Klara and the Sun is a testament to the power of friendship, a eulogy to broken relationships, and above all, an ode to hope. Klara, the story’s protagonist, is a solar-powered artificial intelligence with the power to discern human emotions and navigate the complexities of relationships while remaining calm and somewhat detached. And yet, she repeatedly tugs at the reader’s heartstrings.
When sickly 14-year-old Josie adopts Klara as her Artificial Friend (AF), the latter leaves the metropolitan retail shop where she’s lived her short “life” and enters a whole new, much more rural world. The book focuses mainly on Klara’s interactions with and responses to Josie, Josie’s mother and father, and a wise-beyond-his-years boy named Rick, who has known Josie for many years and plans to marry her.
When she discovers Josie is suffering from an illness, Klara hatches a plan involving the sun and “his nourishment” for banishing the illness. The plan and its miraculous implications are preposterous from a human point of view, but not necessarily from an AI’s perspective. Josie’s mother, who is no stranger to life-threatening illness, has another plan. It involves the man – there’s something fishy about him – whom she has commissioned to do Klara’s portrait.
Not all scenes in this novel are riveting. For instance, Ishiguro details a game that Josie and Rick play. She draws pictures of children with dialogue bubbles and Rick fills in the words. It’s meant to be complex communication between the two of them, but it’s rather dull. More interesting in these scenes is Klara, who pretends to stare out the window and instead listens to and watches the reflections of Josie and Rick.
By making Klara the tale’s first-person narrator, Ishiguro aligns the reader with her as she experiences not only her adoptive human family but also a near-future society in which some children are “lifted,” meaning that they have more opportunities to succeed in life. Not too foreign a concept, really. Moreover, the author is careful not to impose human emotions on the protagonist. What a strange brew of outrage, pity, and helplessness the reader feels when Klara remains polite and calm despite the quarrels and manipulations that surround her. When Josie and her mother use Klara as a tool against each other, for example, the AI remains neutral and attempts to handle the situation judiciously.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Klara is the contradictory nature of how she views the world. On the one hand, she skilfully reads human emotions and intentions via their facial expressions and hand gestures. Typically, such details would weigh down a story; here they add authenticity. Ishiguro describes how Klara’s vision splits into different boxes that enable her to analyse people. At one point when talking with the mother, Klara “could see joy, fear, laughter, sadness in the boxes.” She draws from this data to make decisions, most of them wise. On the other hand, Klara has a skewed – one could even say juvenile – perception of the sun as a godlike entity that can be bargained with so it will intervene in human affairs. From her viewpoint, when the sun sets, it physically lands in a place near Josie’s home. A party pooper might question why such a technologically advanced being fails to understand the science behind the sun. A more illuminated reader, however, will recognize Klara’s sun as a powerful symbol of her hope, determination, and… um… heart?—Douglas J. Ogurek****