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Book Review of Klara and the Sun

by Ananya Sarkar
(Kolkata, West Bengal, India)

Kazuo Ishiguro
Klara and the Sun
Faber 2021
ISBN 978-0-571-36488-6
Pages 307, Price INR 699

Perspective of a Humanoid

Booker winner and Nobel Prize winner, Kazuo Ishiguro’s eighth novel Klara and the Sun once more ventures into the fascinating world of AI and its interrelationship with human society. Told from the point of view of Klara, an AF (Artificial Friend) run on solar energy, the book explores the idea of love, relationships and the contours of duty. As we join Klara’s trajectory, we get the opportunity to note the dynamics of life in general and ponder on it from a unique perspective.

The book begins with Klara at the store, tended by a considerate Manager, waiting and hoping to be selected by a customer. Even as she shares the space with other AFs, Klara has remarkable observational powers and is able to note and learn from things that escape the eyes of others. Keen on watching the outside world, Klara learns, for example, how a child and AF could carry on together even if the former despised the latter and the possibility of feeling pain alongside happiness. She also notices the other AFs with precision, such as Rosa’s lack of interest in what was happening around her beyond the prospect of getting a home and the sly behavior of the more advanced model of B3 AFs. When she is finally chosen by the sickly yet thoughtful 14-year-old Josie, Klara goes to live at her home in the lonely countryside. As she adjusts herself to the terrain of the new family (both physically and mentally), Klara always operates in Josie’s best interest and is ready to serve at all costs.

As she is a solar-run humanoid, Klara is naturally dependent on the sun for her smooth functioning. Understandably, she feels lethargic with even a few hours away from the sun. But the sun, to her, is more than just the source of her energy. She regards it almost as a divine entity, referring to it with obeisance as “the Sun” and praying to it for special help when everything else seems to fail. The strong bond that she shares with the sun is as unique as it is logic-defying in nature, which explains the significance of the title.

Klara is a cross between a playmate, nursemaid and servant, albeit a mechanical one. She does not say or do anything without her teenager’s bidding. Though this is limiting in many ways, Klara does exercise her will at certain crucial points, such as refusing to entertain a particular customer who is interested in her and going out of her way to help Josie, even at the risk of debilitation.

The first-person narration is simple and lucid. Indeed, the non-sentimental prose devoid of any external flounces befits an AF and appears realistic. Also, Klara describes computers and cell phones as “oblongs” and perceives the realty as a grid or a series of boxes, which helps her to register things more minutely. Her intelligence, consideration and thought-provoking observation come to the fore time and again, and do not make the reader lose interest at any point. Also, Klara’s simple, innocent optimism and the extent of her sacrifice as a commitment to her duty are endearing.

The obsession with scientific perfection comes to the surface when we learn that children are divided into the “lifted”, that is, belonging to a genetically improved class of a higher rank and the “unlifted”. Those who are not lifted are denied access to the life of education, progress and advancement. Parents, as we understand, are engaged in a dangerous gamble. Those who can afford it try to make their kids genetically engineered to be superior, even at the cost of alarming side effects including putting one’s life at stake.
The projected future that the book encapsulates contains telling details of vastly atomized lives. We learn that Josie’s father, a skilled engineer, was “substituted”. In this context, the resentment against robots becomes manifest when a woman in front of the movie theater refuses to acknowledge Klara by her name, instead referring to her as a “machine” and says: “First they take the jobs. Then they take the seats at the theater?” (page 242) Again, children are taught by “screen professors”, and are seen to lead highly circumscribed, mechanical lives.

The plot precipitates when the real reason behind the adoption of Klara is revealed in an apparently unassuming yet shocking way. Though the reader is jolted, Klara is quick to prescribe to the new reality. She is responsible and dutiful to the core, which makes us fear not AI as much as human psychology – its manipulation disturbingly glaring and conspicuous.

Certain observations of Klara are poignant and touching. For instance, after the discomfiting meeting between two past lovers, she ruminates: “I looked at Miss Helen, and thought about how she and Mr Vance had once been besotted and in love. And I wondered if there had been a time when Miss Helen and Mr Vance had been as gentle to one another as Josie and Rick were now. And if it was possible that one day, Josie and Rick too might show such unkindness to each other.” (page 256) Again, towards the end she tells Manager: “There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her.” (page 306)

Despite certain climactic points, there is no dramatic turn as such which is a tad disappointing. The book can be summed up as an observation on life and love in general but there is no eye-opening takeaway as such. Ishiguro does brings out the fragility and transience of life itself but Klara, in herself, fails to impress us as much as we would have liked her to.

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