One of the great things about being a fiction writer – or any sort of artist, I suppose – is that we have the ability (one might almost say the obligation) to present the world not in terms of scientific logic but in terms of intention, orientation, motivation, and choice. But we still have to present the world as setting. Science Fiction in particular seems to be always wrestling with itself about how scientifically it should present itself to the world; should it slant towards extreme Hard-SF a la Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem, which wears its astrophysics on its sleeve; or the hard-engineering of Andy Weir’s The Martian; or should it go softly softly with the science, and emphasise the drama of relationships enabled by new technologies and futuristic settings, such as Stephen Cox’s Our Child Of the Stars, or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go? (One might almost be tempted to add a third category where the technological advances are shown in some detail but their effects upon various types of human relationships are also presented with complexity, such as in… hmm, let me think…)
Ishiguro’s status among the rock star authors of the 1980s was arguably a tad dimmer than the Amises and Rushdies of that world, but his light has gradually brightened, growing his stock and his skills as the years pass, while others’ stars, which initially burned brightly, have waned. Ishiguro’s winning of the Nobel Prize for literature in 2017 seems to have rewarded this slow-burn approach to his art. Ishiguro firmly plants his SF flag in the “soft-SF” realm, and Klara And The Sun is the very softest of soft-SF, so delicate that it might fall apart completely upon being met by a stiff breeze.
In Klara And The Sun we’re presented with a future that’s not quite bleak enough to be called dystopian, but comes loaded with significant existential and ethical questions which, although are pertinent to the modern technological possibilities on show, are nonetheless very ancient questions indeed. Ishiguro is quite overt about making the connection between the future cutting-edge technologies, and the ancient past, and the link is the Sun.
The story is narrated from the perspective of the titular character Klara, an Artificial Friend, or AF; essentially a robotic companion for children whose parents can afford them (and it becomes apparent that not all parents can). We follow Klara from her beginnings in the AF store, where she sits in the window, observing the outside world and using her own type of logic to make sense of it; through to her being bought by Josie, a girl of around fourteen years old who seems to be sick with some sort of condition that does not become apparent until near to the novel’s denouement. When Klara first meets Josie, she observes that Josie is extremely thin and we infer that perhaps she’s anorexic; Klara’s deduction is somewhat similar; that she needs the Sun’s “nourishment”.
This is a perfectly logical conclusion for Klara to reach. Klara – and the other AFs – are solar-powered, so she receives “nourishment” from the Sun in a very literal sense. And when, from her vantage point in the window of her Store, she sees a homeless person (whom she names Beggar Man) revivified one morning by the Sun, she is convinced of his powers to nourish and heal humans as well as AFs. It’s clear that Klara sees the Sun as something we might refer to as a god, immediately personifying it (she refers to the Sun as “him”) and making modest forms of personal supplication towards him, which nonetheless become more ardent (one might even be tempted to say devout) as the novels wears on.
And why not? Early humans worshipped the Sun, for obvious reasons. Klara is primitive in the sense that she is a new being, but like early humans she’s extraordinarily sophisticated in identifying the Sun as a god, a bringer of life, and a very real energy source. Klara calls this the Sun’s “nourishment”. The religious themes are overt throughout the book – Farmer (almost a homonym for “Father”) McCain’s barn, where Klara believes the Sun sets each evening, acts as a sort of quasi-Church for Klara, where she goes to not only confess her shortcomings but make requests. The Barn-church itself reflects the architecture of a church; its open walls allow the nourishing orange beams of the setting Sun to illuminate it like stained-glass windows. The Sun therefore takes its place as the highest ideal in Klara’s world.
This is phenomenological; Klara makes sense of the world through her observations; she’s an empiricist in that sense. The humans often comment on Klara’s observational powers, as if that is something remarkable, as if the humans have lost that power for themselves. It wasn’t once so; humans use(d) phenomenological approaches to make sense of the world around us. It makes perfect sense that a new type of embodied intelligence would do the same.
The AFs are presented as children, but also as products. There are different models of AF and, as with smartphones or any other sort of tech, the newer models have more bells and whistles on them. The AFs seem aware of this. The AFs also actively want to be bought, so that they can serve their purpose. Thus the newer models (the B3s) are seen to be trying to dissociate themselves from what they perceive to be inferior models, and differentiate themselves in terms of class. Tellingly, Klara is not a B3. She is a second-gen model, but retains something – perhaps something in her observational abilities – which has been lost in the upgrade.
Observation is a critical theme of the book; Klara is presented as a viable product because of her powers of observation, and sees things in two ways; the hyperliteralism in which she maps the world (she refers to a phone as “an oblong”, for example); but also through the hyper-empathetic lens of Josie’s life. Josie’s father Paul, an engineer, makes Josie a special type of mirror which shows the onlooker the way others see them; unflipped as in a regular mirror. “It shows you the way you really are,” he says, meaning that we never see ourselves the way others see us.
In-keeping with this, Klara meets Rick, Josie’s best (and possibly only) friend. Rick and Josie are kindling an innocent childhood romance which, though is never realised physically, is intimately true and deeply felt, and punctuated with the sorts of tiffs that characterise all romantic relationships. Resultantly, when Klara first meets Rick she immediately intuits that he is an extremely important part of Josie’s life. Yet Rick, as a human, does not see Klara as important to Josie, and ignores her. Yet Klara’s observations of the honest truth of the children’s budding romance allows her to enlist the assistance of Rick in helping her help Josie.
Rick and Klara are both outsiders in the typical Ishiguro sense. Ishiguro specialises in protagonists who are somewhat outside of their own world, who do not quite fit for some reason: either they used to fit and no longer do (as seen in Josie’s father Paul, who lost his job as engineer and thus his social status); or they don’t fit owing to some immutable characteristic (as with Rick, being unlifted); or they were designed not to fit (Klara). And the lines of demarcation between these folks who fit and folks who do not are clearly seen, as clearly as Rick’s mother Helen envisages the hedgerows of her dearly-departed England, forsaken for the seemingly borderless prairies of the American midwest.
Just as the B3s look down on the first and second-generation AFs, the humans do the same. The majority of adults and children (the main exception being Josie) view Rick as something inferior, or second-class, because of his being “unlifted”. We do not learn what “lifted” means until some way into the book but its literal meaning is nonetheless secondary to the effect that it has upon the relationships of the people. That is, the idea of being “lifted” creates a tiered society: lifted children are able to access better schools, better tutors, and better life opportunities. Rick, for reasons known to his mother Helen, is not lifted. He is unlifted. Rick may be gawped at by the other children, as if he were something that belonged in a zoo, but this uniqueness gives him something that the lifted children seem to have lost, just as the B3 AFs lose their “Klara-ness” in their own upgrade. Rick is aware of himself, and how to carry himself with dignity, and knows how to hide himself when necessary. “The smart kids think I have no shape,” he says. “But I do. It’s just keeping it hidden. Because who wants them to see?”
Klara’s hyperliteral observations mean that the prose is almost completely devoid of direct metaphor or simile; her language is bright and clear, as though reflective of the Sun itself. She recalls the prose style of Stevens the butler from Ishiguro’s Booker-winning 1989 novel The Remains Of The Day. Stevens also has a mechanical and literal way of viewing the world. Stevens, the narrator of that book, is a mirror for Klara in several ways; they believe their lives must fulfil the sole purpose of service; Klara to her owner, Josie; and Stevens to his erstwhile employer, the now-deceased Lord Darlington of Darlington Hall.
Both Klara and Stevens know that they must make a certain sacrifice in order to fulfil this servile obligation. The difference between the two is that Klara makes the correct choice in sacrificing herself for Josie. She orients herself towards the Sun, the highest form of good that she can perceive in her interpretation of the world, and in doing so engineers what we as readers know is a quite absurd plan to gain the Sun’s favour and implore him to send his nourishment to Josie, saving her from her worsening condition. Against all human logic – which I find a brilliant touch, in-keeping with the idea of phenomenology trumping rationale – Klara’s plan succeeds, and she is able to live out the rest of her usable life – what Josie’s Mother calls Klara’s “slow fade” – in contentment.
Stevens makes the incorrect choice in sacrificing himself in the service of Lord Darlington, and thus depriving himself a life of love, truth, and dignity. The tragedy of Remains is that Stevens realises his mistake only when it is too late, and is left to face his own “slow fade” in despair at what might have been, if only he had not been so wilfully blind to the obvious shortcomings (and that is putting it mildly) of his employer Lord Darlington. It’s interesting to note that while Ishiguro’s 1989 novel ends with only the slightest note of optimism among a symphony of regret, in Klara And The Sun the outcome is altogether more optimistic.
Stevens the butler is obsessed by the idea of dignity, and believes it to be the central defining quality that enables a man of his profession to be considered great. Yet in presenting to us the stories in which he believes he has demonstrated a command of such a quality, we can see that he has in fact jettisoned it by being wilfully blind to the things playing out around him. Wilful blindness is one of the greatest sins; mythologically it is what allows tyranny to gain a foothold in the world. Solzhenitsyn, who stated that one man telling the truth could bring down a tyranny, knew this; as did Hamlet; as did Horus. In The Remains Of The Day this is all too literal, and culminates in the shameful sacking of two members of the household staff which should have acted as red flags for Stevens. But he chose not to see the creep of tyranny and fascism, and paid for it.
Klara does not allow herself to be wilfully blind. As the human characters note, she is remarkable for her powers of observation. She detects instances of cause-and-effect that pass the humans by. The logic behind her concocted plan to curry the Sun’s favour by destroying a pollution-spouting road worker’s contraption she calls the Cootings Machine is laughably bizarre. And yet, and yet… I couldn’t help but find myself rooting whole-heartedly for this nonsense plan to succeed. Imagine my bamboozled delight to find that it does. Why? On the face of it there is no correlation whatsoever between Klara (with the surreptitious help of Josie’s estranged engineer father Paul) destroying the Cootings Machine and the Sun not only acknowledging this fact but taking it as a sufficiently good act to warrant the healing the sick.
But I’ve thought about it, and this is what’s drawn me to Ishiguro; that is, that writers – and artists of all stripes – can look beneath surface logic to see what’s really going on. We writers don’t have to present the world purely as a set of physical characteristics. If we can’t infer what’s going on from the cold mechanics of it, then we can deduce it from a more subtle form of cause and effect. The effect is that Josie became better; and the cause was Klara orienting herself towards the highest good she could possibly conceive. And – in a note of genius – Klara has to give some of her own crucial fluids, which enable her own cognitive abilities, to destroy the Cootings Machine. She must sacrifice a part of herself for something that is greater than herself.
And so my delight at Klara’s success is not merely at Josie’s survival but because Klara’s laudable actions, and her innocent sense of hope, and her very real sacrifice, go rewarded. It’s a triumph of phenomenologically-derived ethics over stone-cold rationality. And where this is the case I don’t see how this book can be called dystopian in any sense.
Josie, it is revealed, is having her portrait painted by a local man called Dr Capaldi. He is not so much an artist as a scientist, it turns out, and the portrait is not quite as it seems. Capaldi sees himself at the forefront of a new discipline of transhumanism, where mechatronics and software can effectively replicate and replace human beings, down to the very mannerisms of an individual. This idea produces a profound twist in the plot, initiated by Josie’s mother and driven forward by Capaldi, who is more interested in technological possibility than ethics. It’s telling that Paul, Josie’s father, sneers at the very idea of being a scientist, insisting that he is an engineer. The difference is clear; a scientist being a creature of cold rationality, and an engineer being a solver of real-world problems.
Despite Capaldi’s efforts, the novel posits that there is something in the human heart that cannot be replicated; the love people have for Josie cannot be replicated. The object of people’s affections cannot be synthesised in code and advanced plastics. And yet, the great irony is that, in realising that she must do what she can for the sake of Josie, Klara demonstrates that she does have something of a heart, and that even a robot can elevate itself to a dignified life, by orienting itself towards the Sun, and acting in the noblest way possible. Isn’t that something that any of us could do; acting out the thing that would bring about the best effects in our lives and the lives of those around us?
The working class agricultural character Harry Smith says to Stevens in The Remains Of The Day, “A slave can never have dignity.”
But, as Klara finds out, and as Josie’s father Paul says: “There are all kinds of ways to lead a successful life.”