Soak up the sun: Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro
By Adam Sell
The Bot Book Review is an occasional series of short reviews of robot-themed books as written by HUMAN team members.
In my mind, there’s this generation of writers who, collectively, wrote many of my favorite works of fiction of the last forty years: John Irving, Wally Lamb, David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Andy Weir.
Note: I’m using the term “generation” very loosely here, as those five writers are separated by 30 years of age from oldest to youngest, not to mention the Atlantic Ocean for three of them. Also note that I ordered them that way for a reason. From left to right (at least as I perceive their work), you start with the sweeping-but-rooted-in-reality work of Irving and get progressively less tethered to possibility the further along the list you go until you reach the hard sci-fi of Weir.
That’s one of the things I’ve always liked about Kazuo Ishiguro’s work. It’s got this Black Mirror quality to it, where each story is a character-driven narrative but with a twist to it that reflects a very uncomfortable possible reality. I think especially of Never Let Me Go, in which (spoiler alert) clones are raised solely to serve as organ donors for their doppelgangers, and as those clones sacrifice organs to their counterparts, they die young.
It’s as though the Ishiguro Formula is ‘what if [topic] but [capitalist/selfish twist], and society takes that as given?’. It’s a formula that works—to the tune of a Booker Prize and a Nobel Prize—from any number of perspectives. The above Never Let Me Go, the upstairs-downstairs-but-what-if-upstairs-was-a-Nazi of The Remains of the Day, and the robot-companions-with-a-shelf-life of Klara and the Sun.
In the course of this project, I’ve read more than the average reader’s share of books featuring robot companions to humans. And while many (most, perhaps) feature robots of superhuman or near-superhuman intelligence and capability, Klara holds back. These robots aren’t here to solve crimes or perform challenging tasks. They’re literally here to be companions. They are, after all, called Artificial Friends (AF).
The first chapter of the book serves as an introduction to the mindset of an AF, or at least of the precocious title AF. Klara is particularly concerned with impressing the visitors to the department store (incredible that these survive into the era of robot companions) so as to find a taker. Placement in the store, the expression the AFs hold, even the features they come pre-installed with…all must be just so if there’s to be any chance of selection, at least as far as Klara is concerned.
But Klara’s understanding of how the world works is limited, and the department store’s manager (and later, her owners) seems unwilling or unable to correct those misconceptions: the construction equipment that passes her store window one week is not directly antagonistic to the Sun, the Sun does not sleep in the structure closest to the horizon, nor does it possess any special recuperative powers for humans.
It’s a significant departure from the characteristics of robots in Bot Book Reviews past: in Machines Like Me, the robot was able to experience true emotions; in Sea of Rust, the robot could calculate gunfire distances and times in a matter of moments; in The Last Human, the robot is an almost literal deity to the rest of the galaxy. Perhaps Klara is best described as a graduated automaton, like an especially smart Furby.
The Ishiguro Formula kicks in during the last third of the book, when it becomes clear that Klara’s role in the family that “adopted” her is twofold: yes, she was acquired to serve as an Artificial Friend to her person, but she was also intended to learn everything she could about her person, with the intention of essentially becoming her in the future. It’s a twist that, while not telegraphed, feels a little bit obvious. That said, I found myself racing to the finish, wondering if all of the loose ends could be wrapped up with the rapidly-dwindling number of pages to cover.
I found that they weren’t. Several threads were either left dangling or covered in an epilogue-style final handful of pages. I enjoyed Klara’s story, but I was expecting something a little broader-reaching than what I got.
Klara and the Sun
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Bot Book Review Rating: 3/5 stars