I try not to pay too much attention to literary prizes. It’s mostly because I like to decide what I read based on my own parameters. I don’t agree with lists that offer you a list of books that everyone should read. Who is to say which books everyone should read? Wo has the same taste as everyone else? It all goes back to the canon and who decided which books were deemed appropriate. I won’t go into it all again but I’m not the kind of person who automatically picks up an author because they’ve won a prize. However, I was super excited to get my hands on Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. There was an awful lot of pressure on him to create something great and it did concern me that he was writing about AI. After all, we’ve seen literary fiction writers crash and burn when they attempted science fiction. Although, at least Ishiguro has previous.
Years ago, Kazuo Ishiguro claimed that his “dirty secret” was that he tends to write the same book over and over again. That might not always be clear but it could be slightly more obvious with his latest novel. Ishiguro’s 8th novel, Klara and the Sun, has a lot in common with Never Let Me Go. Both books are interested in the subject of Artificial Intelligence and what it means to be human. It’s by no means a rehash but the link between the two works is clear. We are dealing with the uncanny valley and questioning what it is to be human. Klara and the Sun is interested in love and how that would feel to a sentient machine. Can they understand or even replicate that feeling? Or does it run deeper than that?
The novel is narrated by Klara, an Artificial Friend. Her main purpose is to act as a companion to a teenager in the years before they start college. In this world, we learn that children are home-schooled and have limited contact with other children. An AF is tasked with keeping them company and assisting with their schooling. Before she is chosen, Klara spends her days waiting with her fellow AFs trying to get customers interested. She stands in the window with a friend and watches. Unlike the other androids, Klara is curious about the world and wants to learn as much as she can. Eventually, she is chosen by Josie, who turns out to be very sick. It seems that whatever caused the death of her sister is potentially going to do the same to Josie.
Leaving the shop, Klara can find out more about the human world. She learns about their relationships and tries to understand their emotions. She meets Josie’s childhood friend Rick who lives a very different life to Josie. He hasn’t followed the same educational path and is something of an outsider. As such, there is tension between Josie and Rick. They have big plans for the future but their relationship is full of struggles. Rick doesn’t trust Klara at first but, eventually, their mutual desire to help Josie brings them together. As Josie’s health continues to deteriorate, Klara turns to desperate measures to try and find a way to help her.
Klara’s narration has a wonderful simplicity and naivety to it. As the novel progresses, her voice matures and becomes more confident. However, there is a charming innocence to her viewpoint. For one thing, AF’s literally see the world differently. As we see throughout, the world is divided into boxes and sometimes she experiences glitches that skew her view. This means that there is always a reminder that you don’t belong. Through her narration, we can experience life as a sentient non-human. Seemingly normal human things suddenly become new and exciting. What is most interesting about the book are the similarities between humanity and these robotic beings. Klara’s relationship with the sun becomes a religious faith that feels as familiar as it seems alien.
What makes Ishiguro such an exciting writer of science fiction is the way he tackles world-building. Instead of dumping a lot of information in clunky and awkward sections of exposition, he leads the reader down their own path. Dropping hints about the world as the narrative goes on so they find things out slowly. It means that, as a reader, you play an active role in creating the world of the story. Ishiguro tells you the basics that you need to know and expands on things when he wants. Does he give you all the answers? No way. Certain things are left to your imagination and it’s great. You really feel like you’re contributing to the world instead of having to memorise a load of new facts.
Though this is set in a futuristic America, it is clear that this world isn’t too far off our own. This is a country that is struggling with pollution and anxiety. There is a clear and dangerous social divide that sees only the right type of people getting chances in life. A world in which Klara defines clothing as “high-rank” or not. Reading this book a year into the UK’s response to Covid-19 and it’s impossible not to see the connections. There are certainly hints of the same fear that has spread throughout society since the Pandemic hit. The response to Josie’s illness definitely feels prescient for a post-Covid world. Children are locked away, schooled on oblongs, and hidden from danger. Josie’s mother feels guilty for her circumstances and is overly protective of her daughter. Like much of Klara’s narration, it feels eerily familiar yet just different enough. This is a novel with much to tell us about ourselves.
And it’s a wonderful read. It’s a beautifully written novel and is utterly charming. Thanks to its artificial narrator, the novel manages to show us how special and beautiful humanity can be. We see how fragile and emotional our existence can be. Klara and the Sun might not quite reach the lofty heights that some of Ishiguro’s but it’s undeniable good. It’s an interesting and exciting reading experience that you won’t regret. Though the ending might not have quite the same gut-punching feel of The Remains of the Day, it will leave hit you where it hurts. For a story told by a non-human, it certainly manages to capture an essentially human feeling.