Klara and the Sun: Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2021
By Kazuo Ishiguro
The novel tells the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behaviour of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass in the street outside. She remains hopeful a customer will soon choose her, but when the possibility emerges that her circumstances may change for ever, Klara is warned not to invest too much in the promises of humans.Tweet
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Not my favourite Ishiguro novel, but one I will be recommending to my yr 10+ students. It was thought provoking and the mother was a particularly interesting character.
This wasn’t my favourite. Whilst it’s an interesting social commentary it didn’t hold my interest well.
A charming and engaging novel set at an unspecified time in the future and narrated by a sophisticated yet endearingly naive robot who becomes an Artificial Friend to a sick teenager. Sounds bonkers, I know, but it's a very enjoyable read whether you're into sci-fi or not (I'm not) and some very profound issues such as love, trust, faith and what it is to be human are explored.
The phrase ‘stranger than fiction’ comes to mind in reflecting on this book. Initially engaging, I found the concept of AFs intriguing. I even began to wonder if they may, indeed, be useful in the future to enhance the social communication skills of future generations of children and young people who are in danger of having their neural pathways modified and communication skills limited by the use of such ‘oblongs’, ipads, phones and of course increasing amounts of virtual online learning.
The introduction of Klara to Josie and her family and wider community worked well although I did tire of the stilted dialogue but tried to objectively put myself in the writer’s shoes as the character of Klara developed. Even Klara’s relationship with Rick and his mother seemed to work and I found the descriptions of her visual perception and changing images in social situations very interesting and imaginative, especially on her journeys outside, for example to McBain’s barn and the way she saw things emerging in box form.
However, as the story progresses, a darker side of the role of AF’s emerges with the visit to Mr. Capaldi’s studio, where Klara’s programming is investigated to see if she may be suitable to be a substitute Josie in the future. Genetic engineering as a way to ‘uplift’ young people is hinted at. I was struggling to understand this concept until then.
The ‘raising’ of Josie by the Sun almost seemed biblical with the preceding darkness and wind like the story of Good Friday and Klara’s dialogue with the Sun almost prayer like. I found that intriguing as a complete contrast to the links with Artificial Intelligence.
Several issues were raised at the end of the book for me. The selfishness of human beings prepared to cast aside what they have relied upon once their need is met and the longing for ‘real’ interaction in life. And Klara, with her manufactured mind and inner workings, being challenged by the Sun about the real nature of love, the workings of the human heart and the impact on individuals meeting such as the simple joy between Coffee Cup lady and Rainbow Man.
A disturbing 21st Century book. However, I am glad I have read it. Not sure I have fully understood it! Lots to discuss when Book Group next meet.
Klara and the Sun
By Kazuo Ishiguro
What an interesting mix of a robot-like being, Klara, living as a friend to a human teenager! This is science fiction, however, one is drawn into the book via Klara’s clear and often matter-of-fact first-person narrative, so it becomes engaging and believable.
Klara is very observant and tries to make sense of the world and the people in it. She puzzles over her observations and makes judgements with her limited knowledge and this can lead to her making what we might think are illogical assumptions – such as the unusual powers of both the sun and a building site machine.
Klara is chosen to be an AF, an artificial friend, and during the novel one becomes quite fond of her – is she almost human? What she notices and comments on can be quite disturbing. She has a passive role but through her we learn of others’ emotions, relationships, worries and fears. She is programmed to be a friend and initially replaces actual human friends – but this does not last forever. Even robots have a limited life.
The novel explores many themes and does lead one to question what it means to be human, how people relate to each other, friendships and how they evolve and change, the way parents try to give their children advantages, motivations and emotions, the definition of what might be supernatural and particularly, the boundary between technology and living beings.
I found it an interesting, thought provoking and engaging read with lots to ponder over.
At the end of the book we wonder whether robots can ever be programmed to replace humans….. and would we want them to?
I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a review, and read it for my monthly book club read as part of Novel Ideas.
I wasn't sure what to expect from this book as I know Ishiguro's stories have some grounding in reality but always have something different too.
I was intrigued to read a book about AFs and artificial intelligence as I'd just watched Humans, so the idea of technology designed to make our lives better was one that was still in my head.
It was very interesting to discover the world through Klara's eyes, there was an innocence around it, kind of like how you imagine a baby learning about things for the first time as they grow up. I liked reading about Klara learned everything and thought her blind faith that the Sun could fix everything was endearing.
I would have liked to have found out more about the relationships with the adults, what had gone on with them in the past, and more about Rick, as I felt he was a very interesting character.
The end was tinged with some sadness for me, but I think this is reflective of life in some ways, which is maybe what the author was going for.
As a whole, I enjoyed the book, but it did leave me feeling a little bit underwhelmed. Maybe I was expecting too much from it as I think we've become accustomed to books having big twists these days but it was a pleasant enough read
The science fiction genre holds very little appeal to me, but after reading the blurb, I was really interested in reading Klara and the Sun. I think labelling it as a science fiction novel does it a disservice as its very much grounded in reality.
When reading Klara, I couldn't help but draw comparisons to the television programme Humans, as they both deal with the impact of AIs on everyday life, and raise the question about our reliance and usage of technology. One thing I must say, is that Ishiguro certainly knows how to construct a novel that leaves you thinking and questioning the world around us.
I really warmed to the character of Klara, finding her innocence and simplicity refreshing and endearing. I enjoyed watching her world expand as she moves and experiences different aspects of life. Her warmth and loyalty were engaging and kept me engrossed in her story.
There were a lot of other side stories hinted at within the novel (that of Rick's mother and the relationship between Josie's parents) that I wish were explored in further detail, and there were some characters that I wish could have had a little more time.
The ending left me feeling quite sad and a little bit cold. I'm quite a sensitive person and struggled to understand how they would dismiss so easily someone who had done so much for them. This probably was intentional of Ishiguro, raising questions about our commitment and reliance on immaterial possessions.
Overall, I enjoyed Klara and the Sun, and I would definitely be more likely now to pick up another book by Ishiguro.
I received a free copy for an honest review as a member of the bookclub #novelideas. To be honest, I would not normally have picked up this book (I am not drawn to science fiction) but I am so glad I have read it. This was such an engaging and thought-provoking read. I was immediately captivated by the mystery of the world Klara inhabits. She also knows very little so is intrigued to learn of the world and people outside the shop. As she catches glimpses and builds her understanding of the outside world, so does the reader.
The novel is set in the not too distant future. I felt that this was not quite a dystopian novel but that area in between where the world is changing and there is a feeling of discontent between different communities but there is yet to be a huge revolution or rebellion that is often the basis of a dystopian novel. As such, I read this almost as a cautionary tale. With advances in science and technology, we have ethical decisions to make of not what we can do but what we should do. The irony throughout this novel was that with increased scientific and technological advances, the humans became less ‘human’ and the AIs became more ‘human’ (if we are to consider the essence humanity to be empathy, love, loyalty, kindness, compassion and benevolence.) However, only Klara seemed to consistently apply loyalty and altruism to her decisions. Whereas, the humans made narcissistic decisions based on personal advantages in society, and how their own needs could be met. (I can’t say much more than this without giving away too much but read the book then come back to this review and ask yourself: Are people replaceable?)
Klara had an almost childlike innocence and naivety which, although endearing as a first person narrator, was at odds to what I expected from an AF (Artificial Friend). Perhaps because she was the first person narrator, as a reader it was almost impossible not to see her as human which made it upsetting to see her treated in disrespectful ways. Maybe Ishiguro is using this to hold a mirror up to society and how we treat (read discriminate against) others we see as lesser in some ways, whether it be age, race, class, gender etc. There was certainly a feeling throughout of holding a mirror up to society and humans. For example, pollution was a factor throughout the novel with only Klara (who is solar dependant) seeing pollution as an issue. It felt like future society is placing more importance on genetic engineering and advances in wealth and power than environmental issues – perhaps suggesting that humans will never change!
The title of the book is ‘Klara and the Sun’ and the sun does have a major part to play throughout the novel. Klara is keenly aware from the beginning that she needs the sun to survive, however, she also attributes to it a mystical god-like power and conscience. There was a strong allegorical feel throughout the novel which made an interesting read, and while I thoroughly enjoyed reading the novel, I have also really enjoyed the period of reflection after finishing the novel. I normally move straight on to my next novel once I am finished a book, but I find I am in some ways still digesting and processing this novel long after the actual reading part. I am excited to discuss this in our next bookclub as it raises so many interesting aspects of humanity, society, religion, science, technology, pollution and environment.
My only criticism is that there was just too much left unanswered. I started to suspect this whilst reading part 5 of 6 and realising that there was no way all of my questions would be answered by the end. Perhaps some aspects such as how the GE had gone the way it had in what seemed like a short period of time (the mother had said that her generation had had normal schooling and socialisation), why home school at all? It wasn’t just Josie and her ill health which confined her to home learning. I would have liked to have known more about the father and his community. Melania was underdeveloped and her rationale for moving to a community in California not explained. There was also an allegiance about to be formed between Klara and Melania at the end of part 3 which was never mentioned again. Perhaps if there had been fewer characters there would have been more opportunity to develop some of these ideas which seemed more relevant to the central themes than the Miss Helen and Vance subplot. Perhaps I am missing something here but I just found them a distraction rather than integral to the plot and themes.
Reading other people’s reviews, my next ‘want to read’ will be Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Seems I do like science fiction after all!
It’s our world in the not too distant future, we know that because human beings are still trying to better themselves, still polluting the atmosphere, meeting in cafes and learning online. Teenagers are flying drones and making friends with whom they fall out and make up again. Teenagers have also moved on from online games, smart phones and mobile phones to having AFs. As now, adults don’t know what to make of this. The question is not, “Is s/he spending too long online?” but “Is it it the right AF for Josie?” or “How do I talk to it, isn’t it just a clever vacuum cleaner?”.
In fact, we know, from Klara, the AF narrator, that AFs have lots of human qualities: curiosity, affection, loyalty, belief in a higher power, a fear of loneliness, a desire for companionship, an interest in the outside world.
In our world we are trying to rid ourselves of one use plastics and to reduce pollution. In Klara’s world there is sufficient technology to build individual AFs but not the will to find alternatives to road mending machines which belch out smoke; not the will to provide equity of opportunity for children. Instead disposability has spread to include those children: do you uplift them through GE at the risk of them not living to adulthood, or do you leave them unmodified but condemned to a life deprived of education and opportunity? There do not seem to be any positive outcomes. Ishiguro comments on the US’s pretence of a social meritocracy which is really based on monetisation and which he suggests will continue to divide until the State modifies those humans it wants, at risk to themselves, while the rest of society move into communities which are Fascist or revolutionary. None of it bodes well.
Ironically, of course, the most sympathetic and humane character is Klara. The humans argue and fight; they are insensitive, angry and cruel. Paul is understandably angry that he has been substituted, he has been disposed of, probably a cheaper option found; Vance is grasping and cruel, eager to twist the emotional knife; Helen is emotionally distraught; Chrissie is tortured and damaged by the decision she has made; Josie and Rick do their best to be positive about the world they’ve been placed in, as yet less damaged by the adult world. Klara’s mechanistic physical state is emphasised - she sees unfamiliar objects in boxes which loom large in her vision until she adjusts to them; she does not mend as a human would, when her sight is damaged she sees in cones as a monitor does; despite this she has a warm emotional response which she lends to the humans around her. She is lonely and presumes humans are too; she has the hope of religious belief and is evangelistic is spreading it around her.
Ishiguro’s emphasis on religion also seems to be a comment on the religious fervour which grips much of the US. Despite being created by science and technology Klara is solar powered and so believes in the power of the sun god. She constantly looks out of windows to find the sun. She believe in his healing powers, even though he can power her but not heal her. She has the visions when she’s in his temple - images flash before her from her computer memory and she creates a Gestalt picture from them which makes sense to her and bolsters her belief in the sun’s power to heal. She makes the facts fit her beliefs and somehow manages to make a miracle happen. The miracle leads to her own demise and ‘long fade’ as Josie grows up into adulthood.
Just as we have drawers full of defunct power chargers and old mobile phones there are yards full of Klaras, Rosas and B3s after their short shelf life of a few teenage years is done. Ishiguro makes comments about pollution, GE, the political system but I find his main message is one of disposability - use it and throw it aside, be it machine or human. I’ve read reviews which disparage this book. The writing is clear and cool. Each character crafted in their speech, perfectly identifiable. Klara herself, the innocent and inquiring narrator works with the half knowledge she has, perhaps deliberately kept ignorant of an overview of the world so that AFs don’t become too powerful. After all, the B3s have the ability to prey on those weaker than themselves, a decidedly human trait.
The book didn’t grasp my heart, I don’t suppose that was Ishiguro’s intention, he’s writing about ideas and he gave me plenty to think about. I don’t know when he wrote Klara and The Sun exactly, but in these days of home schooling, people living isolated existences in their homes having to make deliberate efforts to meet; when Health Services are stretched to fight an illness they can do little to mend and when society is bisected into the haves and have nots, the financial elite literally taking life and sustenance from weaker members of society, this book is percipient and perhaps less welcome for that.
Ishiguro continues the theme of ‘Never Let Me Go’, humans will create people or machines for exploitation. In NLMG it was human organs, here it is emotional and mental support and then leave what is left for the trash and move on. In the end, however, McBain’s barn still stands, his fields still grow whether humans tend them or not.
I was excited to read this title being a follower of KI and I started with enthusiasm. The first 45 pages are set within an AF (artificial friend) store in a time when teenagers are often given an AF to accompany them. We are within the world of Klara, an AF. We see the world through her eyes and come to understand her programming to be a friend and how unusual she is in terms of her ability to observe and to question. She is taken home by Josie and we follow the story of Josie's health and Klara's attempt to help her. Klara is a good AF putting her own survival at risk for her owner. There was a stage about two thirds of the way through that I began to find it tedious to read - the story just lacked momentum for me. There is a beautiful resolution of the relationship with Josie's mother and we come to understand more about the inconsistencies of the human heart but I did not find Klara's POV completely consistent and that was a little frustrating. The storyline has echoes of Never Let Me Go but it is more hopeful than that although not completely satisfying. As ever an intelligent and interesting premise but there was for me some depth lacking.