Klara and the Sun
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Read June 2021
Once again, this reader was struck by the power of Ishiguro’s seemingly simple but actually extremely deep work. Once again, this reader couldn’t start another book for several days after finishing this one so there was some time for it to settle in her brain.
The story is set in an undefined time somewhat in the future and in an undefined place in the US. We hear the story through Klara’s first-person narrative and the dialog she recounts. Klara is an AF—an Artificial Friend. She is a B2—a second generation model in the “B” line. When we meet her, she is for sale in a shop that sells AFs. All the AFs in the shop are solar power so her initial conversation with the reader is about how the sun comes into the shop and how the AFs view it. A question she is pondering—Can one AF consume all of the power in a single patch of sunlight on the floor?
Klara and another AF, Rosie, are delighted to get their turn in the shop window. Klara enjoys watching all the happenings outside the shop—the runners, the taxis that drop off people, the people that go in and out of the building across the street. Klara is very concerned when a construction machine blocks their view for several days and billows pollution. Likely this is a machine that is breaking up the macadam and prepping the street for repaving. The manager assures her that the machine will eventually leave but doesn’t explain further.
A girl whose age Klara estimates to be 14 talks to Klara through the window one day. The girl’s manner of walking indicates some sort of medical issue but it hasn’t lessened her sunny disposition. The girl visits several times and they form a bond. The girl clearly wants to convince her mother to buy Klara. When another customer considers Klara and Klara isn’t her usual self to avoid being purchased, the manager cautions Klara that children sometimes make promises they can’t keep and she should welcome becoming the AF for any child that expresses interest in her.
Eventually the mother and the girl, Josie, do come to the store looking for Klara who is now relegated to the back part of the store. Josie fortunately does locate Klara and presses her mother to buy her. The mother is concerned that Klara is a B2 and a new improved B3 line is available. Manager remains fairly neutral but does highlight Klara’s unique ability to observe and learn. The mother tests this by asking Klara to walk as Josie walks which she does with amazing accuracy which leaves the mother seemingly stunned but convinced this is the right AF for her daughter.
In the next sections Klara tells us about Josie’s home and we get an interesting picture of life in these times. Josie and her mother, a “high ranking professional”, live in a rural setting with few other houses around. Their house is large and modern and a housekeeper maintains it, cooks, and babysits Josie while her mother is at work. Josie, like most teenagers, no longer attends in-class school but uses “an oblong” for her studies and has various tutors with whom she interacts using “the oblong”. Parents are concerned about the social development of their children since they no longer have daily interactions with others, and they arrange social interaction events, reminiscent of “play dates” that are common for young children in our current times. The parents try to eavesdrop on their children in the “open plan” at Josie’s house and all turn to stare when Rick, Josie’s good friend and next-door neighbor, arrives to join the event. Rick is different from all the children at the event as his mother has decided not to have Rick “lifted” which will certainly limit his prospects including what colleges might accept him. As usual, Ishiguro doesn’t explain what “lifting” is but we do come to learn that there are risks involved with the procedure and that perhaps this is a root cause for the death of Josie’s older sister and for Josie’s medical issues.
This reader won’t dwell on further details of the plot and leave that for future readers to discover. However, this reader will comment on some of the aspects of the culture of Josie’s world.
As in our current society, there is much emphasis placed on getting into the “right” college. In our current society, SAT classes, special tutors, torrents of extra-curricular activities to build the student’s resume, and coaches to help prepare college applications are commonplace. We now understand that certain celebrities paid $500,000 + to secure college slots for their children, some of which had no interest themselves in attending college. In Josie’s world, something has led parents to put their children through dangerous medical procedures to “lift” their children’s brains, take them out of in-person schools, pay for remote tutors, arrange for structured social interaction events, and buy AF’s to ease their children’s feelings of isolation. Klara’s mission is laser focused to care for and support Josie in any way possible, which eventually leads her into an interesting relationship with the Sun that this reader won’t reveal here. Rick’s mother seeks to use a “secret weapon” to help Rick get into a particular school—her past romantic relationship with a person (perhaps Rick’s father?) now on the admissions committee of that school.
Other aspects of today’s society remain including: Marriage remains common but so too does divorce and the challenges it places on all parties. Parents want what is best for their children and will do nearly anything to make that possible, but at the same time dread their children leaving. (Josie and her mother’s visits to the city near the AF store were to have a portrait done of Josie.) Teen agers haven’t developed mature social skills and so can be mean to each other and even bully others to prop up their own self-esteem. Childhood friendships can endure others’ taunts, parents’ concerns, and provide support that is unique. Klara’s recounting of events that demonstrate these is interesting since she is trying to learn these cultural elements which her previous training and Manager’s input hasn’t covered.
The conversations between Josie’s parents and Rick’s mother while they are all in the city together provide the author a means of showing other aspects of their society. As in our current situation, jobs can be eliminated due to productivity increases and automation. Josie’s father and his engineering colleagues were apparently displaced, possibly by AF’s. He now lives in some sort of community of individuals who have experienced this situation. Rick’s mother expresses some disparagement of the community but little is explained except that Josie’s father anticipates some violence in the future for unspecified reasons.
The author gives us various glimpses of technology—recall we only learn about things through Klara’s narration, an approach this reader very much appreciated. Cars are still used as a standard mode of transportation although taxis (or possibly “Ubers”?) are very common as well. Rick is working on an operating system for his “birds” (drones). The author provides some insights on AF technology and its implications. Klara describes how her visual system sometimes breaks the data it is capturing into some number of cells, each of which has a particular focus. It seems this isn’t always the case, but most likely when new or unusual situations arise. While AFs are commonly used by families to help their children, AF’s aren’t universally embraced. Being replaced by AFs in the workplace is a concern and, in one scene, someone going to a theater production is annoyed that a paid seat for the sold-out show might be going to an AF vs a real person.
This reader listened to an audiobook production. The voices used by the reader gave appropriate “life” to the various characters—parents, Rick, Josie, and Klara. This reader took longer walks/jogs than usual, and got closets and rooms tidied than might not have otherwise for reasons to have the audiobook playing. This reader saved the final 41 min chapter to be read while driving to visit someone. Then this reader re-listened to this very remarkable chapter again on the way home and was stunned by it both times. In 10 short hours of listening, the author takes you into a simply told story that says much about where we may find ourselves in the not-too-distant future, and also about our current state: what is important to us and how do we show it; what do we teach our children about what is important in life and what do they learn.
Kazuo Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017. Their stated prize motivation: “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”
Kazuo Ishiguro – Facts. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2021. Mon. 17 May 2021. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2017/ishiguro/facts/
Hopefully Ishiguro will continue writing and making us think deeply.