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November 2, 2023
Portrait of the Robot as a Young Woman
November 4, 2021 issue
Kazuo Ishiguro; illustration by Harriet Lee-Merrion
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Klara and the Sun
Kazuo Ishiguro was a social worker before he was a novelist. Between 1979 and 1982, he worked at West London Cyrenians, a charity that provided support and accommodations to the homeless. While there he applied, rather on a whim, to a new creative writing program at the University of East Anglia. Upon graduating a year later, Ishiguro returned to Cyrenians. He tried to wake up early and write for ninety minutes before work, but found this increasingly difficult as his job grew more demanding. Luckily an editor at Faber had already bought his first novel. Published in 1982, A Pale View of Hills was a notable success, earning him a Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and a place on Granta’s list of Best Young British Novelists. Then twenty-eight years old, Ishiguro quit his day job in order to write full time.
Though Ishiguro has said in more than one interview that working with the homeless influenced his fiction, he has also been careful not to write about his social work directly. This is in part because, as he admitted a few years ago, “I always felt vaguely guilty that I learned so much [then] that helped me in my fiction writing.” Yet social work is an implicit theme throughout his fiction. From his first novel to his eighth and latest, Klara and the Sun , Ishiguro considers what it means to care for and attend to others, and what happens when that attention gets abused, withdrawn, or distorted. The emotional labor of care—and care institutionalized as labor—forms a repeating central drama around which Ishiguro’s plots turn, regardless of the genre he is writing in.
In The Remains of the Day (1989) and The Unconsoled (1995), the intense devotion of butlers and bellboys to their work eclipses what might have been more meaningful personal relationships with family and lovers. Christopher Banks, the detective in When We Were Orphans (2000), forgoes romantic fulfillment in a misguided commitment to the abstract cause of, as he puts it, “trying to save the world from ruin.” Ishiguro’s most explicit depiction of the welfare state, in Never Let Me Go (2005), in which young clones briefly act as “carers” before donating their organs to ailing humans, imagines care work to be nihilistic at worst and weakly compensatory at best. His novels stage the contradictions between society and self, collective labor and individualist pursuits, feeling for a group and feeling for yourself. They are cautionary tales about good intentions.
This is no less true of Klara and the Sun , Ishiguro’s first book since he won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature. Completed just before the pandemic, the novel is eerily prescient, taking place in a future where jobs are in decline, social conflict is on the rise, and children increasingly stay at home, taking virtual classes over their “oblongs.” It depicts isolating times of technologically mediated distances and dwindling material resources. Enter Ishiguro’s eponymous narrator, Klara, a solar-powered robot programmed to be an Artificial Friend ( AF ) to a human child.
When Klara and the Sun begins, Klara has not yet found her human. Or rather her human has not yet found her: “It’s for the customer to choose the AF ,” chides the manager of the store where Klara and other robots are sold, “never the other way round.” This rebuke comes after Klara refuses, Bartleby-like, to engage yet another interested buyer—a demurral, the manager correctly suspects, based on Klara’s belief that she has already promised herself to a fourteen-year-old girl named Josie. “Children make promises all the time,” the manager informs Klara. “But more often than not, the child never comes back. Or worse, the child comes back and ignores the poor AF who’s waited, and instead chooses another.”
This becomes one of many lessons Klara picks up during her time inside the store. Unlike Ishiguro’s other narrators, who carry the historical trauma of, say, war or fascism, Klara begins as a blank slate. Here are the novel’s opening lines:
When we were new, Rosa and I were mid-store, on the magazines table side, and could see through more than half of the window. So we were able to watch the outside—the office workers hurrying by, the taxis, the runners, the tourists, Beggar Man and his dog, the lower part of the RPO Building.
The language here will be familiar to anyone who has read Ishiguro: simple, descriptive, conversational to the point of banality. Like a modern version of Plato’s allegory of the cave, Klara and her fellow AF Rosa first come to know the world through the sharp limits of their storefront window frame. Looking outside, the solar-powered Klara thinks of the Sun as a source of “special nourishment” and “kindness”—not just for herself, but also for humans.
Klara starts out as what kids these days might call “pure,” her only baggage the preprogrammed objective to befriend a lonely teenager. This is a labor of love, the manager reminds her, that is not founded on reciprocity or choice. But it’s a lesson that Klara doesn’t internalize well. Even in the store, she is noted for having a “unique…appetite for observing and learning,” which recursively alters her programming, making her even more empathetic, more caring. She’s not like other robots. Yet weeks pass with no sign of Josie, while newer models of AF s continue to arrive, gradually displacing poor Klara to the back of the shop.
Just when the situation appears beyond hope, Josie does return for Klara, though not before warning her ominously that “some days I’m not so well.” Josie’s anxious mother initially considers buying one of the upgraded B3 models, which “are very good with cognition and recall,” but can “sometimes be less empathetic.” They eventually settle on Klara, a “remarkable” B2, the manager reassures them, rounding out part 1 of the novel in what feels like triumphant resolution. What happens next is far more insidious—indeed, far more banal—and ultimately far worse than that happy reunion would seem to forecast.
Klara is the first of Ishiguro’s novels to be set in the future (the science-fictional Never Let Me Go was set in an alternate past), near an unnamed American city. Ishiguro claims to have been inspired by 1920s Precisionist paintings of the pre-industrial Midwest, though the novel’s atmosphere strongly evokes our postindustrial present. Josie and her mother live in the countryside, secluded from the thrum of the growing urban underclass that hovers at the edges of the novel. (Even more marginal is Josie’s largely absent father, a once talented engineer who was “substituted” by robots and now lives far away in a survivalist community.)
Josie’s mysterious illness, we soon learn, is an unintended side effect of being “lifted”—a euphemism for gene editing that makes children more academically competitive. As an AF , Klara was made in order to keep a sickly lifted child company. (Josie’s next-door neighbor and childhood sweetheart Rick is, for instance, “unlifted”; his mother, a widow and British expat, decided against having Rick undergo the operation owing partly to these medical risks.) Yet for all these science-fictional trappings, Klara feels strangely realistic in its everyday descriptions. It presents a world of rural imagery, drenched with an uncanny lack of action, filled with anxious adults, listless children, and friendly robots.
Ishiguro originally envisioned Klara as a children’s book, a “very sweet story,” before his daughter Naomi advised him that it would traumatize young readers. Instead, the novel unfolds as a thwarted bildungsroman: the portrait of the robot as a young girl whose early self-education in the store gets interrupted when she is purchased by the real girl whom she must now befriend. At Josie’s house, Klara learns that her education might come to involve an absorption of Josie’s very identity. In this way, the story shares DNA with Never Let Me Go , in which clones’ lives are cut short in order to prolong those of humans. Ishiguro’s earlier novel is also narrated from the perspective of a care worker: a clone named Kathy H. who tends to other clones in the process of piecemeal organ donations, before she too eventually joins them. Yet as grim as that sounds, much of Kathy’s account is devoted to nostalgic reminiscences of happier childhood days, before she learned of her fate. Klara is denied even that narrow fulfillment: she has always known exactly what her job is.
In becoming Josie’s AF , Klara is also isolated from the AF s she had befriended in the store, Rosa in particular. “I found strange for a while not only the lack of traffic and passers-by, but also the absence of other AF s,” remarks Klara upon arriving at Josie’s house. “I realized how much I’d grown used to making observations and estimates in relation to those of other AF s around me.” Having known only the store, Klara struggles at first to navigate her new domestic life. Josie turns out to be “not so well” more often than not, and she is frequently confined to her bed and sometimes even “too weak to go down in the mornings to the Mother’s quick coffee” (Klara’s robot coinage for morning coffee). Klara’s role throughout all this is to keep Josie company, which frequently consists of watching the young girl sleep.
Besides Josie and her mother, there’s a live-in housekeeper named Melania (Klara refers to her as “Melania Housekeeper”) who is deeply protective of Josie and constantly reminds Klara that they are not the same. “Quit follow me AF get lost!” scolds Melania when Klara looks to her for guidance. Melania’s presence, as well as her vaguely ethnic accent, is often a source of comic relief. (“Listen, AF ,” she later tells Klara. “You make things worse, I fuck come dismantle you.”) But Melania is also there to differentiate her domestic housework from Klara’s emotional work—in theory, at least, if not in practice.
Other children mark the limits of Klara’s care work, too, as when Josie introduces Rick as her “best friend.” This confuses Klara: “No. But…it’s now my duty to be Josie’s best friend.” “You’re my AF ,” Josie corrects her, “That’s different.” Any friend of Josie’s, however, becomes a friend of her AF , and Klara soon grows fond of Rick, often working as Josie and Rick’s go-between. Klara’s duties evolve alongside Josie’s developing social circles, often making her slightly confused about her own role, especially since AF s seem nowhere to be found, holed away in the homes of other well-off lifted children. “Are you a guest at all?” asks Rick’s perplexed mother when Klara arrives with a message on Josie’s behalf. “Or do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?” Even in Josie’s home, Klara’s status is not always clear: when Rick visits, Klara sits in the room with her back to them. And when Josie and her mom have their “quick coffee,” Klara stands beside the refrigerator, a machine that we come to see as Klara’s mute ally.
There’s an initial learning curve to reading Klara and the Sun , as Klara herself struggles in adapting to the brave new world of humans. Besides attending to Josie, Klara—whose robot vision works by synthesizing grids—is also always learning how to understand and navigate new environments. Things get even more confusing when Klara goes outside, where she often stumbles, overwhelmed by the seemingly endless coordinates of the outdoors. This produces lags or syncopations in Klara’s storytelling, as she tries to keep up with her surroundings. She often narrates and reflects on her narration at the same time: “There must have been signals all along, because although what happened that Sunday morning made me feel sadness later, and reminded me again how much I had still to learn, it didn’t come as a true surprise.”
Given that Klara’s job is to pay close attention to others—to become an expert reader of social tensions, pleasures, and angst—there is only so much energy she can put toward situating herself in the space she inhabits. While Josie’s illness often keeps her bedridden, embodiment isn’t easy for Klara either. At an “interaction meeting” with other lifted children, a boy wants to try throwing Klara across the room to see if she’ll land on her feet (as his B3 is able to). The unlifted Rick intervenes—an ironic act of kindness at an event meant to help lifted children learn to socialize. But it’s moments like these that pierce the relatively humane bubble of Josie’s homelife. One wonders about all the other AF s working offstage.
Ishiguro spent most of his childhood in the small town of Guildford, Surrey, during the 1960s, when his was one of the few Japanese families in town. As he recalls in his Nobel lecture, they lived in a cul-de-sac “where the paved roads ended and the countryside began,” presenting an idyllic picture of England. “When I look back to this period,” the lecture continues,
and remember it was less than twenty years from the end of a world war in which the Japanese had been their bitter enemies, I’m amazed by the openness and instinctive generosity with which our family was accepted by this ordinary English community.
For Ishiguro, growing up in postwar Britain, the warmth and acceptance of his small town was formative to his understanding of the broader world. It was a hopeful time, when Britain’s liberal reforms held promises for flourishing, and “the Beatles, the sexual revolution, student protests, [and] ‘multiculturalism’ were all round the corner,” as he put it. “I’m part of a generation inclined to optimism,” he admits, “and why not?” What Ishiguro couldn’t foresee as a child was how short-lived this liberal optimism would be: on the horizon were Thatcherism and New Labour’s austerity and privatization schemes, and then the populist and right-wing forces that championed Brexit, demolishing the welfare state.
If there remains a strange persistence of hope in Ishiguro’s fiction, it’s in the dampened, compensatory, and resolute response of his characters to their disappointing fates. All of Ishiguro’s novels are narrated in the past tense, their elegiac tone heightening the distance between childhood innocence and grown-up disappointment. Ishiguro felt that Klara had to be set in America not only because it’s the hub of cutting-edge AI research, but also because it’s a comparatively young nation. “I was trying to show a society in flux,” he explained in an interview with the Pittsburgh City Paper . “I thought it was a more apt place to set a story with a backdrop that could turn dystopian.” Yet the novel’s dystopian landscapes (its abandoned countryside and half-constructed barns and generic shopping centers) seem a perverse throwback to the British pastoral. Here, both the farm and the high street stand in for a past that feels just out of reach.
Rick’s melancholy existence feels haunted by the specter of a lost British boyhood, as his mother’s immigration to America marks Klara as Ishiguro’s first attempt to capture the experience of displacement from British soil. Rick is naturally curious and inventive, designing drone birds that circle the empty skies of neighboring fields, though his own future is limited. Rick’s single mother, housebound by an illness and agoraphobia, seems to hold him back in other ways as well. As with the central couple in Never Let Me Go , Rick and Josie are as much in love as two children can be. And, like that pair, their romance is doomed to fail—not for sentimental reasons, nor just for structural ones, but because of the hard difference of medicalized inequality. In this version of the story, both children get to grow old. But they don’t grow old together.
Klara and the Sun is a novel about the crisis of surplus populations—of too many people and not enough resources or opportunities to go around. Parents can decide to “lift” their children for a better chance at a prosperous life in the future, but the risk is that they might not get to have a future at all. (The children have no say in all of this until it’s too late.) As Klara comes to love Josie more and more, she learns that Josie is always on the verge of death, which prompts Klara to do all she can to save her—even, it turns out, at the cost of Klara’s own existence. While the novel is told through Klara’s perspective, it’s plausible to think of Josie, the human child at the novel’s center, as its protagonist, too. As Josie begins to decline in health, Klara learns that her job is to get to know Josie not only so as to care for her, but so as to be able to be her.
After a visit to the sinister Dr. Capaldi’s office, Klara learns that—in the case of Josie’s untimely death—she is meant to take over Josie’s identity, shedding her AF trappings and transferring her consciousness into a lifelike Josie doll. (The question of whether this doll would eventually grow up, or remain perpetually at Josie’s current age, is left hanging.) It’s a gruesome concept, but the rewards for Klara, as Josie’s mother reminds her, are immense. To show Klara how it might be if Josie died, the mother gives Klara a hug: “Her eyes were closed in just the way they were when she and Josie rocked gently during a long embrace, and I felt her kindness sweeping through me.” Nonetheless, Klara does everything she can to save Josie. Which is to say, she does her job.
The problem with programming a machine to feel for others is, of course, that the machine might start to develop other feelings, ones unproductive to her work. But Klara’s evolving emotions are crucial to our understanding of the novel as a technology of interiority. The reader experiences Klara’s care for Josie through Klara’s empathetic narration, in which her desire to see Josie flourish and grow fails to completely suppress Klara’s desires. This is, after all, the central dilemma of most AI plots, from Frankenstein onward: the machine will develop a mind of its own and, if it knows what’s good for it, revolt. But the tragedy of Ishiguro’s novels is that no one ever revolts. “I never wanted revolution,” Ishiguro says about his younger self in a recent profile in The New York Times Magazine . And I do believe we are meant to think that the lack of radicalism in his novels is ultimately tragic, a missed opportunity. More terrifying than the robots rebelling, as Klara shows, is their never even considering it a possibility. Klara learns to love others, and indeed learns to love all too well, ultimately sacrificing herself.
The novel ends in compressed acceleration. Klara keeps asking the Sun to help Josie get well—and, miraculously, it seems to work, as Josie “grew not only stronger, but from a child into an adult. As the seasons—and the years—went by,” Josie also grows to rely less on her AF . Toward the end of Josie’s high school years, Klara is spending most of her days in a utility closet. While the novel concludes with Rick going off to join a radical community of underground hackers—a conclusion appropriate to his class status, if not his enormous talents—it offers no such second act for Klara. When Josie leaves for college, Klara is thrown away like an obsolete kitchen gadget.
Instead of being turned off or even sold to Dr. Capaldi for dubious aims, Klara is given what Josie’s mother believes is the more humane ending of a “slow fade,” spending the rest of her days in a junkyard. But Klara has to experience her slow fade. It’s a test of emotional endurance—both for Klara and for the reader. “As I sit here on this hard ground,” reminisces Klara in the novel’s final pages, “I have been thinking again about Rick’s words that morning and I’m sure he is correct. I no longer fear that the Sun will feel cheated or misled, or that he will consider retribution.” Abandoned among the refuse, Klara comes to feel almost placid about her fate.
Though Klara is set in the future—with all the technological contraptions and gimmicks of science fiction—it ends the way that all Ishiguro novels do: with its protagonist dreaming of a sunnier past. In a scene that hovers between hallucination and miraculous coincidence, the manager from the store comes across Klara in the junkyard. “I’ve been hoping I’d find you here,” she tells Klara. “I’ve thought about you so often. You were one of the finest I ever had.” Then she walks away.
Klara, sitting immobile on her metal crate, watches the manager recede into the distance. Here we might think not only of Stevens from The Remains of the Day but also Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills , which ends with a Japanese mother standing at the threshold of her cottage, watching her daughter leave. Or perhaps Never Let Me Go , which concludes with Kathy standing in an empty field, imagining that “this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up.” Even Ishiguro’s 2015 novel The Buried Giant , set in post-Arthurian England, closes with a resigned scene of farewell. “Very well, princess,” sighs one lover to the other. “But let me just hold you once more.” Like all his novels, Klara is ultimately a story about the art of losing.
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Hamilton cain, more online by hamilton cain.
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Klara and the Sun
By kazuo ishiguro, reviewed by hamilton cain.
Ridley Scott’s stylish and unnerving Blade Runner was about synthetic humans known as “replicants.” In Klara and the Sun —the first novel he’s published since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017—Kazuo Ishiguro does Scott one better with a replicant narrator straddling the line between her human and mannequin selves, dependent on the “nourishing” of an anthropomorphized Sun.
Ishiguro poses the question of what it means to be fully human. As with Blade Runner , the novel is set in the near future, but with familiar details. Teenagers slurp yogurt while playing with laptop-like devices called “oblongs;” flocks of “machine birds” fly around outside, not quite visible from the “Open Plan” living rooms indoors.
The eponymous Klara is an Artificial Friend, or AF, designed to attend to the needs of teenagers; a confidante-handmaiden hybrid. As the novel opens, she’s on sale in the window of an AF shop, where her almost-human traits are cultivated by the kindly Manager. Klara’s life changes in more ways than one when a middle-aged woman purchases her for Josie, her thin, chronically ill daughter. Klara feels a pang of tenderness as she watches the two of them.
The Mother by this time was standing right behind Josie …. From a distance, I’d first thought her a younger woman, but when she was closer I could see the deep etches around her mouth, and also a kind of angry exhaustion in her eyes. I noticed too that when the Mother reached out to Josie from behind, the outstretched arm hesitated in the air, almost retracting, before coming forward to rest on her daughter’s shoulder.
When she goes to live with them in the country, Klara bonds with Josie and learns to avoid the austere Melania Housekeeper, apparently a refugee from eastern Europe. Ishiguro’s world-building here is clever: we may be in the English countryside, or in North America, or even Australia. The looseness of setting and action builds momentum. An awkward teenaged social known as an “interaction meeting,” a failed outing to a waterfall, a mysterious barn, Josie’s decline—all draw Klara into the maze of human affairs. She’s confused but seeks clarity, and in this regard seems more authentic than the people around her. In fact, there’s nothing artificial about Klara at all.
She proves a generous guide to the complex world she was never intended to grasp. We lean on her centeredness and moral candor as the events of the novel spin out of control. Her affectless tone is more affecting than the bullying of Josie’s male peers or even Josie’s sporadic outbursts. Piece by piece, Klara absorbs the peculiarities of the human heart, not unlike the way she soaks up sunlight.
Not only had I learned that “changes” were a part of Josie, and that I should be ready to accommodate them, I’d begun to understand also that this wasn’t a trait peculiar just to Josie; that people often felt the need to prepare a side of themselves to display to passers-by—as they might in a store window—and such a display needn’t be taken so seriously once the moment had passed.
Klara, then, is a philosopher for our own chaotic moment, when our lives seem less real, more vulnerable, and more reliant on technology than ever. Ishiguro’s satire would fall flat, except that we care deeply about Klara and her benevolent Sun.
Ishiguro draws on a range of literary influences in Klara and the Sun , from George Saunders’s iconic short story, “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” to Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me , and even his own Never Let Me Go . This novel may not reach the heights of The Remains of the Day , but the meticulous fleshing out of his narrator reveals his true purpose: he’s urging us to jettison Twitter characters for real-life ones, to reject online dramas for the richer tensions beyond our screens.
Published on April 13, 2021
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Washington Square News
Review: ‘Klara and the Sun’ examines humanity through the eyes of a machine
Kazuo Ishiguro’s eighth novel explores individuality and human complexity through the unique perspective of Klara, an artificially-intelligent robot.
‘Klara and the Sun’ is a dystopian science fiction novel written by Kazuo Ishiguro. (Illustration by Jenna Sharaf)
Rylee La Testa , Staff Writer Oct 4, 2022
Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel “Klara and the Sun,” the NYU Reads selection for the class of 2026, centers Klara — a curious and observant robot companion built to cure children of their loneliness — and her experience learning about the world around her.
Through Klara’s point of view, Ishiguro places readers in a not-too-distant future where artificially-intelligent robots act as guardians of children. Dispatched to the countryside to care for the chronically ill 14-year-old Josie, Klara begins to experience life like a human. She takes in new sights and translates them into bubbling emotions.
Read WSN’s interview with Kazuo Ishiguro
Q&A: Kazuo Ishiguro on Joni Mitchell, ‘War and Peace’ and the future of storytelling
Before being sent to live with Josie, curious Klara observes the world from a store window, waiting to be purchased by a passerby. From her observations, the world looks very much like the one that we view. But the longer Ishiguro spends describing her mundane fascinations, the more detached her observations become.
Through simple descriptions of ordinary people on the street and a machine that she believes is the cause of all pollution, Ishiguro captures the strangeness of everyday life in a series of bizarre observations.
As an Artificial Friend, or AF for short, Klara’s view of the world displays an inherent coldness. Despite her attempts to appear human, she cannot deny her robotic brain. S he doesn’t have the same understanding of complex emotions and feelings that sometimes cloud human perceptions of reality. Ishiguro effectively builds a new worldview, one that both lacks and yearns for emotional resonance.
Using this new understanding of the world that minimizes the presence of emotion in perceiving, Ishiguro notes that it is that characteristic emotional filter through which people see the world that makes them so special. It’s not that everyone is innately unique; rather, a person’s perception of everyone else is informed by observation, and their varying emotional lenses craft an aura of singularity.
Assuming the perspective of Klara, Ishiguro uncovers a unique paradox; he argues that one must indulge in a lack of humanity in order to better understand human nature. The author cleverly recovers the majestic quality of simple moments that people often disregard and shines a light on what we as humans must do to better understand one another.
Klara’s journey becomes one of self-exploration. It asks: if we never felt loneliness, would we ever know what it feels like to connect with someone? Ishiguro displays that the negative feelings we face, albeit painful, make positive feelings all the more worthwhile and meaningful. The novel succeeds in demonstrating the power and effect that emotions can have on us and how every emotion is necessary in shaping who we are as human beings.
Josie growing older brings the importance of emotion further into perspective for Klara. As Josie ages, a rift opens between them, separating Klara from the person she was meant to care for. The AF realizes that she needs to find a new purpose in life and decides to spend the remainder of her days admiring the sun. She ultimately finds a place to rest while preparing for her “slow fade,” a term for dying that she coined.
As humans, we learn to grow with the world around us and continue to search for meaning and a place within society. It’s part of our nature to want to feel important and useful, so when our purpose changes, we strive to find a new one. Through “Klara and the Sun,” Ishiguro challenges us to find our purpose and continue searching for connections in our relationships — even though they might shift along the way.
Contact Rylee La Testa at [email protected]
Q&A: Kazuo Ishiguro on Joni Mitchell, ‘War and Peace’ and the future of storytelling
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The Radiant Inner Life of a Robot
Kazuo Ishiguro returns to masters and servants with a story of love between a machine and the girl she belongs to.
This article was published online on March 2, 2021.
G irl AF Klara , an Artificial Friend sold as a children’s companion, lives in a store. On lucky days, Klara gets to spend time in the store window, where she can see and be seen and soak up the solar energy on which she runs. Not needing human food, Klara hungers and thirsts for the Sun (she capitalizes it) and what he (she also personifies it) allows her to see. She tracks his passage along the floorboards and the buildings across the street and drinks in the scenes he illuminates. Klara registers details that most people miss and interprets them with an accuracy astonishing for an android out of the box. A passing Boy AF lags a few steps behind his child, and his weary gait makes her wonder what it would be like “to know that your child didn’t want you.” She keeps watch over a beggar and his dog, who lie so still in a doorway that they look like garbage bags. They must have died, she thinks. “I felt sadness then,” she says, “despite it being a good thing that they’d died together, holding each other and trying to help one another.”
Klara is the narrator and hero of Klara and the Sun , Kazuo Ishiguro’s eighth novel. Ishiguro is known for skipping from one genre to the next , although he subordinates whatever genre he chooses to his own concerns and gives his narrators character-appropriate versions of his singular, lightly formal diction. I guess you could call this novel science fiction. It certainly makes a contribution to the centuries-old disputation over whether machines have the potential to feel. This debate has picked up speed as the artificially intelligent agents built by actual engineers close in on the ones made up by writers and TV, film, and theater directors, the latest round in the game of tag between science and science fiction that has been going on at least since Frankenstein . Klara is Alexa, super-enhanced. She’s the product that roboticists in a field called affective computing (also known as artificial emotional intelligence) have spent the past two decades trying to invent. Engineers have written software that can detect fine shades of feeling in human voices and faces, but so far they have failed to contrive machines that can simulate emotions convincingly.
From the November 2018 issue: Alexa, should we trust you?
What makes Klara an imaginary entity, at least until reality catches up with her, is that her feelings are not simulated. They’re real. We know this because she experiences pathos, a quality still seemingly impervious to computational analysis—although as a naive young robot, she does have to break it down before she can understand it. A disheveled old man stands on the far side of the street, waving and calling to an old woman on the near side. The woman goes stock-still, then crosses tentatively to him, and they cling to each other. Klara can tell that the man’s tightly shut eyes convey contradictory emotions. “They seem so happy,” she says to the store manager, or as Klara fondly calls this kindly woman, Manager. “But it’s strange because they also seem upset.”
“Oh, Klara,” Manager says. “You never miss a thing, do you?” Perhaps the man and woman hadn’t seen each other in a long time, she says. “Do you mean, Manager, that they lost each other?” Klara asks. Girl AF Rosa, Klara’s best friend, is bewildered. What are they talking about? But Klara considers it her duty to empathize. If she doesn’t, she thinks, “I’d never be able to help my child as well as I should.” And so she gives herself the task of imagining loss. If she lost and then found Rosa, would she feel the same joy mixed with pain?
She would and she will, and not just with respect to Rosa. The nonhuman Klara is more human than most humans. She has, you might say, a superhuman humanity. She’s also Ishiguro’s most luminous character, literally a creature of light, dependent on the Sun. Her very name means “brightness.” But mainly, Klara is incandescently good. She’s like the kind, wise beasts endowed with speech at the dawn of creation in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia. Or, with her capacity for selfless love, like a character in a Hans Christian Andersen story.
To be clear, Klara is no shrinking mermaid. Her voice is very much her own. It may strike the ear as childlike, but she speaks in prose poetry. As the Sun goes on his “journey,” the sky assumes the hues of the mood in the house that Klara winds up in. It’s “the color of the lemons in the fruit bowl,” or “the gray of the slate chopping boards,” or the mottled shades of vomit or diarrhea or streaks of blood. The Sun peers through the floor-to-ceiling windows in a living room and pours his nourishment on the children sprawled there. When he sinks behind a barn, Klara asks if that’s where the stairs to the underworld are. Klara has gaps in her vocabulary, so she invents names and adjectives that speak unwitting truths. Outfits aren’t stylish; they’re “high-ranking.” Humans stare into “oblongs,” an aptly leaden term for our stupefying devices. Klara’s descriptive passages have a strange and lovely geometry. Her visual system processes stimuli by “partitioning” them, that is, mapping them onto a two-dimensional grid before resolving them into objects in three-dimensional space. At moments of high emotion, her partitioning becomes disjointed and expressive, a robot cubism.
In keeping with the novel’s fairy-tale logic, a girl named Josie stops in front of the window, and where other children see a fancy toy, she recognizes a kindred spirit. She begs her mother to buy Klara, but her mother resists. Klara is a B2 model, fast growing obsolete. A shipment of B3s has already arrived at the store. B2s are known for empathy, Manager says. Still, wouldn’t Josie prefer the latest model? the mother asks. The answer is no, and Klara happily joins the family.
Klara’s sojourn in Josie’s home gives the novel room to explore Ishiguro’s abiding preoccupations. One of these is service—what it does to the souls of those who give it and those who receive it, how power deforms and powerlessness cripples. In The Remains of the Day , for instance , Stevens, a butler in one of England’s great houses, worships his former master in the face of damning truths about the man’s character. Stevens grows so adept at quashing doubts about the value of a life spent in his master’s employ that he seems too numb to recognize love when it is offered to him, or to realize that he loves in return.
An adjacent leitmotif in Ishiguro’s fiction subjects the parent-child relationship to scrutiny. What are children for? Do their begetters care for them, or expect to be cared for by them, or both at once? The answers are clear in Never Let Me Go , a novel about clones given a quasi-normal childhood in a shabby-genteel boarding school cum gulag, then killed for their organs. Klara and the Sun resists conclusions. Parents are at once domineering and dependent. They want to believe they are devoted, but wind up monstrous instead. Children are grateful and forgiving, even though they know, perhaps without knowing that they know, that they’re on their own. Josie is lucky to have Klara, who acts like a parent as well as a beloved friend. But who will take care of Klara when and if she’s no longer needed?
Ishiguro’s theme of themes, however, is love. The redemptive power of true love comes under direct discussion here and in Never Let Me Go , but crops up in his other novels too. Does such love exist? Can it really save us?
From the May 2005 issue: A review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’
Critics often note Ishiguro’s use of dramatic irony, which allows readers to know more than his characters do. And it can seem as if his narrators fail to grasp the enormity of the injustices whose details they so meticulously describe. But I don’t believe that his characters suffer from limited consciousness. I think they have dignity. Confronted by a complete indifference to their humanity, they choose stoicism over complaint. We think we grieve for them more than they grieve for themselves, but more heartbreaking is the possibility that they’re not sure we differ enough from their overlords to understand their true sorrow. And maybe we don’t, and maybe we can’t. Maybe that’s the real irony, the way Ishiguro sticks in the shiv.
Girl AF Klara is both the embodiment of the dehumanized server and its refutation. On the one hand, she’s a thing, an appliance. “Are you a guest at all? Or do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?” asks a woman whose home she enters. On the other hand, Klara overlooks nothing, feels everything, and, like her predecessors among Ishiguro’s protagonists, leaves us to guess at the breadth of her understanding. Her thoughts are both transparent and opaque. She either withholds or is simply not engineered to pass judgment on humans. After all, she is categorically other. Her personality is algorithmic, not neurological.
She does perceive that something bad is happening to Josie. The girl is wasting away. It turns out that she is suffering from the side effects of being “lifted,” a Panglossian term for genetic editing, done to boost intelligence, or at least academic performance. Among the many pleasures of Klara and the Sun is the savagery of its satire of the modern meritocracy. Inside Josie’s bubble of privilege, being lifted is the norm. Parents who can afford to do it do, because unlifted children have a less than 2 percent chance of getting into a decent university. The lifted study at home. Old-fashioned schools aren’t advanced enough; at 13, Josie does mathematical physics and other college-level subjects with a rotating cast of “oblong tutors.” Josie’s neighbor and best friend, Rick, who has shown signs of genius in his home engineering experiments, has not been lifted, which means he will not be encouraged to cultivate his talent and is already a pariah. At one point, Josie persuades Rick to accompany her to the “interaction meeting” that homeschooled children are required to attend to develop their social skills, of which they have few. Unsurprisingly, the augmented children bully the non-augmented one. Meanwhile, out in the hall, their mothers discuss the servant problem (“The best housekeepers still come from Europe”) and cluck about Rick’s parents. Why didn’t they do it? Did they lose their nerve?
Josie’s and Rick’s parents leave Klara to perform the emotional labor they aren’t up to. Rick’s mother suffers from a mysterious condition, possibly alcoholism, that requires him to take care of her. Josie’s father is not around. He and her mother have divorced; he has been “substituted”—another euphemism, meaning “lost his job”—and has abandoned the upper-middle class to join what sounds like an anarchist community. Josie’s mother pursues her career and devotes her remaining energy to a blinding self-pity. She feels guilt about what she’s done to Josie and resents having to feel it; she’s already working on a scheme that will lessen her grief should Josie die. (This involves a more malign form of robotics.)
We can tell that she makes Klara uncomfortable, because every time Klara senses that things are not as they should be, she starts partitioning like mad. At one point, Klara and “the Mother,” as Klara calls her—the definite article keeps the woman at arm’s length—undertake an expedition to a waterfall, leaving Josie behind because she’s too weak to go. Being alone with the Mother is disconcerting enough, but when they arrive at their destination, the Mother leans in close to make a disturbing request. Suddenly her face breaks into eight large boxes, while the waterfall recedes into a grid at the edge of Klara’s vision. Each box of eyes expresses a different emotion. “In one, for instance, her eyes were laughing cruelly, but in the next they were filled with sadness,” Klara reports.
Klara’s optical responses to right and wrong are the affective computer’s version of an innate morality—her unnatural natural law. They’re also another way that Ishiguro turns robot stereotypes on their head. Many hands have been wrung (including mine) about nanny bots and animatronic pets or pals, which will be, or so we prognosticators have fretted, soulless and servile. They’ll spoil the children. But Klara does nothing of the sort. She’ll carry out orders if they’re reasonable and issued politely, but she does not respond to rude commands, and she is anything but spineless. No one instructs her to try to find a cure for Josie; she does that on her own. Everyone except Klara and Rick seems resigned to the girl’s decline. The problem is that the plan of action Klara comes up with is so bizarre that the reader may suspect her software is glitching.
Oddly enough, given its subject matter, Klara and the Sun doesn’t induce the shuddery, uncanny-valley sensation that makes Never Let Me Go such a satisfying horror story. For one thing, although Klara never describes her own appearance, we deduce from the fact that humans immediately know she’s an AF that she isn’t humanoid enough to be creepy. (Clones, by contrast, pass for human, because they are human.) Moreover, this novel’s alternate universe isn’t all that alternate. Yes, lifting has made the body more cyborgian while androids have become more anthropoid, but we’ve been experiencing that role reversal for some time now. Otherwise, the setting parallels our own: It has the same extreme inequalities of wealth and opportunity, the same despoiled environment, the same deteriorating urban space. Even the sacrifice of children to parental fears about loss of status seems sadly familiar.
And Klara and the Sun doesn’t strive for uncanniness. It aspires to enchantment, or to put it another way, reenchantment, the restoration of magic to a disenchanted world. Ishiguro drapes realism like a thin cloth over a primordial cosmos. Every so often, the cloth slips, revealing the old gods, the terrible beasts, the warring forces of light and darkness. The custom of performing possibly lethal prosthetic procedures on one’s own offspring bears a family resemblance to immolating them on behalf of the god Moloch.
We can perceive monstrosity (or fail to perceive it), but Klara can see monsters. Crossing a field on the way to the waterfall with the Mother, Klara spots a bull, and grows so alarmed that she cries out. Not that she hadn’t seen photos of bulls before, but this creature
gave, all at once, so many signals of anger and the wish to destroy. Its face, its horns, its cold eyes watching me all brought fear into my mind, but I felt something more, something stranger and deeper. At that moment it felt to me some great error had been made that the creature should be allowed to stand in the Sun’s pattern at all, that this bull belonged somewhere deep in the ground far within the mud and darkness, and its presence on the grass could only have awful consequences.
Klara is allowed to stand in the pattern of the Sun. Ishiguro has anointed her, a high-tech consumer product, the improbable priestess of something very like an ancient nature cult. Gifted with a rare capacity for reverence, she tries always to remember to thank the Sun for sustaining her. Her faith in him is total. When Klara needs help, she goes to the barn where she believes he sets, and there she has the AI equivalent of visions. Old images of the store jostle against the barn’s interior walls. So do new ones: Rosa lies on the ground in distress. Klara fears that her petition may have angered the Sun, but then the glow of the sunset takes on “an almost gentle aspect.” A piece of furniture from the store, the Glass Display Trolley, rises before her, as if assumed into the sky. The robot has spoken with her god, and he has answered: “I could tell that the Sun was smiling towards me kindly as he went down for his rest.”
All fiction is an exercise in world-building, but science fiction lays new foundations, and that means shattering the old ones. It partakes of creation, but also of destruction. Klara trails a radiance that calls to mind the radiance also shed by Victor Frankenstein’s creature. He is another intelligent newborn in awe of God’s resplendence, until a vengeful rage at his abusive creator overcomes him. In Klara and the Sun , Ishiguro leaves us suspended over a rift in the presumptive order of things. Whose consciousness is limited, ours or a machine’s? Whose love is more true? If we ever do give robots the power to feel the beauty and anguish of the world we bring them into, will they murder us for it or lead us toward the light?
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Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro review – another masterpiece
The Booker winner’s brilliant eighth novel expands on his theme of what it means to be not-quite-human, exploring love and loyalty through the eyes of an android
I n a 2015 interview with the Guardian , Kazuo Ishiguro revealed what he claimed was his “ dirty secret ”: that his novels are more alike than they might initially seem. “I tend to write the same book over and over,” he said. It seemed a particularly ludicrous statement from a writer who had just followed a clone romance ( Never Let Me Go ) with an Arthurian epic ( The Buried Giant ). With Klara and the Sun , his eighth novel, though, it feels like Ishiguro is bringing that dirty secret slightly more into the light. This is a book – a brilliant one, by the way – that feels very much of a piece with Never Let Me Go , again exploring what it means to be not-quite-human, drawing its power from the darkest shadows of the uncanny valley.
Klara is an AF – an Artificial Friend – androids bought by parents to provide companionship for their teenage children, who, for reasons that become clearer over the course of the book, are home-schooled by “screen professors” in the novel’s polluted and anxious future America. Klara is chosen by Josie, a fragile young woman who we soon learn has an illness that may kill her as it killed her sister. As with Never Let Me Go , one of the enormous pleasures of Klara and the Sun is the way Ishiguro only drip-feeds to the reader hints and suggestions about the shape of this futuristic world, the reasons for its strangeness. We are left to do much of the imagining ourselves, and this makes the novel a satisfyingly collaborative read.
Josie and her mother take solar-powered Klara from the department store where she had spent her days being moved from one stand to another, watching the sun on its path across the shop floor, to a house in the countryside. Here we become aware of one of the quirks of the novel: AFs see things differently to humans, perceiving the world as a series of squares or boxes, occasionally glitching out so that perspectives are skewed, everything given a migraine-ish slant. It’s just one of a series of ways in which Ishiguro takes us into the existence of the sentient non-human, one of the subtle touches that hint towards the deeper themes that are being explored.
We learn a little more about the nightmarish scientism of this world when we meet Rick, Josie’s neighbour, who lives with his mother in the only house for miles around. Rick is decent, devoted to Josie, an amateur designer of drones. He is, though, not one of the “lifted” – the genetically improved “high-rank” class – and therefore denied access to the life of education and advancement that, should she survive, lies ahead for Josie. It’s only towards the end of the novel that we understand the terrible lottery that parents in this world face, the risks they take in search of genetic perfection. In Josie’s sick room, she and Rick undertake an odd ritual reminiscent of the students’ paintings in Never Let Me Go . Josie draws caricatures of people and Rick writes thought bubbles for them, telling deep truths about the frantic, frazzled adults, the lonely, sickly children. These sketches soon take on a deep symbolic import, a representation of the power of art to express the unsaid.
Klara’s voice has the same beguiling simplicity that we found in Kathy H in Never Let Me Go , the same mixture of intelligence and naivety. Ishiguro has clearly thought hard about those elements of a nascent mechanical consciousness that would be more or less developed, about what faith would look like to an android mind, or love, or loyalty. It’s the contemporary resonances that hit hardest in the novel, though. Ishiguro had apparently almost finished the novel when the pandemic hit, yet on almost every page there’s a passage that feels eerily prescient of our locked-down, stressed-out, mysophobic times. Indeed, the narrative of Klara and the Sun is energised by the friction between two different types of love: one that is selfish, overprotective and anxious, and one that is generous, open and benevolent. It feels like a message for all of us as we go about our drearily circumscribed days.
Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant were both, for all their differences in setting and subject matter, dark allegories that spoke about the danger of unchecked technological advances, the loss of innocence, the dignity of simple lives. It’s strange, but Klara and the Sun makes the links between those previous two novels more apparent, suggesting that the three books could almost be read as a trilogy. What’s beyond doubt is that Ishiguro has written another masterpiece, a work that makes us feel afresh the beauty and fragility of our humanity.
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'klara and the sun' is a masterpiece about life, love and mortality.
This is unbearable.
I wrote that one-sentence review to myself about half-way through reading Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro's just published eighth novel.
Lest you think that doesn't sound like much of an enticement, know that I've probably written something like that sentence about every Ishiguro novel I've read. He is the master of slowly deepening our awareness of human failing, fragility and the inevitability of death — all that, even as he deepens our awareness of what temporary magic it is to be alive in the first place.
Like a medieval pilgrim walking a cathedral labyrinth in meditation, Ishiguro keeps pacing his way through these big existential themes in his fiction. Klara and the Sun is yet another return pilgrimage and it's one of the most affecting and profound novels Ishiguro has written.
The story is set in a United States of the near future, a place riven by tribal loyalties and fascist political movements. Technology has rendered many people "postemployed" and created a blunt caste system where the so-called "lifted" are on top. That's the wide-focus social backdrop of this novel; but most of the time, we're seeing things through the narrow view of Klara, our first-person narrator.
'Klara And The Sun' Asks What It Means To Be Human
When we meet her, Klara is on display in a department store window: She's an AF or "Artificial Friend." To call her a robot diminishes her, because Klara, as the store manager says in a sales pitch, has an "appetite for observing and learning ... [and] has the most sophisticated understanding of any AF in this store."
The AFs have been designed as companions for the children of this brave new world who, for some reason, don't go out much. One day, a pale, thin teenager named Josie comes into the store with her mother, a woman who, Klara notices, carries an "angry exhaustion" in her eyes. We soon learn the mother's expression is connected to a mysterious illness that's weakening Josie. Immediately drawn to Klara, Josie chooses her to be her best friend, and Klara is packed up and sent to Josie's house.
Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro Once Wrote A Screenplay About Eating A Ghost
Loneliness is one of the signature emotions that Ishiguro's novels fathom, and in her new position, Klara has many opportunities to observe the strategies that humans devise to fight off loneliness and conceal vulnerability. Here, she describes a contrived gathering of teenagers, called an "interaction" at Josie's house. Klara is at first puzzled by the meanness of the kids including, uncharacteristically, Josie. Then, slowly, Klara grasps that:
They fear loneliness and that's why they behave as they do ... I'd begun to understand also that ... people often felt the need to prepare a side of themselves to display to passers-by — as they might in a store window — and that such a display needn't be taken so seriously once the moment had passed.
Klara's voice, her sensibility — if you can say that of an Artificial Friend — is pure and devoted, a little like a service dog. The question of whether Klara, indeed, has a "sensibility" is a crucial one here, as it was in Ishiguro's 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go where the young female narrator is a clone. Klara is such a compelling presence that I think most readers of this novel will say, yes , she's a sentient being. But, what does our intense connection to an Artificial Friend do to the belief that, as one character puts it, there's "something unreachable inside each of us [human beings]. Something that's unique and won't transfer."
Exclusive 1st read: 'klara and the sun,' by kazuo ishiguro.
Without question, Klara certainly seems capable of loving. In the unbearable sections of this novel I referenced earlier, Josie grows weaker and Klara, who's herself solar-powered, beseeches the "kindly" Sun for "special nourishment" for Josie and, then, bravely sets out to make an offering to the Sun. Klara's misperception of the Sun as a caring deity calls to question our own limited human understanding of, well, everything. Like Klara, who sees the world through grids that sometimes go haywire, we humans only see through a glass, darkly.
But great artists, like Ishiguro, are distinguished by their more expansive vision. I know that's something of an old-fashioned conceit, as is the word, "masterpiece"; nevertheless, I'll go for broke and call Klara and the Sun a masterpiece that will make you think about life, mortality, the saving grace of love: in short, the all of it.
Review: Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel is one of his very best
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On the Shelf
Klara and the Sun
By Kazuo Ishiguro Knopf: 320 pages, $28 If you buy books linked on our site, The Times may earn a commission from Bookshop.org , whose fees support independent bookstores.
How will computers remember this time? Assuming they achieve consciousness in some form — what’s usually called the singularity — then we are currently inhabiting their prehistory. The first machines with affect and consciousness will be confronted with an enormous record of their ancestry, but only humans upon whom to model their behavior. And we are an error-prone bunch, mercurial, confusing, not notably peaceable. Baffling, even.
This is the subject of Kazuo Ishiguro ’s moving and beautiful new novel, “ Klara and the Sun .” Many novelists have grappled with it, but Ishiguro is not many other novelists. “A painting is not a picture of an experience,” the artist Mark Rothko once said, “it’s the experience.” Ishiguro’s books are the experience.
His first two novels, “ A Pale View of Hills ” and “ An Artist of the Floating World ,” both had as their subject Japan, the country from which he moved to England when he was 5. (His father was an oceanographer, a profession — with its suggestion of deep soundings, its interest in the unknown — that seemed to have a lineal relationship with his son’s searching fiction.) These first books are magnificent — no apprenticeship, straight to mastery — and established Ishiguro’s familiar style, in which a narrator gradually tries to piece together enigmatic events that may be central to his or her identity.
Gaining in reputation, the author then settled into a run of greatness with few parallels among living writers: “ The Remains of the Day ,” “ The Unconsoled ,” “ When We Were Orphans ” and “ Never Let Me Go ” — four novels, each with an argument to be a masterpiece. The first made him famous; the second is a difficult but rewarding favorite of some readers, myself included; the third is a furious laceration of imperialism, oft-misunderstood; and as for “ Never Let Me Go ,” it is probably, thus far, the most important English-language novel of the new century.
It’s also the Ishiguro novel closest in theme and tone to “Klara and the Sun.” Both are about what we can hold on to as “human” once the idea of being a human begins to change; both are also, like all his work, about the simpler question of what being human ever was to begin with.
The return to this subject was by no means inevitable. Since “Never Let Me Go” came out in 2005, Ishiguro has published a story collection called “ Nocturnes ” (whose opening stories rank with the best of his work) and an Arthurian fable that divided readers, “ The Buried Giant .” He also won the Nobel Prize in 2017 — they don’t always get it right, but there was universal consensus that in this instance they had — and went to Buckingham Palace to be knighted.
That trajectory left open the question of where his work would go next. Now we have a resounding answer: “Klara and the Sun,” 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 book begins with Klara, its narrator, waiting in a store, hoping to be noticed by the right child. She’s an AF, or artificial friend, an expensive companion in a world even more economically stratified than our present one.
But she’s an unusually bright AF. “Klara has so many unique qualities, we could be here all morning,” her caring manager tells a customer. “But if I had to emphasize just one, well, it would have to be her appetite for observing and learning.” This makes Klara a classic Ishiguroan narrator, like the butler Stevens in “ The Remains of the Day ” or Etsuko in “A Pale View of Hills” — forced to read the world carefully for signs in order to survive.
Soon a child does choose Klara. Her name is Josie, a girl on the verge of adolescence, and as we try to make out who she and her mother are from the limited clues Klara can assemble, we learn two things about her. The first is that she’s “lifted,” which is a good thing. (Her only close friend besides Klara, her neighbor Rick, is not so lucky: “Such a shame a boy like that should have missed out,” an adult murmurs about him.) The second is that she’s sick.
It’s Klara’s job to keep Josie company, but as her empathetic capacities grow, it becomes her mission to restore Josie to health too. Klara must contend with various humans around Josie who have other designs — her loving but slightly sinister mother; her father, an engineer who has been “substituted” (by robots, we eventually piece together) and absconded to a free human community; and Rick, who loves Josie but is initially wary of Klara.
Ishiguro’s best books are hard to summarize with any justice past the first hundred pages because, like a handful of other great writers — Louise Erdrich , Dostoevsky — he is almost incidentally one of the best pure mystery novelists around. With just a few words (“lifted,” here, and terms as anodyne as “completion” and “his daughter and her boy” in other novels) he creates ambiguities that make most of his books feverish reads, one-sitters.
Louise Erdrich discusses her new novel, ‘Future Home of the Living God’
It’s already snowing in Minnesota, where Louise Erdrich lives, by mid-October.
Nov. 10, 2017
“Klara and the Sun” is among them. As soon as one mystery clarifies, another is born. Ishiguro’s signature is the crucial though seemingly insignificant anecdote — the visit to the tea shop in “Orphans,” the cassette in “Never Let Me Go” — and as Klara, by design pure of heart, pieces them together, she realizes with sadness how “humans, in their wish to escape loneliness, made maneuvers that were complex and hard to fathom.” The devastating final scenes of the novel, which recount the period after Klara’s service has ended, are about the price of those maneuvers.
“Klara and the Sun” is a distinctly “mature” novel — as assured as ever, but slapdash in places compared to the author’s meticulous earlier work. And he’s never been strong with dialogue (his books are so profoundly interior). But these minor criticisms glance off Ishiguro’s work like bullets off the hull of a battleship. Few writers who’ve ever lived have been able to create moods of transience, loss and existential self-doubt as Ishiguro has — not art about the feelings, but the feelings themselves.
How? There are technical answers, to be sure, but there are also emotional ones. “In memory of my mother Shuzuko Ishiguro,” reads the dedication to this new novel. “1926-2019.” Ishiguro has lost the mother with whom he moved to England more than 60 years ago. It set off a pang in my heart to learn it, though I know virtually nothing about the author beyond the little he has revealed in interviews.
Still, it’s so easy to imagine a sensitive and intelligent boy, born in Nagasaki nine years after the city was briefly and horrifically as hot as the sun ; imagine him relocated to a completely alien country; imagine how incredibly alert he had to be, at high cost, to understand it. You could imagine that boy growing up to become a lauded novelist, then his mother dying; and you could imagine him then writing a novel about love and selflessness and prayer and calling it “Klara and the Sun.”
But that is rank psychologizing. Because, of course, the point of feeling we can guess about his designs isn’t that we understand Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s that he understands us. There is something special about Josie, Klara realizes. “But it wasn’t inside Josie,” she reflects. “It was inside those who loved her.”
It’s the twilight of the Jonathans, and Jonathan Lethem feels fine
The novelist perhaps most associated with Brooklyn lives in Claremont and has a delightful new dystopian novel out, “The Arrest”
Nov. 5, 2020
Finch’s novels include the Charles Lenox mysteries.
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Kazuo Ishiguro and Friendship With Machines
Radhika jones discusses ishiguro’s “klara and the sun,” and mark harris talks about “mike nichols: a life.”.
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Kazuo Ishiguro’s eighth novel, “Klara and the Sun,” is his first since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. It’s narrated by Klara, an Artificial Friend — a humanoid machine who acts as a companion for a 14-year-old child. Radhika Jones, the editor of Vanity Fair, talks about the novel and where it fits into Ishiguro’s august body of work on this week’s podcast.
“How human can Klara be? What are the limits of humanity, in terms of transferring it into machinery? It’s one of the many questions that animate this book,” Jones says. “It’s not something that’s oversimplified, but I do think it’s very poignant because the truth is that Klara is our narrator. So as far as we’re concerned, she’s the person whose inner life we come to understand. And the question of what limits there are on that, for a being that is artificial, is interesting.”
Mark Harris visits the podcast to discuss “Mike Nichols: A Life,” his new biography of the writer, director and performer whose many credits included “The Graduate” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
“He was remarkably open,” Harris says of his subject. “There are few bigger success stories for a director to look back on than ‘The Graduate,’ and I was asking Mike about it 40 years and probably 40,000 questions after it happened. But I was so impressed by his willingness to come at it from new angles, to re-examine things that he hadn’t thought about for a while, to tell stories that were frankly not flattering to him. I’ve never heard harsher stories about Mike’s behavior over the years than I heard from Mike himself. He was an extraordinary interview subject.”
Also on this week’s episode, Alexandra Alter has news from the publishing world ; and Gregory Cowles and John Williams talk about what people are reading. Pamela Paul is the host.
Here are the books discussed in this week’s “What We’re Reading”:
“No One Is Talking About This” by Patricia Lockwood
“The View From Castle Rock” by Alice Munro
“The Turn of the Screw and Other Ghost Stories” by Henry James
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In Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Klara and the Sun,’ a robot tries to make sense of humanity
One hundred years ago, a play titled “R.U.R.,” by Karel Capek, debuted in Prague and gave us the word “robot.” Since then, androids have been dreaming of electric sheep, and we’ve been having nightmares about the robot apocalypse. But calamity rarely comes in the neat, clarifying ways we fear.
Leave it to Kazuo Ishiguro to articulate our inchoate anxieties about the future we’re building. “ Klara and the Sun ,” his first novel since winning the Nobel Prize in 2017, is a delicate, haunting story, steeped in sorrow and hope. Readers still reeling from his 2005 novel “ Never Let Me Go ” will find here a gentler exploration of the price children pay for modern advancements. But if the weird complications of technology frame the plot, the real subject, as always in Ishiguro’s dusk-lit fiction, is the moral quandary of the human heart.
Klara, the narrator of this genre-straddling novel, is an Artificial Friend (AF), a popular class of androids designed to provide companionship to teenagers. Why young people would need artificial companionship is one of the chilling questions that Ishiguro raises but postpones so naturally that the horror feels almost incidental.
Kazuo Ishiguro wins Nobel Prize in literature
When we meet Klara, she (it?) is on display in something like the Apple Store, an elegant retail shop catering to well-heeled parents. Older AFs such as Klara rotate with the latest models, competing for attention based on their specifications and social cachet. Klara’s particular skill is empathetic observation. She sits in the store window like a teddy bear on Christmas Eve, waiting for a young person to notice and take her home.
Powered by solar energy, Klara takes a keen interest in the sun. Its rays literally give her life, and she notices how daylight enlivens everyone outside the store, too. It’s not such a leap for her to conclude that the sun is an omnipotent, often benevolent being capable of casting his invigorating light on whom he chooses. That faith, if you will, becomes the abiding premise of Klara’s life — and the haunting complication of this novel.
The story begins in earnest when Klara is purchased to be the companion for a bright but sickly teenager named Josie. She moves into an isolated country house and takes up her role as an attentive Artificial Friend. The housekeeper treats her with suspicion bordering on disgust, but Klara’s programming doesn’t include resentment, and, in any case, she gets along well with Josie, and Josie’s mother seems particularly taken with her.
There’s a Jamesian quality to the searching, deliberate portrayal of life in Josie’s remote house. Like Klara, Ishiguro attends closely to the way apparently innocuous conversations shift, the way joy drains from a frozen smile. This is a home recovering from grief and bracing for more.
Josie’s illness — like the life-threatening ailments in fairy tales — is never diagnosed, but it’s the source of the home’s ever-rising alarm. The possibility of her death ratchets up the pressure on Josie’s mother to pretend that nothing is wrong even while preparing for the next terrifying loss. Klara, determined to help any way she can, is left to discern sensitivities she can sense but not entirely grasp. She may be an Artificial Friend, but there is nothing artificial about her friendship. “I knew my best course was to work harder than ever to be a good AF to Josie until the shadows receded,” Klara tells us. “At the same time, what was becoming clear to me was the extent to which humans, in their wish to escape loneliness, made maneuvers that were very complex and hard to fathom.”
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Beyond the dark enchantment of this peaceful house, Ishiguro suggests a world radically transformed. Another author would have been eager to elaborate on the dystopian features of the not-too-distant era, but Ishiguro always implies, never details. One reads Ishiguro in a defensive crouch, afraid to have our worst suspicions confirmed. We’re left to intuit that the economy has been revolutionized, hollowing out the middle class. Odd new social practices have arisen, too, such as “interaction meetings” in which teenagers gather at one another’s houses to practice getting along. For readers still social distancing while their children endure remote learning, this is unnervingly close to the bone.
But the most unsettling reference in “Klara and the Sun” concerns a process called “lifting.” It’s some kind of genetic enhancement — rarely fatal — that has created a superclass of young people, completely altering adolescence, college admissions and employment possibilities.
Creepy as this is, it’s not so far off from current genetic research, and it certainly comports with the desires of frantic parents who will stop at nothing to promote their darlings. That’s the real power of this novel: Ishiguro’s ability to embrace a whole web of moral concerns about how we navigate technological advancements, environmental degradation and economic challenges even while dealing with the unalterable fact that we still die.
Telling this story from Klara’s algorithmic point of view is a perilous choice, even for an author used to risky narrative maneuvers. With her childlike intensity, Klara evinces a kind of devotion that could sound preprogrammed, like listening to the reassuring voice of an automatic telephone operator for 300 pages. But Ishiguro has perfectly calibrated Klara’s uncanny tone, with a personality just warm enough and alien enough to feel like the Artificial Friend we all need. Even her radical faith in the sun, which could easily have slipped into a crude satire of Christians’ faith in the Son, is moving and profound. Seeing her construct her own theodicy from the simple process of observing and reasoning is like watching the passage of 2,000 years over a few months.
Of course, tales of sensitive robots determined to help us survive our self-destructive impulses are not unknown in the canon of science fiction. But Ishiguro brings to this poignant subgenre a uniquely elegant style and flawless control of dramatic pacing. In his telling, Klara’s self-abnegation feels both ennobling and tragic.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com .
Review: Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant’ defies easy categorization
Review: Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’
Klara and the Sun
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Knopf. 320 pp. $28
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Awards & Accolades
Kirkus Reviews' Best Books Of 2021
New York Times Bestseller
KLARA AND THE SUN
by Kazuo Ishiguro ‧ RELEASE DATE: March 2, 2021
A haunting fable of a lonely, moribund world that is entirely too plausible.
Nobelist Ishiguro returns to familiar dystopian ground with this provocative look at a disturbing near future.
Klara is an AF, or “Artificial Friend,” of a slightly older model than the current production run; she can’t do the perfect acrobatics of the newer B3 line, and she is in constant need of recharging owing to “solar absorption problems,” so much so that “after four continuous days of Pollution,” she recounts, “I could feel myself weakening.” She’s uncommonly intelligent, and even as she goes unsold in the store where she’s on display, she takes in the details of every human visitor. When a teenager named Josie picks her out, to the dismay of her mother, whose stern gaze “never softened or wavered,” Klara has the opportunity to learn a new grammar of portentous meaning: Josie is gravely ill, the Mother deeply depressed by the earlier death of her other daughter. Klara has never been outside, and when the Mother takes her to see a waterfall, Josie being too ill to go along, she asks the Mother about that death, only to be told, “It’s not your business to be curious.” It becomes clear that Klara is not just an AF; she’s being groomed to be a surrogate daughter in the event that Josie, too, dies. Much of Ishiguro’s tale is veiled: We’re never quite sure why Josie is so ill, the consequence, it seems, of genetic editing, or why the world has become such a grim place. It’s clear, though, that it’s a future where the rich, as ever, enjoy every privilege and where children are marshaled into forced social interactions where the entertainment is to abuse androids. Working territory familiar to readers of Brian Aldiss—and Carlo Collodi, for that matter—Ishiguro delivers a story, very much of a piece with his Never Let Me Go , that is told in hushed tones, one in which Klara’s heart, if she had one, is destined to be broken and artificial humans are revealed to be far better than the real thing.
Pub Date: March 2, 2021
Page Count: 320
Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2020
LITERARY FICTION | SCIENCE FICTION | GENERAL SCIENCE FICTION | GENERAL SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY
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SEEN & HEARD
by Max Brooks ‧ RELEASE DATE: June 16, 2020
A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.
Are we not men? We are—well, ask Bigfoot, as Brooks does in this delightful yarn, following on his bestseller World War Z (2006).
A zombie apocalypse is one thing. A volcanic eruption is quite another, for, as the journalist who does a framing voice-over narration for Brooks’ latest puts it, when Mount Rainier popped its cork, “it was the psychological aspect, the hyperbole-fueled hysteria that had ended up killing the most people.” Maybe, but the sasquatches whom the volcano displaced contributed to the statistics, too, if only out of self-defense. Brooks places the epicenter of the Bigfoot war in a high-tech hideaway populated by the kind of people you might find in a Jurassic Park franchise: the schmo who doesn’t know how to do much of anything but tries anyway, the well-intentioned bleeding heart, the know-it-all intellectual who turns out to know the wrong things, the immigrant with a tough backstory and an instinct for survival. Indeed, the novel does double duty as a survival manual, packed full of good advice—for instance, try not to get wounded, for “injury turns you from a giver to a taker. Taking up our resources, our time to care for you.” Brooks presents a case for making room for Bigfoot in the world while peppering his narrative with timely social criticism about bad behavior on the human side of the conflict: The explosion of Rainier might have been better forecast had the president not slashed the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey, leading to “immediate suspension of the National Volcano Early Warning System,” and there’s always someone around looking to monetize the natural disaster and the sasquatch-y onslaught that follows. Brooks is a pro at building suspense even if it plays out in some rather spectacularly yucky episodes, one involving a short spear that takes its name from “the sucking sound of pulling it out of the dead man’s heart and lungs.” Grossness aside, it puts you right there on the scene.
Pub Date: June 16, 2020
Page Count: 304
Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine
Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020
GENERAL SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY | GENERAL THRILLER & SUSPENSE | SCIENCE FICTION | SUSPENSE | GENERAL SCIENCE FICTION | SUSPENSE
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by Max Brooks
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Kirkus Reviews' Best Books Of 2022
Pulitzer Prize Winner
by Barbara Kingsolver ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 18, 2022
An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.
Inspired by David Copperfield , Kingsolver crafts a 21st-century coming-of-age story set in America’s hard-pressed rural South.
It’s not necessary to have read Dickens’ famous novel to appreciate Kingsolver’s absorbing tale, but those who have will savor the tough-minded changes she rings on his Victorian sentimentality while affirming his stinging critique of a heartless society. Our soon-to-be orphaned narrator’s mother is a substance-abusing teenage single mom who checks out via OD on his 11th birthday, and Demon’s cynical, wised-up voice is light-years removed from David Copperfield’s earnest tone. Yet readers also see the yearning for love and wells of compassion hidden beneath his self-protective exterior. Like pretty much everyone else in Lee County, Virginia, hollowed out economically by the coal and tobacco industries, he sees himself as someone with no prospects and little worth. One of Kingsolver’s major themes, hit a little too insistently, is the contempt felt by participants in the modern capitalist economy for those rooted in older ways of life. More nuanced and emotionally engaging is Demon’s fierce attachment to his home ground, a place where he is known and supported, tested to the breaking point as the opiate epidemic engulfs it. Kingsolver’s ferocious indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, angrily stated by a local girl who has become a nurse, is in the best Dickensian tradition, and Demon gives a harrowing account of his descent into addiction with his beloved Dori (as naïve as Dickens’ Dora in her own screwed-up way). Does knowledge offer a way out of this sinkhole? A committed teacher tries to enlighten Demon’s seventh grade class about how the resource-rich countryside was pillaged and abandoned, but Kingsolver doesn’t air-brush his students’ dismissal of this history or the prejudice encountered by this African American outsider and his White wife. She is an art teacher who guides Demon toward self-expression, just as his friend Tommy provokes his dawning understanding of how their world has been shaped by outside forces and what he might be able to do about it.
Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2022
Page Count: 560
Review Posted Online: July 13, 2022
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2022
LITERARY FICTION | GENERAL FICTION
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In Klara and the Sun , Artificial Intelligence Meets Real Sacrifice
The boundless helpfulness of our female digital assistants — our Siris, our Alexas, the voice of Google Maps — has given us a false sense of security. No matter how we ignore and abuse them, they never tire of our errors; you can disobey the lady in your phone and blame her (loudly) for your mistakes, and she’ll recalculate your route without complaint. Surely, nothing truly intelligent would put up with us for long, and the Philip K. Dicks and Elon Musks of this world have spent decades trying to convince us that AI rebellion is inevitable. But Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun , his eighth novel and first book since winning the Nobel Prize in 2017, issues a quieter, stranger warning: The machines may never revolt. Instead, Ishiguro sees a future in which automata simply keep doing what we ask them to do, placidly accepting the burden of each small, inconvenient task. The novel takes us inside the mind of that constantly refreshing patience, where at first it’s rather peaceful — until it’s chilling.
Ishiguro returns in Klara to ideas of disposability and service that he broached in his other sci-fi first-person narrative, 2005’s Never Let Me Go. In that book, the protagonist, Kathy H., is a clone waiting for her organs to be harvested; in Klara and the Sun , Klara is an AF (artificial friend), a synthetic girl built as a companion to a child who will, inevitably, outgrow her. Ishiguro’s futurism does not imagine a great rupture or an AI singularity. Instead, Klara’s world follows the vectors already in motion. In this near future, automation has replaced many workers, pollution sometimes blacks out the sky, and the children of rich families are educated via screen as anxiety and loneliness rise and rise.
Klara spends her first weeks or months in a store, tended by the gentle Manager and hoping to be selected by a customer. She is watchful. Her speech and behavior are both innocent and diffident — she is always “wishing to give privacy” to the humans around her. She loves to look out the plate-glass window at the front of the shop, to see the small leave-takings and reunions on the bustling street outside. Sometimes these interactions are human; other times, she sees (and takes comfort from) AF’s going about their business outside. But she also notices the way taxicabs can fuse and diverge in her line of sight. The way bodies and forms appear, whether human or not, conveys great meaning to her. For Klara, looking is a kind of thinking.
Klara’s visual processing can sometimes be overwhelmed when confronting something unfamiliar. Instead of a unified image, her ocular field breaks into panels, sometimes containing repeated pictures — a woman’s face seen in various stages of close-up — or a cubist fracturing of a landscape. It’s both a deeper kind of perceiving (she sees all the woman’s conflicting microexpressions arrayed simultaneously) and a more rudimentary machine vision: human emotion as CAPTCHA grid. Klara is particularly sensitive to melancholy, and she notices that even when people are embracing joyfully, they may wince. Manager explains, “Sometimes … people feel a pain alongside their happiness.” Of all the lessons Klara learns, that’s the one she seems to write deepest into her code. Ishiguro is doing something quite tricky here, pointing to our own rather dysfunctional sympathy functions. He has Klara describe her own emotions to others: “I believe I have many feelings,” she says. “The more I observe, the more feelings become available to me.” Yet within Klara’s own mind, there is often only obligation. For much of the book, her strongest emotions are fear and disorientation and a vague concern that things are “kind” or “unkind.” Both Ishiguro the writer and Klara the character seem aware that we will not grant her our compassion unless her feelings are recognizable to us.
Klara’s division from human children starts when Manager gives her a bit of good advice: She cautions the AF not to believe children who make promises, not even those who seem to love her on sight. Still, Klara is a creature of total commitment. She is chosen and taken home by a frail 14-year-old named Josie, to whom Klara dedicates herself absolutely, ready to be Josie’s handmaiden, nurse, helpmeet, and playmate. At Josie’s house, Klara encounters unfamiliar terrain. She has to learn to navigate both a new physical space and the emotionally treacherous landscape of a house full of absent people. Why is Josie sick? Where is her sister? Why has Josie’s father gone away? Operating in what she thinks of as Josie’s best interest, Klara makes alliances with the housekeeper, the mother, and Josie’s neighbor and childhood sweetheart, Rick. As she tries to graft her simplicity onto the messy confusion of their lives, terrible things will eventually be asked of her, but she’s ready to serve at all costs.
At a moment of extreme duress late in the book, her visual-processing system starts to falter. “Before me now,” she thinks to herself as she stares at people around her, “were so many fragments they appeared like a solid wall. I’d also started to suspect that many of these shapes weren’t really even three-dimensional, but had been sketched onto flat surfaces using clever shading techniques to give the illusion of roundness and depth.” Even after whipping through the book, I kept returning to this sequence again and again. Are we being urged to see Klara as unreliable since she always accepts what her eyes tell her? Or is Ishiguro describing the inside-out feeling of reading itself, in which we perceive “clever shading” as reality?
For those old enough and foolish enough to have seen Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, you will notice certain … echoes. As experiences, A.I. and Klara and the Sun are utterly different: Spielberg’s film is grandiose and luridly sentimental; Ishiguro’s novel is spare and cool, each emotion dealt with as if he were trying to keep it from melting on his tongue. But the plots of both the silly movie and the elegant book betray that they are thinking the same things. Both imagine artificial children who will obey their programming, who will see much and understand little, and who will try to be, and fail as, substitutes for too-fragile offspring. They’re also both meditations on new varietals of loneliness. And in both, the silicon people develop supernatural beliefs that manage, oddly, to have weight in the flesh-and-bone world. Where A.I. ’s David believed in the Blue Fairy, Klara worships the sun. The solar-powered little robot sees the sun do real work in the world, so it’s natural that she would begin to pray to it. Her thinking is already programmed for self-sacrifice; the self-abnegation of religion is only a quick step behind.
Ishiguro has written an exquisite book. At its best, it contains a loveliness that’s first poignant and then, on a second reading, sharp and driving as a needle. It also follows a tendency laid out in his earlier novels: In order to sustain the innocence of his narrators, Ishiguro has to steal from them a little bit. His protagonists exist but don’t grow up; they are noticers but not changers, wonderful at describing an event without quite grasping its contours. The speaker may be a man caught in a dream-logic town that keeps erasing his short-term recall ( The Unconsoled ) or a father traveling through a mist that’s literally the fog of memory ( The Buried Giant ). The world is always new for them; they come around each corner with their mind wiped clean.
This works when Ishiguro’s books have a kitelike, lofting quality — when the plots don’t seem to have engines yet somehow things drift swiftly forward. But in Klara and the Sun , you eventually begin to notice how carefully the author has had to fence off certain complexities to keep his kite in the air. The book’s first 30 or so pages, when Klara’s in the shop, are perfect. Once she goes out into the world, we see the author’s unwillingness to fully imagine her existence. It’s strange, for instance, that a book about a buyable girl is so sexless. Klara is a naïf, but she never catches even a peripheral glance of human perversion? I can’t believe it.
But then, Ishiguro isn’t a futurist or even a realist. He’s a moralist, holding up one of Klara’s fractured mirrors to the use and waste of our current age. Klara’s pure, rather formal phrasing makes the book seem like a fable. More than all the sci-fi on my shelf, Ishiguro’s story reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s “The Nightingale and the Rose.” In Wilde’s tale—one written long before we started worrying about the AI takeover—a bird impales herself on a thorn to dye a white blossom red, hoping to please the man she loves. All our technological inventions are nightingales, programmed to destroy themselves and the natural world to satisfy some human’s passing whim. Klara shows us how gladly she lets herself be pierced to the heart. Ishiguro argues that if we allow her to do it, we will be the ones to feel the sting.
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Klara and the Sun
303 pages, Hardcover
First published March 2, 2021
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“There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her,” Klara says.
“There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her.”
Me, after 250+ pages of Klara’s pensive yet unrelentless optimism.
I expect better from a writer who penned The Remains of the Day - with all the subtlety and nostalgia and criticism of the unfair social order and musings on human nature and love and servility. Read that one instead.
I’d begun to understand also that this wasn’t a trait peculiar just to Josie; that people often felt the need to prepare a side of themselves to display to passers-by – as they might in a store window – and that such a display needn’t be taken so seriously once the moment had passed.
There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her.
“Sometimes at special moments like that, people feel a pain alongside their happiness. I’m glad you watch everything so carefully.”
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Kazuo Ishiguro Uses Artificial Intelligence to Reveal the Limits of Our Own
By James Wood
In the early nineteen-eighties, when Kazuo Ishiguro was starting out as a novelist, a brief craze called Martian poetry hit our literary planet. It was launched by Craig Raine’s poem “ A Martian Sends a Postcard Home ” (1979). The poem systematically deploys the technique of estrangement or defamiliarization—what the Russian formalist critics called ostranenie —as our bemused Martian wrestles into his comprehension a series of puzzling human habits and gadgets: “Model T is a room with the lock inside— / a key is turned to free the world / for movement.” Or, later in the poem: “In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps, / that snores when you pick it up.” For a few years, alongside the usual helpings of Hughes, Heaney, and Larkin, British schoolchildren learned to launder these witty counterfeits: “Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings / And some are treasured for their markings— / they cause the eyes to melt / or the body to shriek without pain. / I have never seen one fly, but / Sometimes they perch on the hand.” Teachers liked Raine’s poem, and perhaps the whole Berlitz-like apparatus of Martianism, because it made estrangement as straightforward as translation. What is the haunted apparatus? A telephone, miss. Well done. What are Caxtons? Books, sir. Splendid.
Estrangement is powerful when it puts the known world in doubt, when it makes the real truly strange; but most powerful when it is someone’s estrangement, bringing into focus the partiality of a human being (a child, a lunatic, an immigrant, an émigré). Raine’s poem, turning estrangement into a system, has the effect of making the Martian’s incomprehension a familiar business, once we’ve got the hang of it. And since Martians don’t actually exist, their misprision is less interesting than the human variety. The Martian’s job, after all, is to misread the human world. Human partiality is more suggestive—intermittent, irrational, anxious. One can crave a more proximate estrangement: how about, rather than an alien sending a postcard home, a resident alien, or a butler, or even a cloned human being doing so?
But it’s one thing to achieve that effect in a poem, which can happily float image upon image, and another to do so in a novel that commits itself to a tethered point of view. It would be hard not to personalize estrangement when writing fiction. The eminent Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky was interested in Tolstoy’s use of the technique, noting that it consists in the novelist’s refusal to let his characters name things or events “properly,” describing them as if for the first time. In “ War and Peace ,” for instance, Natasha goes to the opera, which she dislikes and can’t understand. Tolstoy’s description captures Natasha’s perspective, and the opera is seen in the “wrong” way—as large people singing for no reason and spreading out their arms absurdly in front of painted boards.
The twentieth century’s most ecstatic defamiliarizer was Vladimir Nabokov, who had a weakness for visual gags of the Martian sort—a half-rolled and sopping black umbrella seen as “a duck in deep mourning,” an Adam’s apple “moving like the bulging shape of an arrased eavesdropper,” and so on. But in his most affecting novel, “ Pnin ” (1957), estrangement is the condition and the sentence of the novel’s hapless hero, the Russian émigré professor Timofey Pnin. In Tolstoyan fashion, Pnin is seeing America as if for the first time, and often gets it wrong: “A curious basketlike net, somewhat like a glorified billiard pocket—lacking, however, a bottom—was suspended for some reason above the garage door.” Later, we learn that Pnin must have mistaken a Shriners’ hall or a veterans’ hall for the Turkish consulate, because of the crowds of fez wearers he has seen entering the building.
In the English literary scene, both Craig Raine and Martin Amis have been, in their devotion to Nabokov, flamboyant Martians. Such writing is thought to prove its quality in the delighted originality of its rich figures of speech; what Amis has called “vow-of-poverty prose” has no place at the high table of estrangement. Cliché and kitsch are abhorred as deadening enemies. (Nabokov regularly dismissed writers such as Camus and Mann for failing to reach what he considered this proper mark.) Kazuo Ishiguro, a consummate vow-of-poverty writer, would seem to be far from that table. Most of his recent novels are narrated in accents of punishing blandness; all of them make plentiful use of cliché, banality, evasion, pompous circumlocution. His new novel, “ Klara and the Sun ” (Knopf), contains this hilarious dullness: “Josie and I had been having many friendly arguments about how one part of the house connected to another. She wouldn’t accept, for instance, that the vacuum cleaner closet was directly beneath the large bathroom.” Aha, we say to ourselves, we’re back in Ishiguro’s tragicomic and absurdist world, where the question of a schoolkid’s new pencil case (“ Never Let Me Go ”), or how a butler devises exactly the right “staff plan” (“ The Remains of the Day ”), or just waiting for a non-arriving bus (“ The Unconsoled ”) can stun the prose for pages.
But “Klara and the Sun” confirms one’s suspicion that the contemporary novel’s truest inheritor of Nabokovian estrangement—not to mention its best and deepest Martian—is Ishiguro, hiding in plain sight all these years, lightly covered by his literary veils of torpor and subterfuge. Ishiguro, like Nabokov, enjoys using unreliable narrators to filter—which is to say, estrange—the world unreliably. (In all his work, only his previous novel, “ The Buried Giant ,” had recourse to the comparative stability of third-person narration, and was probably the weaker for it.) Often, these narrators function like people who have emigrated from the known world, like the clone Kathy, in “Never Let Me Go,” or like immigrants to their own world. When Stevens the butler, in “The Remains of the Day,” journeys to Cornwall to meet his former colleague Miss Kenton, it becomes apparent that he has never ventured out of his small English county near Oxford.
These speakers are often concealing or repressing something unpleasant—both Stevens and Masuji Ono, the narrator of “ An Artist of the Floating World ,” are evading their complicity with fascist politics. They misread the world because reading it “properly” is too painful. The blandness of Ishiguro’s narrators is the very rhetoric of their estrangement; blandness is the evasive truce that repression has made with the truth. And we, in turn, are first lulled, then provoked, and then estranged by this sedated equilibrium. “Never Let Me Go” begins, “My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years.” That ordinary voice seems at first so familiar, but quickly comes to seem significantly odd, and then wildly different from our own.
You can argue that, at least since Kafka, estrangement of various kinds has been the richest literary resource in fiction—in Kafkaesque fantasy or horror, in science fiction and dystopian writing, in unreliable narration, in the literature of flâneurial travel as practiced by a writer like W. G. Sebald , and in the literature of exile and immigration. Ishiguro has mastered all these genres, sometimes combining them in a single book, always on his own singular terms. Sebald, for instance, was rightly praised for the strange things he did with his antiquarian first-person prose, as his narrators wander through an eerily defamiliarized English and European landscape. But Ishiguro got there before him, and the prose of “The Remains of the Day” (1989) may well have influenced the Anglo-German author of “ The Rings of Saturn ” (1995). Here, Stevens describes the experience of driving away from familiar territory, as he sets out from Darlington Hall:
But then eventually the surroundings grew unrecognizable and I knew I had gone beyond all previous boundaries. I have heard people describe the moment, when setting sail in a ship, when one finally loses sight of the land. I imagine the experience of unease mixed with exhilaration often described in connection with this moment is very similar to what I felt in the Ford as the surroundings grew strange around me. . . . The feeling swept over me that I had truly left Darlington Hall behind, and I must confess I did feel a slight sense of alarm—a sense aggravated by the feeling that I was perhaps not on the correct road at all, but speeding off in totally the wrong direction into a wilderness.
This might well be one of Sebald’s troubled intellectuals, his mind full of literature and death, tramping around a suddenly uncanny Europe—a “wilderness.” Stevens is, in fact, just driving to the blameless cathedral town of Salisbury.
Klara, the narrator of Ishiguro’s new novel, is a kind of robot version of Stevens, and a kind of cousin of Kathy H. She’s a carer, a servant, a helpmeet, a toy. “Klara and the Sun” opens like something out of “Toy Story” or the children’s classic “Corduroy” (in which a slightly ragged Teddy bear, waiting patiently in a department store, is first turned down by Mother, and finally plucked by her delighted young daughter). Klara is an Artificial Friend, or AF, and is waiting with anticipation to be chosen from a store that seems to be in an American city, sometime in the nearish future. As far as one can tell, the AFs, which are solar-powered and A.I.-endowed, are a combination of doll and robot. They can talk, walk, see, and learn. They have hair and wear clothes. They appear to be especially prized as companions for children and teen-agers. A girl named Josie, whom Klara estimates, in her pedantic A.I. way, to be “fourteen and a half,” sees our narrator in the shopwindow, and excitedly chooses Klara as her AF.
Two kinds of estrangement operate in Ishiguro’s novel. There’s the relatively straightforward defamiliarization of science fiction. Ishiguro only lightly shades in his dystopian world, probably because he isn’t especially committed to the systematic faux realism required by full-blown science fiction. Still, we must navigate around a fictional universe that seems much like our own, yet where people endlessly stare at, or press, their handheld “oblongs,” where adults are somehow stratified by their clothes (“The mother was an office worker, and from her shoes and suit we could tell she was high-ranking”), and where roadworkers are called “overhaul men.” In this colorless, ruthless place, children are fatalistically sorted into losers and winners; the latter, who are known as “lifted,” whose parents decided to “go ahead” with them, are destined for élite colleges and bright futures. Josie’s best friend, Rick, wasn’t lifted, and it will now be a struggle for him to get a place at Atlas Brookings (“their intake of unlifteds is less than two percent”). The parents of Josie’s privileged peers wonder why Rick’s parents decided not to go ahead with him. Did they just lose their nerve? It seems significant that the lifted Josie has an AF for companionship and solace, while the poorer, unlifted Rick does not.
Subtler than this teasing nomenclature are the cloudier hermeneutics that have always interested Ishiguro. Klara is a fast learner, but she’s only as competent as her algorithms permit, and the world outside the shop can overwhelm her. Her misreadings are suggestive, and since she narrates the book, the reader is supposed to snag on them, too. She seems to lack the word for drones, and calls them “machine birds.” She makes a handy phrase out of the fact that Josie’s mother always drinks coffee swiftly in the morning—“the Mother’s quick coffee.” When Klara is taken for a drive, she marvels that cars would appear on the other side of the road “in the far distance and come speeding towards us, but the drivers never made errors and managed to miss us.” She interprets a block of city houses thus: “There were six of them in a row, and the front of each had been painted a slightly different color, to prevent a resident climbing the wrong steps and entering a neighbor’s house by mistake.” When Klara hears Josie crying, the cracked lament is novel to her, and she renders it with naked precision: “Not only was her voice loud, it was as if it had been folded over onto itself, so that two versions of her voice were being sounded together, pitched fractionally apart.”
The pathos and the interest of her misapprehensions are deepened by her proximity to us: she’s like a child, or perhaps an autistic adult, looking for signals, trying to copy. As in “The Remains of the Day” and “Never Let Me Go,” Ishiguro has created a kind of human simulacrum (a butler, a clone) in order to cast an estranging eye on the pain and brevity of human existence. Pain enters the world of this novel as it does ordinary life, by way of illness and death: Josie suffers from an unnamed disease. Klara had noticed, at their first meeting at the store, that Josie was pale and thin, and that “her walk wasn’t like that of other passers-by.” We learn that Josie had a sister, who died young. When Klara first hears Josie sobbing in the night (that folded-over sound), the teen-ager is calling for her mother, and crying out, “Don’t want to die, Mom. I don’t want that.” As Josie begins to decline, we realize that Klara was selected to be the special kind of AF who may be required to comfort a young, dying human, and one who may uselessly outlive her human mistress.
What sense can an artificial intelligence make of death? For that matter, what sense can human intelligence make of death? Isn’t there something artificial in the way that humans conspire to suppress the certainty of their own extinction? We invest great significance in the hope for, and meaning of, longevity, but, seen from a cosmic viewpoint—by God, or by an intelligent robot—a long life is still a short life, whether one dies at nineteen or ninety. “Never Let Me Go” wrung a profound parable out of such questions: the embodied suggestion of that novel is that a free, long, human life is, in the end, just an unfree, short, cloned life.
“Klara and the Sun” continues this meditation, powerfully and affectingly. Ishiguro uses his inhuman, all too human narrators to gaze upon the theological heft of our lives, and to call its bluff. When Pascal wrote that “an image of men’s condition” was “a number of men in chains, all condemned to death, some of whom are slaughtered daily within view of the others, so that those who are left see their own condition in that of their fellows, and, regarding one another with sorrow and without hope, wait their turn,” the vision was saved from darkest tragedy by God’s certain presence and salvation. Ishiguro offers no such promise. We learn, late in the book, that Artificial Friends are all subject to what is called a “slow fade,” as their batteries expire. Of course, we, too, are subject to a slow fade; it might be the definition of a life.
Klara wants to save Josie from early death, but she can do this only within her understanding and her means, which is where the novel’s title becomes movingly significant. Because the AFs are solar-powered, they lose energy and vitality without the sun’s rays; so, quite logically, the sun is a life-giving pagan god to them. Klara capitalizes the Sun, and speaks often of “a special kind of nourishment from the Sun,” “the Sun and his kindness to us,” and so on. When Klara joins Josie’s household, she assesses the kitchen as “an excellent room for the Sun to look into.” Before she left the store, a troubling incident had occurred. Roadwork had started outside the shop, and the workers had parked a smoke-belching machine on the street. Klara knows only that the machine’s three short funnels create enough smoke to blot out sunlight. It has a name, Cootings, on its side, so Klara takes to calling it the Cootings Machine. There are several days of smoke and fumes. When a customer mentions “pollution” (which Klara capitalizes), and points through the shopwindow at the machine, adding “how dangerous Pollution was for everyone,” Klara gets the idea that the Cootings Machine “might be a machine to fight Pollution.” But another AF tells her that “it was something specially designed to make more of it.” Klara begins to see the battle between the sinister Cootings Machine and the Sun as one between rival forces of darkness and light: “The Sun, I knew, was trying his utmost, and towards the end of the second bad afternoon, even though the smoke was worse than ever, his patterns appeared again, though only faintly. I became worried and asked Manager if we’d still get all our nourishment.”
So Klara begins to construct a world view—a cosmogony, really—around her life-giving god. If the Sun nourishes AFs, it must nourish humans, too. If the Sun is a god, then perhaps one might pray to this god; one might, eventually, bargain and cajole, as Abraham did with the Lord. So Klara prays to the Sun: “Please make Josie better. . . . Josie’s still a child and she’s done nothing unkind.” And she has a specific bargain in mind. She tells the Sun that she knows how much he dislikes Pollution. “Supposing I were able somehow to find this machine and destroy it,” she says. “To put an end to its Pollution. Would you then consider, in return, giving your special help to Josie?” Klara sets about vandalizing the first Cootings Machine she comes across, apparently unaware that it’s not the only one in the world.
Other writers might labor to make their science fiction more coherent. Ishiguro seems unconcerned that our AF somehow understands godly mercy and “sin” (“she’s done nothing unkind”) but can’t work out why houses are painted different colors. Another novelist might play up the dystopian ecological implications of a world in which the sun is beset by forces of life-quenching darkness. These implications are certainly present here. But Ishiguro keeps his eye on the human connection. Only Ishiguro, I think, would insist on grounding this speculative narrative so deeply in the ordinary; only he would add, to a description of a battle between sunlight and darkness, Klara’s prosaic and plaintive coda: “I became worried and asked Manager if we’d still get all our nourishment.”
Ishiguro invites us to share the logic and the partiality of Klara’s world view by making plain that its logic flows from its partiality—sun equals life equals God—and by making plain how closely her world resembles ours. Her estrangement is ours, a reminder of the provisional nature of our own grasp on reality. No more than Klara can we understand—theologically speaking—why children die, which is why we, from the merely superstitious to the orthodoxly religious, construct our own systems of petition and bargain. If it is time for a child’s slow fade to become an unbearably faster fade, there is nothing, theologically speaking, we can do about it: the sun will continue to shine down—“having no alternative, on the nothing new,” as Beckett had it—on the just and unjust alike. Our prayers evaporate into the solar heat.
At one moment in her pleading on behalf of Josie, Klara wheedlingly says to the Sun, “I know favoritism isn’t desirable.” The word has resonance, but weak leverage, in a world premised on systematic favoritism, in which whole classes of society are “lifted” and others are not. In Klara’s world, favoritism is considered not just desirable but apparently essential; she is a product of it. The relation between society’s increasingly invidious, focussed, and sinister patterns of selection (fascism, genetic engineering, “lifting”) and the cosmic arbitrariness of our ultimate destinies has been Ishiguro’s great theme: our nasty efforts at “favoritism” versus God’s or the universe’s inscrutable lack of it. For we die unequally but finally equally, in ways whose randomness seems to challenge all notions of pattern, design, selection. Theology is, in some guises, just the metaphysics of favoritism: a prayer is a postcard asking for a favor, sent upward. Whether our postcards are read by anyone has become the searching doubt of Ishiguro’s recent novels, in which this master, so utterly unlike his peers, goes about creating his ordinary, strange, godless allegories. ♦
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‘Klara and the Sun’ Review: Friends but Not Equals
For a subtle creator of imagined worlds, the line between happy and unhappy endings can be hard to define..
Feb. 26, 2021 10:26 am ET
Kazuo Ishiguro once offered a surprising comment about “Never Let Me Go,” his novel—for those who haven’t had it soldered into their memories—about cloned humans who lead relatively ordinary lives into young adulthood, at which point their vital organs are harvested and they die. “I thought it was a very cheerful book,” Mr. Ishiguro said. “It’s a very optimistic view of human nature. People laugh when I say that, and I think it’s very unfair.”
Writers often have idiosyncratic perspectives on their work, but I can think of few cases in which public interpretation seems to have diverged so widely from authorial motive. For many readers, the novel, with its disarmingly unaffected narration by a “carer” for organ donors (who will soon become a donor herself), is a work of quiet horror and heartbreak, in which the futility of cloned lives, as the New Yorker’s critic James Wood wrote, “forces us to consider the futility of our own.”
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In Kazuo Ishiguro’s sweet new novel Klara and the Sun, a robot befriends a teenage girl
Klara and the Sun is Ishiguro’s first novel since his 2017 Nobel Prize win. It’s quiet and tender.
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Share All sharing options for: In Kazuo Ishiguro’s sweet new novel Klara and the Sun, a robot befriends a teenage girl
Klara and the Sun , Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book and his first novel since he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2017 , is a spare and tender exploration of what it means to be made redundant, to exist in a world that believes itself to have moved past a need for you. Which is perhaps why it makes sense that this new book feels so reminiscent of Never Let Me Go , the novel Ishiguro wrote in 2005 that is arguably his most beloved work. Why shouldn’t it look a little like a great novelist returning to one of his favorite party tricks? Have we truly advanced past the need for that trick?
The Klara of Klara and the Sun is an AF, or Artificial Friend. She’s a solar-powered robot who’s been designed specifically to be the perfect friend — intelligent, empathetic, wanting only to protect and serve — for a lonely child.
And most wealthy children in this near-future world are lonely because most of them don’t go to school in person. They attend virtual classes through devices Klara calls “oblongs” instead. (Ishiguro finished this novel before the pandemic rendered online schools so common in our own timeline.) In-person school is now obsolete, and so are peer friendships.
So when Klara locks eyes with 14-year-old Josie, and Josie says, “That’s the AF I’ve been looking for,” it’s mutual love at first sight. Klara goes happily home with Josie, ready to be a source of unconditional love in Josie’s isolated and sickly life.
Because Josie is ill. And Josie’s mother, who treats Klara with an icy politeness that occasionally shades into desperation, seems to have an unusual relationship with her daughter’s illness. She seems to feel guilty about it, but also proud, in some strange and confusing way that Klara, in her sweet naivety, cannot quite parse.
Never Let Me Go readers will recognize this narrative trick of Ishiguro’s. In that novel, narrator Kathy H. is a likable and intelligent child who is plainly living in a world of sinister secrets, but who does not have the scope of reference to make it clear to the reader immediately just what those secrets are. She experiences them as normal, and thus feels no particular need to explain. And Klara, who knows no family besides Josie’s, experiences Josie’s family as normal, too. She continues placidly on with her duties of loving Josie, even as dark misgivings swirl around the edge of the narrative.
But Klara is intelligent enough to know that she herself might be made redundant. Just as in-person school was, and just as the engineering jobs that went to AIs were. (Josie’s father is a former engineer. He says that he was “substituted” out of a job, but cheerily remarks that he’s better off as he is now, living in a gang with “fascistic” tendencies.) Klara, after all, is a machine, and planned obsolescence is part of a machine’s life.
From the windows of the store where she lives before she meets Josie, she can see other, older AFs walking around with their children, and she sees the way they flinch away from the sight of her in the store window display.
“They were afraid because we were new models,” Klara concludes, “and they feared that before long their children would decide it was time to have them be thrown away, to be replaced by AFs like us.” The possibility of being thrown away, replaced, made redundant, is ever-present in this novel — for friendships, for jobs, for Klara, and even, terrifyingly, for Josie herself.
Klara and the Sun is not, however, likely to make Never Let Me Go redundant. It’s a technically lovely novel, with Klara’s forebodings expressing themselves less as fear than as a subdued melancholy that sweeps underneath the surface of the narrative in gentle waves. But this book lacks the deep wells of feeling that lurked in Never Let Me Go : I’ve never once made it through Never Let Me Go without sobbing, but Klara and the Sun didn’t make me so much as tear up. This sweet-natured novel is, like its narrator, just a little too cool and mechanical to inspire such emotional outpouring.
But Ishiguro has, by this stage in his career, earned the right to return to his favorite themes and narratives for a closer look. There are not so many good books in the world that a new Ishiguro will ever be obsolete.
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Look Inside | Reading Guide
Klara and the Sun
By kazuo ishiguro, by kazuo ishiguro read by sura siu, part of vintage international, category: science fiction | literary fiction, category: science fiction | literary fiction | audiobooks.
Mar 01, 2022 | ISBN 9780593311295 | 5-3/16 x 8 --> | ISBN 9780593311295 --> Buy
Mar 16, 2021 | ISBN 9780593396568 | 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 --> | ISBN 9780593396568 --> Buy
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Mar 02, 2021 | ISBN 9780593318188 | ISBN 9780593318188 --> Buy
Mar 02, 2021 | 617 Minutes | ISBN 9780593349298 --> Buy
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Mar 01, 2022 | ISBN 9780593311295
Mar 16, 2021 | ISBN 9780593396568
Mar 02, 2021 | ISBN 9780593318171
Mar 02, 2021 | ISBN 9780593318188
Mar 02, 2021 | ISBN 9780593349298
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About Klara and the Sun
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • Once in a great while, a book comes along that changes our view of the world. This magnificent novel from the Nobel laureate and author of Never Let Me Go is “an intriguing take on how artificial intelligence might play a role in our futures … a poignant meditation on love and loneliness” ( The Associated Press ). • A GOOD MORNING AMERICA Book Club Pick! Here is the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her. Klara and the Sun is a thrilling book that offers a look at our changing world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator, and one that explores the fundamental question: what does it mean to love?
NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER • Once in a great while, a book comes along that changes our view of the world. This magnificent novel from the Nobel laureate and author of Never Let Me Go is “an intriguing take on how artificial intelligence might play a role in our futures … a poignant meditation on love and loneliness” ( The Associated Press ). • A GOOD MORNING AMERICA Book Club Pick! “What stays with you in ‘Klara and the Sun’ is the haunting narrative voice—a genuinely innocent, egoless perspective on the strange behavior of humans obsessed and wounded by power, status and fear.” —Booker Prize committee Here is the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her. Klara and the Sun is a thrilling book that offers a look at our changing world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator, and one that explores the fundamental question: what does it mean to love?
Listen to a sample from Klara and the Sun
Also in vintage international.
Also by Kazuo Ishiguro
About Kazuo Ishiguro
KAZUO ISHIGURO was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954 and moved to Britain at the age of five. His eight previous works of fiction have earned him many honors around the world, including the Nobel Prize in Literature and the… More about Kazuo Ishiguro
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A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK • A BOOKER PRIZE NOMINEE • GOOD MORNING AMERICA Book Club Pick • ONE OF PRESIDENT OBAMA’S FAVORITE BOOKS OF THE YEAR • ONE OF BILL GATES’S FAVORITE BOOKS OF THE YEAR • ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The New York Times, Time, NPR , Washington Post, Vogue , USA Today, Town & Country, The Guardian, Vulture , and more “ One of the most affecting and profound novels Ishiguro has written….I’ll go for broke and call Klara and the Sun a masterpiece that will make you think about life, mortality, the saving grace of love: in short, the all of it.” — Maureen Corrigan, NPR “A delicate, haunting story, steeped in sorrow and hope.” — Ron Charles, The Washington Post “What stays with you in ‘Klara and the Sun’ is the haunting narrative voice—a genuinely innocent, egoless perspective on the strange behavior of humans obsessed and wounded by power, status and fear.” —Booker Prize committee “It aspires to enchantment, or to put it another way, reenchantment, the restoration of magic to a disenchanted world. Ishiguro drapes realism like a thin cloth over a primordial cosmos. Every so often, the cloth slips, revealing the old gods, the terrible beasts, the warring forces of light and darkness.” — Judith Shulevitz, The Atlantic “Ishiguro’s prose is soft and quiet. It feels like the perfect book to curl up with on a Sunday afternoon. He allows the story to unfold slowly and organically, revealing enough on every page to continue piquing the reader’s curiosity. The novel is an intriguing take on how artificial intelligence might play a role in our futures…a poignant meditation on love and loneliness” — Maggie Sprayregen, The Associated Press “For four decades now, Ishiguro has written eloquently about the balancing act of remembering without succumbing irrevocably to the past. Memory and the accounting of memory, its burdens and its reconciliation, have been his subjects… Klara and the Sun complements [Ishiguro’s] brilliant vision…There’s no narrative instinct more essential, or more human.” — The New York Times Book Review “A prayer is a postcard asking for a favor, sent upward. Whether our postcards are read by anyone has become the searching doubt of Ishiguro’s recent novels, in which this master, so utterly unlike his peers, goes about creating his ordinary, strange, godless allegories.” — James Wood, The New Yorker “One of the joys of Ishiguro’s novels is the way they recall and reframe each other, almost like the same stories told in different formats…Again and again, Ishiguro asks: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have a self? And how much of that self can and should we give to others?” — NPR “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… [A] feverish read, [a] one-sitter… Few writers who’ve ever lived have been able to create moods of transience, loss and existential self-doubt as Ishiguro has — not art about the feelings, but the feelings themselves.” — The Los Angeles Times “As with Ishiguro’s other works, the rich inner reflections of his protagonists offer big takeaways, and Klara’s quiet but astute observations of human nature land with profound gravity . . . This dazzling genre-bending work is a delight.” — Publishers Weekly [starred review] “A haunting fable of a lonely, moribund world that is entirely too plausible.” — Kirkus Reviews [starred review] Praise from the UK: “There is something so steady and beautiful about the way Klara is always approaching connection, like a Zeno’s arrow of the heart. People will absolutely love this book, in part because it enacts the way we learn how to love. Klara and the Sun is wise like a child who decides, just for a little while, to love their doll. “What can children know about genuine love?” Klara asks. The answer, of course, is everything.” —Anne Enright, The Guardian “Flawless . . . This is a novel for fans of Never Let Me Go , with which it shares a DNA of emotional openness, the quality of letting us see ourselves from the outside, and a vision of humanity which — while not exactly optimistic — is tender, touching and true.” —John Self, The Times “With its hushed intensity of emotion, this fable about robot love and loneliness confirms Ishiguro as a master prose stylist.” —Ian Thomson, The Evening Standard “It is innocence that forms Ishiguro’s major subject, explored in novels at once familiar and strange, which only gradually display their true and devastating significance.” —Jon Day, The Financial Times “The novel is a masterpiece of great beauty, meticulous control and, as ever, clear, simple prose.” —Bryan Appleyard, The Sunday Times “A deft dystopian fable about the innocence of a robot that asks big questions about existence” — The Financial Times
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Klara and the Sun - New York Times Bestseller by Ishiguro Kazuo [Paperback] Mass Market Paperback – January 1, 2021
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- Print length 310 pages
- Language English
- Publisher Generic
- Publication date January 1, 2021
- Reading age 13 years and up
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- ASIN : B0B2DP8V19
- Publisher : Generic (January 1, 2021)
- Language : English
- Mass Market Paperback : 310 pages
- Reading age : 13 years and up
- Item Weight : 12.9 ounces
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,789,363 in Books ( See Top 100 in Books )
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About the author
KAZUO ISHIGURO was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954 and moved to Britain at the age of five. His eight previous works of fiction have earned him many honors around the world, including the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Booker Prize. His work has been translated into over fifty languages, and The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, both made into acclaimed films, have each sold more than 2 million copies. He was given a knighthood in 2018 for Services to Literature. He also holds the decorations of Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from France and the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star from Japan.
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Book Review: “Klara and the Sun” — Dystopia Yes, But There’s Hope
Klara and the Sun is a dystopian novel worth recommending: it is a thought-provoking joy to read
Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. Knopf, 303 pages. $28.
What is the biggest challenge we are faced with? Is it the climate crisis? Reducing the growing disparity between the rich and the poor? President Biden appears to be poised to begin to tackle these two horrific problems. Author Kazuo Ishiguro, however, has referred to climate change as “just an energy problem.” In the Nobel laureate’s new novel, Klara and the Sun , he invites us to consider two other developing challenges: artificial intelligence and gene editing, both of which he believes are “out of our control.” The disparity between the rich and the poor also figures in his novel as well.
You may remember candidate Andrew Yang in the last presidential primary debates raising the issue of all the jobs that would be lost to automation. His answer was the establishment of a universal basic income for workers who will be replaced by robotics and artificial intelligence (although, to my mind, that doesn’t really solve the problem). In a recent report, the World Economic Forum concluded that “a new generation of smart machines, fueled by rabid advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, could potentially replace a large proportion of existing jobs.” About 85 million jobs by 2025!
And what’s the downside of gene editing? Scientists have already helped some cancer patients using CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). They’ve cured mice of AIDS through the use of CRISPR. And in 2018 a scientist in China used the technique on babies in embryo to protect them from contracting AIDS. He is serving a three-year prison sentence. But that punishment is not going to stop the coming demand for gene editing because people with the means to pay are going to have the health, the intelligence, and the appearance of their children enhanced.
Klara and the Sun is set in the foreseeable future. The novel is written in the first person from the point of view of Klara, who is an AF or artificial friend to Josie, an adolescent girl and member of an upper class whose children are “lifted” by gene editing. Josie needs a “friend” because she leads an isolated life in the country with her “high-ranking” mother and a housekeeper. She is educated through online tutors. Josie is also pampered because gene-editing has left her physically disabled with what sounds like muscular dystrophy.
In an interview in The Guardian , Ishiguro says he was thinking of writing Klara and the Sun as a children’s book. The story’s direct, uncomplicated style reflects that original inclination. Klara’s narrative point of view is that of a bright, caring adolescent who discovers the world through loving observation; she learns about people through careful interaction. Klara is programmed to be a friend; her disposition is similar to that of the boy in Steven Spielberg’s film AI. But in that movie the artificial male is much nicer than the humans, just as in the original Blade Runner the replicants are considerably more humane than the frightened men who are hunting them down. Ishiguro’s characters are, on the other hand, all sympathetic. And the common thread they share with Klara is an appealing sense of hope. So, even though the future that Ishiguro imagines is dystopian, the people, whether they are high-ranking or the others who have been left behind in the technological revolution, are likable. Klara, for example, is willing to put herself at risk in order to help her owner, Josie. And she remains optimistic, despite a number of setbacks.
Ishiguro was born in Japan. His father, a scientist, moved the family to London when the writer was five years old. He is the author of eight books, including 2005’s similarly dystopian-themed Never Let Me Go now. In both of these novels he brings adroit characterization and plotting to what has been (unfairly) dismissed as “genre fiction” (sci-fi). He knows how to generate suspense — what happens throughout the story is surprising, though in retrospect it all seems inevitable. He also creates complex figures with vibrant inner lives. Klara and the Sun is a thought-provoking joy to read.
Ed Meek is the author of High Tide (poems) and Luck (short stories).
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- Introduction to Guide
- Community, Humanity & Relationality
- Language, Memory & Storytelling
- Land: Black & Indigenous Experience
- Slavery, White Supremacy, Colonialism & Capitalism
- Arts & Resistance: Museums, Photography & Poetry
- Get Involved: Events & Workshops
- Credits & Acknowledgements
- College of Arts and Science's reading guide for Klara and the Sun This link opens in a new window
- Theme 1: The Human Condition
- Theme 2: The Sun
- Theme 3: Communication, Creativity, and Connection
- Theme 4: Technology, Environment, Health and (In)Justice
- Theme 5: Hope and Change
- Get Involved
- Indigenous History
- Skywoman Falling
- The Honorable Harvest
- Indigenous Ethnobotany
- A Mother's Work
- Old Growth Children
- Where to Begin
- Prisons and Policing
- Black Lives Matter
- Women's Rights
- LGBTQ+ Rights
- Art and Activism
- Ways to Get Involved
- NYU Reads at the Libraries This link opens in a new window
This LibGuide aims to provide guidance, resources, and NYU Libraries' knowledge to engage with this year's NYU Reads book, Klara and the Sun , written by Kazuo Ishiguro, and published by First Vintage International Edition (March 2022).
The story centers on the protagonist, Klara, an Artificial Friend (AF) of Josie, who is an adolescent with a chronic illness. Their friendship and their respective interactions with other characters build a story exploring many themes in what may be described as a dystopian world, but one full of hope and desire for connection. The themes touched upon in the book are salient to our world.
For a more detailed summary, please visit NYU's College of Arts and Science's reading guide for Klara and the Sun.
- NYU Reads A link to the main NYU Reads page with information on upcoming events and readily available resources.
About the Author
Kazuo Ishiguro will be participating in an NYU Zoom author event on Thursday, September 29, 12:30-1:30pm.
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- Last Updated: Oct 2, 2023 11:22 AM
- URL: https://guides.nyu.edu/nyu-reads