By Yvonne C. Garrett
Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel since his Nobel Prize (2017) explores the nature of human love and the ethics of Artificial Intelligence. The narrator is Klara, a human-like android known as an Artificial Friend or “AF,” explicitly designed to be a companion for a human child. Klara’s unique perspective draws us into her world: a near-future dystopia where children are “lifted” (genetically modified) in order to succeed, and those who aren’t are marginalized with little hope of a future. Klara’s world begins in the “Store,” where she is on display every day, sometimes in the much-coveted “Window.” As more advanced AF models arrive, she is increasingly placed at the rear of the store. Ishiguro’s genius is evident in his precise work of writing Klara’s developing world view as she observes the activities in the store and everything she sees outside the window. We learn about the world through Klara’s eyes, a perspective full of wonder, distinctly non-human observations, a world where the “Sun” is an all-powerful being: a normal enough perspective for a solar-powered android. Klara tells us she enjoys being in the window not just for “the Sun’s nourishment or being chosen,” but because she’s “always longed to see more of the outside—and to see it in all its detail.” When our own world is on lockdown, it’s a particularly poignant confession, and part of the work Ishiguro does in making Klara so very sympathetic: we yearn along with her to see more of “the outside.”
One day when Klara is seated in the window, she interacts through the glass with a fourteen-year-old girl, Josie, who promises to return for her. Klara avoids other children who come into the Store, even going so far as to flout her own programming. The Manager warns Klara about the danger of trusting human promises, but Klara remains resolute, waiting for Josie. The Manager worries Klara won’t be sold as she’s becoming outdated and so places her in the window again. Klara sees “the Beggarman” lying in a doorway across the street with his dog. She assumes they have died, “I felt sadness then, despite it being a good thing they’d died together, holding each other and trying to help one another.” The following day when Klara sees they’re not dead, she interprets this presumed miracle as coming from “a special kind of nourishment from the Sun.” It’s a brief moment in the novel but deftly shows Klara’s empathy, her learning process, and the development of a quintessentially human belief system with the Sun as savior.
In a particularly anxiety-inducing scene (because, by now, we’re on Klara’s side and want her to be happy), Klara hears Josie return to the store with her mother. Klara disobeys instructions and moves away from the rear of the store and into Josie’s field of vision, and eventually, Josie convinces her mother to bring Klara home. Josie is suffering from an unspecified illness that makes it difficult for her to walk, and in a bizarre moment, her mother challenges Klara, “Will you please reproduce for me Josie’s walk? Will you do that for me?” With the entire store watching, Klara mimics Josie’s uneven stride; we feel Josie’s humiliation and begin to question her mother’s motives in purchasing an AF for her daughter.
As Klara adjusts to living in their home far from the city, she tells us more about Josie’s world. There are no AFs where Josie lives, but there is a window that shows the sky and the sun. Klara’s simple joy in serving Josie, in looking out the window, is tempered by dark foreshadowing: “In those early days, when Josie was still quite strong,” and “In those days, when Josie’s health was quite good.” Josie lives an isolated, lonely life, home-schooled and far away from other people. However, Klara learns that Josie has a best friend. This confuses Klara as she sees her duty “to be Josie’s best friend.” For Josie, “You’re my AF. That’s different. But Rick, well, we’re going to spend our lives together.” And here we see Josie’s unwitting cruelty: Klara is sentient and programmed to be Josie’s best friend; to Josie, she’s just an AF. Rick is hostile to Klara at first. But as Josie grows weaker from her illness, he and Klara develop a bond, and as Klara observes, “his aims and mine might in some ways be almost parallel.”
We see again the cruelty of humans during an “interaction meeting.” Because Josie is “lifted,” she needs to learn to interact with other “lifted” children, children she’ll associate with when she goes to college. Some of the boys at the meeting suggest tossing Klara through the air: “My B3, you can swing her right through the air, lands on her feet every time.” Josie refuses to defend Klara, but Rick steps in, and mayhem ensues. There’s a scene I remember from a long-ago viewing of Spielberg’s AI (2001) where the child AI is underwater, staring, looking for his “Mother.” It’s an overwrought moment (like much of the film) but, for me, connects with Roy Batty’s (Rutger Hauer) demand for more life in Bladerunner (1982) or Ava’s actions in Ex Machina (2014). Although “Klara and the Sun” is about the nature of love—what it is, how it works, and whether it can be lasting—the novel is also about AI: do androids deserve rights? What are our obligations as creators of intelligent machines to the well-being of those machines? When does a machine stop being a “machine” and achieve a sort of “personhood”? The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy gives an overview of recent work around the concept of “robot rights,” including the comment: “In the community of ‘artificial consciousness’ researchers there is a significant concern whether it would be ethical to create such consciousness since creating it would presumably imply ethical obligations to a sentient being, e.g., not to harm it and not to end its existence by switching it off.” In Klara’s society, children have Artificial Friends trained to serve them as companions until they become adults or want a newer model. Klara is put into situations where her lack of self-determination is apparent, and Josie doesn’t protect her, despite promises that she’ll “never let anything bad” happen to her. In a particularly shocking revelation at the core of the novel, we watch as Klara agrees to sacrifice herself to best serve Josie, whom she loves. When we learn what happens to AFs at the end of the novel, it’s difficult not to be angry, although Klara, with her ability to accept the world for what it is, seems content enough. In a pivotal scene in the novel, Josie’s father asks Klara, “Do you believe in the human heart? Do you think there is such a thing?” He suspects “deep down” that “science has now proved beyond doubt there’s nothing so unique about my daughter, nothing there our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, transfer.” Klara’s response is to offer to sacrifice herself for Josie, and we see who has the bigger heart. This is a beautifully wrought and emotionally devastating novel that brilliantly explores the ethics of AI and the complexities of the human (or AI) heart.