Klara and the Sun

by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Klara and the Sun Themes

The main themes in Klara and the Sun are the nature of intelligence, the cost of progress, and loneliness and relationships.

  • The nature of intelligence: As Klara comes to possess many complex human qualities, distinctions between artificial and human intelligence are called into question.
  • The cost of progress: Josie’s serious illness is a side effect of her genetic enhancement, a procedure that ultimately took the life of her sister, Sal.
  • Loneliness and relationships: Klara both observes and mitigates human loneliness, while also existing in an isolated space herself as an exceptional AF.

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The Nature of Intelligence

One of Klara and the Sun's central themes is the intersection of human and artificial intelligence.

As an artificially intelligent being designed to provide companionship for a human teenager, Klara is programmed from the outset to be perceptive, observant, and reactive to those around her. Klara, however, is remarkable among her peers. Her sensory programming reveals itself to be even more acute than that of the average AF, and her curiosity about human emotion far greater.

As Klara progresses through human society and spends time analyzing the behavior and motivations of those around her, her own interior life develops in turn. She starts experiencing emotions independent of those to whom she reacts. Soon, she feels happy, sad, maudlin, nostalgic, and everything in between. By spending time with Josie, who is gravely ill, she also develops an acute understanding of human mortality and grief.

Klara's relationship with the Sun, perhaps, is her most human quality. As a solar-powered being, she comes to view the Sun as a sentient deity who intentionally bestows nourishment on those below. By using her observations about the Sun's beneficence to make sense of Josie's illness, she builds herself a religious framework to make sense of the world, just as humans have done throughout history.

In part four, where the story reaches its emotional climax, Ishiguro uses the narrative to test the theoretical implications of the confluence between humanity and artificial intelligence. When it's revealed that Josie's "portrait" is not, in fact, a portrait, but the body of an AF, Klara learns that she's being trained to "continue" Josie in the event of the teenager's death.

Josie's parents vacillate in their comfort with this notion, and they argue at length over whether this substitution might ever feel legitimate. But if artificial intelligence, Mr. Capaldi argues in his studio, has finally reached a stage at which it is equal to human intelligence, it's not a "substitution" at all. There is nothing that separates human sentience from artificial intelligence, he asserts, which means that transforming Klara into Josie is no different than Josie living long into the future herself.

The Cost of Progress

Throughout Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro takes care to demonstrate the cost of progress. This is most clearly illustrated through Josie's illness. Josie, like many children of her era, has been "lifted." This means, the reader comes to learn, that she's had a genetic manipulation procedure designed to give her an advantage in life. The advantage is internal, as Josie is a bright student and a talented artist, but it's also social—most colleges no longer offer consideration to unlifted students, and Josie's future is considered promising and bright. Rick, who is unlifted, has to fight against this prejudice. To most, he's already considered a lost cause.

Partway through the book, the narrative reveals that Josie's illness comes as a side effect of this genetic lift. What's more, the reader learns, Josie's sister died from the same complication.

The Cootings Machine, too, can be seen as a symbol of the trade-off between progress and sacrifice. Though Klara sees the machine as one designed solely to produce pollution, and thus an emblem of pure evil that threatens her deified Sun, the reality is much more complex. While the Cootings Machine pollutes the air, it does so not as its primary function but simply because it is a piece of industrial equipment. Though Klara can only see the harm the machine brings, a reader has the life experience to recognize that industrial equipment has a tangible use that Klara can't see: to build...

(This entire section contains 896 words.)

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or repair things in the name of progress.

Loneliness and Relationships

As Klara moves through human society and is better able to observe human relationships up close, she takes a particular interest in the complicated mechanics of loneliness.

This is illustrated especially clearly in part three, after the emotionally fraught trip to Morgan's Falls. Klara reflects on Chrissie's unpredictable behavior thus:

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.

This ongoing fixation on loneliness foreshadows the book's climax, which is predicated entirely on this same notion: in an attempt to avoid the immense loneliness that would follow the loss of Josie, the family might instead attempt to "continue" her through Klara.

To what extent Klara herself may experience loneliness is left up to the reader's interpretation. Generally, she's portrayed as good-natured and content, wanting for nothing. But she also remarks upon experiencing distinct coldness from the other characters at times, and is often deliberately exempted from human society by being asked to stand in the corner or leave the room. Between this and being an outlier among AFs, there is an acute sense that she is perpetually "other," occupying a middle ground all her own—more human than the other AFs, more artificial than the humans, never truly among her own kind.

Klara is, of course, a being created for the very purpose of assuaging loneliness, which might explain why she pays it so much conceptual attention. This makes her final act in the book an especially moving demonstration of her learned insight: when offered the chance to be moved near the other AFs, she chooses instead to sit in the solitary, contented company of her memories.

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