producing her wallet, her mother asks Klara to imitate the way her daughter walks. Her observational skills are evident in the way she replicates Josie’s uneven gait, suggestive of a weakness or disability. The mother is satisfied, and Klara is taken home in the back of the car – not the boot – as if she were human too.

The wealth of her owners is quickly apparent, with their large country house and unfriendly housekeeper. But although she is sensitive to people’s feelings, Klara will not be deflected from fulfilling her role as Josie’s companion and friend. Gradually, the girl’s health worsens, and soon she is spending days asleep. Fearing the worst, Klara conceives a plan to cure her. This requires ingenuity and courage, capabilities more human than mechanical.

With painstaking simplicity and clarity, Ishiguro depicts the world as seen through the mind – if that is the right word – of a brilliantly programmed computer. At times, Klara’s perception of what she sees breaks down into cubist form, a reminder that she is fundamentally different and limited. Creating a convincing narrator from a machine is a tall order, one that Ishiguro largely but not entirely achieves. The artifice of the narrative device is impossible to overlook. Wholly true to life, however, are his human characters, who offer a worrying vision of the direction we are taking.

Writing with the restraint and subtlety for which he is renowned, Ishiguro creates a disturbing vision of a world in which the privileged take life-threatening risks to improve their status. They are referred to as “lifted”, which gives them access to elite education, while the less fortunate (or wiser) are left behind, to fare as best they can in this new version of apartheid.

Although firmly in the realm of his previous science fiction novel Never Let Me Go, Klara and the Sun nevertheless carries echoes of The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s upstairs-downstairs drama of an English fascist and his entourage. The emphasis on etiquette and on understanding the rules which govern the society in which she finds herself are key to Klara carrying out her duties. Like Stevens the butler in The Remains of the Day, she is an unquestioningly obedient and tireless servant, asking nothing for herself. In this context, however, artificial friends are more like slaves than staff, having no rights and no liberty, their fate entirely at the whim of fickle, volatile humans. This parallel makes for uncomfortable reading, especially when Josie’s rowdy friends suggest chucking Klara across the room to test her capabilities: “My B3, you can swing her right through the air, lands on her feet every time.”

Klara’s conception of the Sun as the source of all life suggests that, in Ishiguro’s universe, even machines can develop religious feelings. There are layers of ethical and social complexity in Klara and the Sun, which are intriguing. Ultimately, however, it has a two-dimensional feel. It is as if, in following the thread of his idea, he has chosen to work with primary colours, rather than a more nuanced palette of light and shade.

An exploration of the capabilities of artificial intelligence, Klara’s tale asks what are the responsibilities incumbent on humankind towards its inventions. Once we start to depend upon machines for company, advice or assistance, when they can second-guess our thoughts or actions, are they in some sense as human as we are? Or, since their responses are literally mechanical, can they be stored alongside the hoover, and discarded when no longer required?

The motive underlying Klara’s purchase, when finally revealed, is shocking. It is all the more disturbing for the polite and unexcitable way in which Klara describes the family home. Showing the tensions between Josie’s workaholic mother and her ex-husband, and the sickly teenager around whom their anxiety revolves, she portrays a house that is deeply divided and unhappy. Josie’s “unlifted” friend Rick is only the most obvious manifestation of a world that has lost its heart, and hopes artificial friends will plug the gap.

There are occasional longueurs, when Klara’s restricted perspective becomes a little effortful. Even so, as the plot begins to race, Klara’s story exerts a powerful grip. For all its moral quandaries, perhaps the strongest message Ishiguro conveys is that it is possible for us to feel warmly and protectively towards a being composed of computer codes. Possible also to believe that she could be more decent and self-sacrificing than those with blood in their veins. Could artificial intelligence eventually offer a better, kinder version of ourselves?