Kazuo Ishiguro Returns to Sci-Fi With Klara and the Sun

Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro’s eighth novel released this past February, has all the trappings one would expect from an Ishiguro story: dramatic irony, a mounting sense of dread, and careful ruminations on power, memory, love, and the unknowability of both self and other. It follows AF (Artificial Friend) Klara as she is purchased from a department store to act as companion to a young girl named Josie. Her simple happiness with her new home is short-lived, however: Josie is deteriorating from an unnamed illness and Klara becomes convinced that she’ll be the one to save her. She simply needs to convince the Sun—the being that powers Klara and the other AFs, and yes, that sun—to lend his nourishment to Josie.

Ishiguro’s oeuvre is one of those rare literary sets that is immediately identifiable by both style and theme but rarely by genre, as he more often than not examines similar questions under different generic constraints (his last novel, The Buried Giant, is based on Arthurian legend; his most lauded novel, The Remains of the Day, recalls post-war England). Klara and the Sun stands out in its return to the science fiction genre that Ishiguro explored with his 2005 Never Let Me Go. In fact, it’s all but impossible not to compare them. Even aside from genre, they share a concern with children specifically as a pressure point for asking what it means to be human. But Klara’s story is uniquely moving, its questions more expansive. Though perhaps not as gracefully rendered as Never Let Me Go, Klara is a stunning book in its own right and a vital addition to today’s proliferating sub-genre of climate change novels. 

The setting of Klara is ambiguous, however it takes place near enough in the future to feel unsettlingly close to our own reality. Though Ishiguro clearly wrote it pre-pandemic, its characters live almost entirely isolated, relying on digital schooling and carefully planned social events. A consistent conflict in the novel revolves around a process called “lifting,” wherein a child is genetically “edited” to become more intelligent, leaving the unlifted behind to languish in worse (if any) schools (an outcome that will be all too familiar to readers, gene-splicing aside). To be lifted is to become successful. It comes at a cost, of course—that’s why Josie is dying. Her mother chooses to have her lifted even after intimate encounters with the risks. The family drama in the wake of this decision forms the scaffolding of the novel. And Klara’s quiet observations and insights—and her eventual intervention—provide the dramatic irony we need to see that scaffold as part of the more existential questions Ishiguro’s work thrives on.

In Never Let Me Go, Kathy H. and her fellow clones are tasked with creating beautiful art by their teachers, a challenge which is later revealed to be a test to prove that clones have souls. Klara picks up the question yet again: what makes us human and what makes us worthy (of rights, of personhood, of love)? This will likely not come as a surprise to any SF reader, since the protagonist is a robot and we’re all quite used to this song and dance. Instead of taking the obvious route and asking if technology is capable of gaining humanity, however, Ishiguro seems to state that we’re asking the wrong question—that we should instead ask if we are capable of seeing each others’ humanity in the first place. 

At no point does Ishiguro really entertain the “do machines feel emotions” question—it’s transparent and matter-of-fact that they do (Klara was quite literally engineered to do so), and just as transparent and matter-of-fact that the humans in the novel have ceased caring in any real way what that means. Klara’s personhood is sidelined in favor of the family plot, in favor of watching the humans’ desperate scramble to prove their own worthiness in a ruthless meritocracy. Klara throws herself into it as well—she was designed to be selfless and so she is, caring more for the emotions and wellness of her human family than for her own. But Ishiguro is far from making the human characters unsympathetic—their love for one another motivates much of the novel’s action and conflict, their emotions are portrayed as real and tragic. Misunderstanding, as always, proliferates. If the human characters can’t see Klara’s deep interiority, they often can’t see one another’s either.

Tied to this question of what makes a being “human” is a background parable about climate change. Though climate change is scarcely named directly as a villain, Klara’s reliance on and obsession with the Sun creates threads of tension that wrap around the entirety of the novel. Over the course of the story, she becomes absolutely convinced that, in exchange for saving Josie, the Sun wants her to destroy a machine that causes pollution (the machine that causes it, in Klara’s mind). We as readers begin by finding Klara’s quasi-religious faith in this quest to be ridiculous, even sad—but is it any more ridiculous than most of our own tepid attempts to save future generations from impending climate disaster? 

Klara isn’t wrong about the pollution machine making people sick, just as we aren’t wrong that plastic straws are bad for the environment. But their destruction won’t make Josie unsick and it won’t unmake the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The humans in the novel aren’t wrong that technology can improve the aspects of their lives obliterated by climate change—like Klara herself, a substitute for the in-person socialization now denied to children (as well as something ultimately much darker). But this new technology can’t undo the harms caused by other new technologies. And the more distant humans become from one another—a process in the novel that is perpetuated by technology—the less connected they are to the thing that might actually save them: their love for one another.

Klara and the Sun is not anti-tech nor is it a moralistic episode of Black Mirror. It is far more concerned with the complications of love and power than it is with crafting a cautionary tale. Readers of Ishiguro’s other novels will be familiar with his lack of easy answers as well as his heart-breaking exploration of what it means to care for others and the impossible contradictions inherent to that care. Humanity, the novel argues, is more than the sum of its parts—more than emotion, more than memory, more than perception. How surprised can we really be that loving another human (or AF) would be such a complicated thing?

Despite its characteristically deft prose, Klara is perhaps too close to home to be lauded as an epiphany of a novel like Ishiguro’s past works. It is quiet, understated, and slow. Despite the presence of robots and climate change, it is not a dystopia—it’s reality with a filter on it. But there are notes of hope in its gentle devastation and there are banal everyday responses to its own cosmic questions. Even when it treads the same water as past works (Ishiguro’s as well as SF more broadly) Klara and the Sun feels vital—like noticing the sun rise one morning despite living through countless sunrises past.

Klara and the Sun is available from Knopf.

Em Nordling is a writer & PhD student in Atlanta, GA.

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