Klara and the Sun

by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Klara and the Sun is a 2021 speculative fiction novel by British author Kazuo Ishiguro. It takes place in a near-future society where artificial intelligence has advanced considerably.

The narrative is told from the first-person perspective of Klara, who is an "AF," meaning "Artificial Friend." AFs are highly intelligent humanoid robots, each of whom has been specifically programmed to provide ideal companionship to a child. Most children now attend school remotely and thus have little interaction with their peers.

Even among AFs, Klara is a particularly remarkable specimen. She's highly perceptive and curious, fixating particularly on the relationships between humans and their emotional motivations. When she's purchased for a teenager named Josie Arthur, her immersion in human life accelerates her natural propensity to learn, and she soon begins to develop a rich emotional interiority of her own.

Life with Josie, it transpires, is especially conducive to learning about emotional situations. Josie is gravely ill, and the possibility of her death haunts the family home. At the novel's narrative climax, Klara learns she's part of a secret contingency plan: In the event of Josie's death, Klara will take the girl's place and "continue" her. Mr. Capaldi, a researcher, has been building an artificial Josie in secret under the guise of painting the teen's portrait.

With this revelation, Ishiguro asks his characters—and, by extension, his readers—to truly consider what such a substitution might mean. By Mr. Capaldi's measure, artificial consciousness has become sophisticated enough to be indistinguishable from true humanity. Under these circumstances, he argues, there is no difference between a "continuation" of Josie and Josie herself. If Josie should die, her parents should have no qualms about loving the artificial Josie as though she were their own living daughter.

No character seems truly persuaded by this argument, and the author cannily avoids ever confirming an absolute truth within the narrative. In the end, Josie survives, and the family never has to decide whether to follow through with this plan. The characters and the reader are left to make up their own minds about Klara's relative humanity and how she fits into the world of sentient beings as a thinking, feeling, man-made object.

Throughout the text, Ishiguro makes careful linguistic choices to emphasize Klara's duality. Klara interprets her reality through a series of definable inputs, just as a machine would. When the world around her becomes complicated, she sees it as divided into orderly boxes for easier interpretation. She also orients herself through signs and symbols, often failing to correctly interpret the context of those signals when the syntax is confusing. When, in one instance, she sees a sign on a hamburger restaurant reading "WE GRIND OUR OWN BEEF," she assumes this is a definition. The establishment, she concludes, must be called a "Grind Our Own Beef."

As people and objects become relevant to her, she starts to capitalize them all like proper nouns—the Mother, the Father, and the Sun, but also "the Island" and "the Button Couch." By using capitals to indicate which terms have become incorporated into Klara's functional vocabulary, Ishiguro echoes the iconic format of old text adventure video games. During gameplay, a user knows which objects in a given setting are interactive based solely on their unique capitalization within the text. For Klara, the objects that have been capitalized represent the reliably interactive elements of her new life.

Still, Klara's narration is unmistakably emotive. She feels increasingly conflicted over her responsibility to Josie, torn between the often diametric goals of making Josie happy and helping her stay healthy. Both, Klara reasons, constitute "being a good friend," which is...

(This entire section contains 910 words.)

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her main objective, and to choose the wrong one would mean she would let Josie down.

As the book progresses, Klara's emotions become increasingly more complex. When, after learning her old storefront is gone, she sees the Cootings Machine for the second time, she feels an extremely nuanced set of emotions for which even humanity lacks an ideal word. The machine represents evil incarnate, and yet the sight of something familiar after a shock feels somewhat warm and comforting.

Klara's relationship with the Sun is her most human act of all: because she's solar-powered, she comes to see the Sun as a personified deity who has the power to bestow nourishment on all living things. When Josie falls ill, Klara bargains with the Sun for her recovery, even sacrificing some of her own internal resources to save her friend. This mirrors what humans have done since time immemorial: both the creation of belief systems that make the world seem orderly and fair, and the personification of the inanimate. By bestowing agency, sentience, and intention on the inanimate Sun, Klara performs a subtler version of exactly what humanity has done with AFs.

A reader might see dystopian pessimism in the ethical questions raised by this narrative. If it's hypothetically possible to substitute a human in full with an artificial facsimile, what might that mean about human consciousness itself? What would be the cost of this realization? Further, if this possibility should ever come to pass, what might humanity then owe to the artificially conscious beings it produces?

Conversely, one might also see a thread of optimistic pragmatism. If the line between human connection and artificial intelligence is becoming less tangible, then loneliness itself may one day be a curable disease. "Hope," as Josie's father begrudgingly quips during the search for the Cootings Machine, "Damn thing never leaves you alone."