We live at the mercy of forces we cannot control. Increasingly, one of those forces is technology. Following his devastating romantic tragedy Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun inhabits a similar dystopian future, and yet the forces he explores are not so much those of technology but rather those of love, faith, and human nature.
The novel takes place in a not-too-distant future of polluted cities, human workforces rendered leisured and useless by machines, children looked after by robots, the looming prospect of singularity. Yet at the heart of this story is not horror but wonder. This is made possible by the novel’s narrator, Klara, a robotic AF (artificial friend) who looks after a girl (Josie) whose health is suffering after a procedure of genetic editing (lifting) to improve her IQ. Klara attends to the world with unbridled curiosity, and any knowledge gained serves her primary purpose: to care for a child. Klara notices everything, and speaks about it with simple poeticism, granting a surprising new perspective on life.
The world is enchanted for Klara, full of mysteries she hopes to understand. She is solar-powered, and speaks about the sun as a person of faith would speak about God: with reverence, awe, petition. She notices the kindnesses of the sun when others do not: the way it glances off the shoulders of reunited lovers, pours down upon happy children, and heals homeless men. She trusts the sun implicitly, desiring his “special nourishment” for herself and those she loves, a theme which grows in intensity as Klara begins to petition the sun for Josie’s life. At moments, the story feels like it is building to a disappointment, a radical rejection of faith, and yet epiphanic scenes break like a sunrise over the darkest corners of the narrative.
Programmed to care for children, Klara’s central preoccupation is human nature. Bent on improving her service, she observes with interest and quiescence the complicated ways of the humans around her. Her most robotic feature is the way she splits contradictory facial expressions into small boxes so she can attempt to understand them. This capacity reveals to her how complex human love can be, one face revealing sadistic pleasure, sadness, and desire all at once. Through Klara’s eyes we see that the most inescapable quality of human nature seems to be the way we make ourselves miserable with the internal wars we wage between love and need, gift and resentment, cruelty and kindness. Strikingly, as a robot, Klara often acts more lovingly, more humanely, than the humans she serves.
Like the old fairy tales about mermaids, seeing through the eyes of a creature that is almost human can grant the reader greater clarity about what it means to be human. Klara lives in a world that has given up on humanity and on faith, and yet through her mechanical eyes, we see a world sustained by faith and permeated by love. One character asks Klara, “Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. … Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?” We cannot help but answer yes.