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Kazuo Ishiguro’s Deceptively Simple Story of AI

Why does “Klara and the Sun” serve up its big questions so explicitly?

The titular narrator of Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, is a robot. This isn’t spoiler—this revelation comes early in the book. Klara is an Artificial Friend, a lifelike but nevertheless mechanical companion for children: amalgam of sibling, plaything, and nursemaid. When we meet her, she’s inventory in a showroom. We glean, from her interactions with her fellow wares, that AFs mimic being male or female, that they have names (bestowed by their manufacturer? it’s unclear) and personalities, thoughts, an interior self. There’s an AF called Rosa, whom Klara considers dim (“She could fail to notice so much, and even when I pointed something out to her, she’d still not see what was special or interesting about it.”), and one called Rex, who teases Klara.

The Artificial Friends are powered by the sun, an almost divine presence for them—the text renders it as “the Sun,” as the faithful speak of God. “An AF would feel himself growing lethargic after a few hours away from the Sun, and start to worry there was something wrong with him,” Klara tells us, “that he had some fault unique to him and that if it became known, he’d never find a home.” It’s a triumph when Klara earns a spot in the store’s windows: She can bask in the light, observe the world she’s curious about (“I was free to see, close up and whole, so many things I’d seen before only as corners and edges”), and increase her odds of being bought.

Klara and the Sun
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Knopf, 320 pp., $28.00

Most of Ishiguro’s novels are slender books that are more complicated than they at first seem; Klara and the Sun is by contrast more simple than it seems, less novel than parable. Though much is familiar here—the restrained language, the under-stated first-person narration—the new book is much more overt than its predecessors about its concerns. Ishiguro’s 1989 novel The Remains of the Day unspools over a few days in the 1950s, as a butler reflects on his years of service in a grand household, at once taxonomy of English life and indictment of the nation. In Never Let Me Go, the narrator, Kathy—31 but girlish and naïve—seems to be telling the tale of her youth at boarding school. Her voice is intimate and casual, her story derailed by reminiscences and asides. At some point, it’s clear that the youth Kathy is remembering wasn’t spent at a school but an institution, and that she and her chums aren’t students but clones, bred to be harvested for parts, destined to die (to “complete,” in the book’s chilling parlance) by young adulthood. These works are attentive to the rewards of story (What will happen to the butler on his road trip? Who are these schoolchildren really?), and they offer something deeper—call it philosophy. Ishiguro usually, wisely, leaves this up to the reader. We connect the dots between a butler’s blind obedience and the rise of fascism; Kathy’s tale challenges our ideas about the sanctity of life itself.

In Klara and the Sun, characters do this work for the reader. Klara inspires the humans in the book to muse about whether science can transcend death. Her owner grapples with the ramifications of choosing to have her own children genetically modified in order to enhance their potential. That this novel serves up these bigger questions so explicitly feels at first like a miscalculation, or a flaw in the narrative design, which locks us in Klara’s perspective. But I don’t think Klara aims to wrestle with these questions at all. Klara is a machine, but she’s also a contrivance, the perfect metaphor for parenthood.

Klara’s story begins when a girl called Josie spies her through the window. She eventually returns, with her mother in tow. Klara becomes part of their small household—Josie, her mother, and the domestic to whom Klara refers as Melania Housekeeper, who is cool to the robot. Her hostility, Klara later realizes, “had to do with her larger fears concerning what might be happening around Josie.” The girl is not well, and her illness seems to be a consequence of her having been “lifted.” This is the process (perhaps surgical; it’s never satisfactorily explained) by which humans can increase their intelligence. Josie’s friend, Rick, worries that he might not get into a good college; he himself is “unlifted.”

Other secrets come to light, notably that Josie once had a sister, Sal, who died as a result of complications from having been lifted. When Josie is too ill to accompany her mother, Chrissie (always simply “the Mother”), on a day trip, Klara goes with her instead. The Mother confesses she misses her daughter’s company, but allows, “I don’t feel quite so bad because you’re here.”

Gradually, we come to understand that Klara is not a replacement for Sal but an insurance policy against the loss of Josie. Fearing for the life of her surviving child, the Mother has enlisted a scientist named Capaldi to develop an artificial version of Josie. Klara’s task isn’t to keep the girl company; it’s to learn her mannerisms, her voice, her essence. If the girl dies, Klara’s artificial psyche will be transferred into a body that Capaldi has built to look exactly like Josie. “You’re not being required simply to mimic Josie’s outward behavior. You’re being asked to continue her for Chrissie. And for everyone who loves Josie,” the scientist explains.

Klara’s abilities are a marvel, but she, like the reader, barely understands what’s going on. Whereas the revelation in Never Let Me Go that Kathy is a clone inspires deeper horror, neither Klara nor the reader can manage a feeling about the news that Klara might be asked to “continue” Josie. Capaldi muses about it with the remove of a scientist:

Our generation still carry the old feelings. A part of us refuses to let go. The part that wants to keep believing there’s something unreachable inside each of us. Something that’s unique and won’t transfer. But there’s nothing like that, we know that now.

The novel wants to establish Klara as a counterargument to this. She’s not even alive, but contains something “unreachable.” She has a kind of innate religious feeling. Fearing Josie’s death, she goes to a barn to pray for her. (“I’d started to wonder if the Sun’s resting place really was inside the barn itself.”) In this sacred space, “filled with orange light” and “particles of hay drifting in the air,” Klara asks the Sun to spare Josie’s life, sounding like any supplicant: “I understand how forward and rude I’ve been to come here. The Sun has every right to be angry, and I fully understand your refusal even to consider my request.” She makes a bargain: For the Sun’s intercession, she’ll undertake an act of worship, in which she’ll risk her own existence (I almost said life).

Thus ensues the book’s most dramatic moment, in which Klara enlists Josie’s until-then absentee father in a conspiracy that is convoluted and not altogether persuasive. We have access only to Klara, so can’t comprehend whether her faith in the Sun’s powers is unique to her or common to all AFs. The mechanics of the deal she strikes feel, well, mechanical, just as she does.

Sci-fi milieu notwithstanding, Klara reminded me more of Remains than Never Let Me Go, because, in that earlier book, the narrator too is almost inhuman. Stevens is dutiful above all else, choosing his vocation over love, both romantic and filial. The reader sees the man as he cannot see himself. Like Stevens, Klara can’t comprehend love. She watches Josie and her father meet after a period apart:

Then he looked away and closed his eyes, letting his cheek rest against the top of her head. They stayed like that for a time, keeping very still, not even rocking slowly the way the Mother and Josie did sometimes during their morning farewells.

Klara’s cool remove from human emotion isn’t a shortcoming but a function of her being a machine. We pity Stevens but can never quite muster the same for Klara. Her lack of interiority will prevent some readers from engaging with the book; those who want a novel that makes them feel will be stymied by emotion’s absence. Accustomed to negotiating with Ishiguro’s narrators, I kept trying to see past Klara and into the world of the book. But the narrative gives Klara no reason to provide the exposition we want: what year it is, what nation we are in (there are clues that it’s the United States, new territory for an Ishiguro novel), the specifics that clarify this invented world to be a version of our own—the very promise of science fiction.

Klara reminded me less of any previous Ishiguro work than of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, a book for children in which a tree so loves a boy that she allows him to destroy her altogether. It’s a strange work and a polarizing one—some see it posit parenthood (maternity, really, as the tree is referred to as “she”) as ideally selfless, some see it as arguing that humanity is fundamentally selfish.

Klara is as vigilant as a parent with a newborn: “I looked over to Josie and could tell from her posture and her breathing that she wasn’t sleeping in her usual way.” When Klara is still new to the household, Josie hosts a party. The girl’s friends ask the robot to do tricks (sing the scales, show off your memory), but Klara is unable to impress. Like a loyal dog, she won’t follow the commands of anyone other than Josie. The girl later laments that her illness must make her bad company, testing the limits of Klara’s unconditional love. Mustn’t Klara want a more exciting friend? “I’ve never wished such a thing,” Klara tells her, like any good parent. “It was my wish to be Josie’s AF. And the wish came true.”

Late in the story, it seems Josie might die. She offers a message to her friend Rick, who passes it on to the Mother:

She says that no matter what happens now, never mind how it plays out, she loves you and will always love you. She’s very grateful you’re her mother and she never even once wished for any other.

It would be heartbreaking that she doesn’t offer a similar message for Klara, but a robot doesn’t have a heart. Klara turns to the Sun once more, in what can only be described as prayer. The novel’s curiosity about faith feels as cursory as its interest in science; it’s just a position that Klara represents. Rick later concedes that the robot’s prayers might have something to do with Josie’s miraculous recovery, but the book has no conviction about religion beyond this “maybe.”

What we do know, though, is that children grow, and Josie outgrows her AF. “I understood that my presence wasn’t appropriate as it once had been,” Klara tells us, as she explains how she comes to take up residence in a utility room. Josie heads off into adulthood with this farewell: “I guess you may not be here when I get back. You’ve been just great, Klara.”

The robot is consigned to the scrap heap, where she considers how blessed her existence has been. “The Sun was very kind to me. He was always kind to me from the start. But when I was with Josie, once, he was particularly kind.” It echoes Shel Silverstein’s tree, stripped of her apples, her boughs, her trunk by the boy she so loves; finally, mere stump, she offers him a place to sit. “And the tree was happy.”

Ishiguro is unsentimental—indeed, one of the prevailing criticisms of him is that he’s too cold, his novels overly designed, his language detached. (Some of the worst writing on Ishiguro ascribes this to his being Japanese, overlooking that he’s lived in England since he was a small child.) In most hands, this business of the mother-figure who sacrifices all for a child would be mawkish. Here it barely seems like metaphor. Every parent has at times felt like an automaton. Every parent has pleaded with some deity for the safety of their child. Every parent is aware of their own, inevitable obsolescence. And no child can offer more than Josie’s glib goodbye, though perhaps Ishiguro wants to; the book is dedicated to his mother.