“A haunting fable of a lonely, moribund world that is entirely too plausible.” — Kirkus Reviews
“Moving and beautiful … an unequivocal return to form, a meditation in the subtlest shades on the subject of whether our species will be able to live with everything it has created.” — The Los Angeles Times
Klara and the Sun (Knopf) by Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro is a profoundly disturbing science fiction novel in which mankind is experiencing the birth of a new lifeform, and humans have become their gods.
What keeps us human? That is the question that pulses through the book.
Klara, an Artificial Friend or AF, is a meticulously constructed, biologically-based humanoid designed to care for lonely children. We meet Klara waiting in a store to be purchased and fulfill her purpose. There are all kinds of AF models with various features and emotional systems. And the lucky AF who is showcased in the coveted window has a greater chance of finding a forever home. It is through Klara’s eyes — and her childlike innocence, which Ishiguro uses to evoke empathy in his readers — that the story unfolds.
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE IN A CHILD-SIZED PACKAGE
Klara and her window partner, Rosa, marvel at the busy city outside and learn about human behavior by observing the subtle details of their interactions with each other. Klara deconstructs the events she witnesses, matches them to human emotions, and creates a story. For instance, when she sees a man and woman wave before running to greet one another one rainy day, she decides the couple were old friends. This is what makes Klara unique; her ability to create a narrative. Her friend Rosa, an older model, is not designed to make these leaps.
Klara eventually goes home with a young girl named Josie, who is physically challenged. With Josie, Klara begins fulfilling her purpose, and her commitment to that task inspires her to grow emotionally and connect to the world around her. It is her success at being attentive, considerate, willing, kind, and empathetic that pulls at our heartstrings. We want nothing bad to happen to Klara, and Klara wants nothing bad to happen to Josie.
Rosa, on the other hand, takes a more ominous route. Not all AFs will be protected by their masters, which calls into question the ethical treatment of AFs. If Rosa can feel pain, laws will have to be made and her abusers must be held accountable. But going down this road means opening Pandora’s Box, forcing us to determine what constitutes life.
ETHICAL DILEMMAS BLOSSOM AS KLARA DEVELOPS
For Klara, however, everything seems normal with Josie and her mother, Chrissie. But a foreboding feeling grows as a creepy mystery unfolds. Chrissie takes Klara on a trip where she gives an unsettling order: Klara is to pretend to be her other daughter who was “lifted” — an ominous fate Ishiguro tasks his readers with puzzling out themselves. The request is odd, to begin with, but doubly so after learning that a neighbor has seen Chrissie’s eldest child recently. If she wasn’t “lifted,” what really happened to her other daughter?
Klara develops a profound understanding of life and, with it, the desire to live. When Josie’s health worsens, Klara, desperate to save her, believes the Sun that “nourishes” her own life will stop death. She engages in what can only be explained as prayer, negotiating with the Sun to save Josie’s life … and the Sun listens. But what Sun God is this that bestowed a miracle on an AF? Aren’t miracles reserved exclusively for humans? Ishiguro’s symbolic use of the Sun that the AFs call nourishment makes them metaphorical Sun Worshippers. And isn’t Sun Worshipping a marker on the evolutionary scale of mankind? Is our story being hijacked? Can that be allowed?
ISHIGURO’S TOUGH QUESTIONS ABOUT HUMANITY
Ishiguro takes us on a brutal journey, demanding we consider the implication of our capacity to feel empathy. Emphasizing this, he compels readers to find a way to protect the innocence of the emerging lifeform that Klara represents. Are we able to accept her place in humanity as a new being in the process of evolutionary growth? If so, are we willing to confront the pain that life with humans will cause Klara and the other AFs?
A master of his craft, Ishiguro takes a sponge and absorbs what we think we know about our own humanity, wrings it out into a raging river of questions we’ve yet to consider, and throws us a piece of driftwood that we cling to, desperate to keep afloat. This book is one that will stay with you long after you’ve read the last page. I promise.
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