On the 2nd March 2021, Faber & Faber in the UK, Alfred A. Knopf in the US, Knopf in Canada and Allen & Unwin in Australia will publish Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, Klara and the Sun.
This is 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.
From this, we can assume that Klara and the Sun will be one of Ishiguro’s science fiction stories. I usually prefer when he heads off into historical fiction territory – think Remains of the Day and The Buried Giant, two of my favourites to date. I’m not always a fan of his sci-fi books – think Never Let Me Go. Whichever genre he writes in though, a tender regard and thoughtful dissection of his characters interior lives is guaranteed. Which is why I will always get excited about a new Ishiguro!
In 2017, the Nobel committee described Ishiguro’s books as ‘novels of great emotional force’ that have ‘uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world’. That abyss is never more apparent than with Klara, as she tries to make sense of the human world around her.
In recent times, I have read a couple of AI stories. British writers in particular seem to be fascinated by this genre – think Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson and Machines Like Us by Ian McEwan. Using an AI as your protagonist, has a similar literary effect as using a child narrator. It allows us to observe the world within the book, as well as the relationships and behaviours of the other characters, through innocent, or unknowing eyes.
Klara may be a little different, to other AI’s in this regard, as she has extra special abilities to observe and perceive the world around her. In Ishiguro’s world, not all AI’s are exactly the same. Despite similar programming, differences can occur, that cannot be accounted for by the creators. She is obviously a little more intelligent and a little more perceptive than most and she is able to make inferences and connections from these observations.
One of these is about the sun. AI’s require sunlight to generate the power to run their bodies. They need a certain amount of direct sunlight each day to maintain optimum health. Klara assumes that because the sun ‘heals’ her, that it can also heal others – think humans.
Klara’s obsession with the power and healing abilities of the sun brought to mind books I read in my early twenties. Historical fiction chunksters by the likes of Leon Uris and James A. Michener that delved into historical periods in great depth. Michener’s The Source explored the history of religion, Judaism in particular. In the early sections of the story, the Stone Age group suddenly starts to fear that the sun will not come up again the next day. To ensure that it does, one of them decides to make an offering. It works. The sun rises again the next day. So they continue to make more elaborate offerings and invest more complex stories and rituals around these ceremonies.
Klara’s belief that the sun could cure Josie and that she had the ability to make a bargain with the sun, by sacrificing something of herself, called to mind these older religious superstitions. Ishiguro seems to be suggesting that AI’s are just as capable of being superstitious and in need of a belief in a higher power to make sense of their world, as humans.
Ishiguro leaves a lot unsaid or unexplained. What does it means to be ‘lifted’ for instance. Josie and her sister, were lifted but her best friend, Rick was not. The sister died (pre-story) and Josie is regularly very ill. Being lifted is obviously a serious and dangerous business. But what are the benefits? Who knows. They are taken as a given necessity in this world, but other than getting you into a certain university that gives you a certain status, I was unsure what long-term benefits might accrue from this. We are left in the dark. On the outside looking in, just like Klara.
Lonely and/or reticent characters on the outside of ‘normal’ seem to come naturally to Ishiguro. It’s also fair to say that he has many questions about what is a soul, what makes us human, how do we connect and care for one another and what does our collective future look like. He doesn’t (yet) have the answers, or expect us to either. His stories are more like provocations; perhaps that’s why they get under one’s skin so deeply. There is always more going on under the surface, than you first imagine, in Ishiguroland.
I still prefer, Ishiguro’s historical fiction, but Klara’s story is full of his trademark bittersweet and tender story telling. If you loved Never Let Me Go, then I think you will also love this. And, if like me, you are one of the few people who didn’t get into Never Let Me Go, then, I think, you will still find plenty in Klara’s story to intrigue you, like I did.
“When we were new, Rosa and I were mid-store, on the magazines side, and could see through more than half of the window.”
“There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her.”
- Kazuo’s daughter Naomi is a writer too and she has her first novel, Common Ground, due to be published on the 30th March with Hachette Australia. She has previously published a short story collection called, Escape Routes (2020).