In his acceptance speech for the 2017 Nobel Prize in literature, novelist Kazuo Ishiguro spoke about his early life in the English town of Guildford, Surrey. His family moved from Nagasaki, Japan, in 1960 when his father, an oceanographer, was invited by the British government to develop an invention. Ishiguro described how unusual it was to meet someone from France or Italy in Guildford at that time, never mind Japan; he was “the only non-English child, quite possibly, in the history of the school.”
It was this unique position in his community that turned Ishiguro into the astute observer of behavior that has made him one of most successful writers of literary fiction of the past half-century. As a child, he absorbed the manners of British society with a keen interest — praying before a meal, requesting permission before leaving the table, standing when an adult enters the room. This attentiveness to detail, to the subtle rhythms of living, is what lends an elusive clarity to the lives of his characters and the societies they inhabit. In “Klara and the Sun,” his first novel since winning the Nobel, the topography of a technologically advanced, postindustrial society is discreetly mapped through the observations of Klara, a humanoid robot charged with keeping a sick teenager company.
While thematically most similar to his popular “Never Let Me Go,” “Klara and the Sun” perhaps has the most in common with Ishiguro’s Booker-winning “The Remains of the Day,” a novel made up of a butler’s impassive recollections of his life in service to a prestigious household during World War II.
Like the narration of Stevens the butler, Klara — who is an AF, or Artificial Friend — describes her environment with a flatness that can sometimes border on omniscient narration. Matter-of-factly, she catalogs her surroundings at the store where she lives as if they make up the entire world; there are the Red Shelves, the Front Window, the Passers-By, and of course, the lovely Sun, whom she reveres for “his nourishment.” After she is purchased by 14-year-old Josie, she relays the details of their lives just as stoically — and this is where the disquiet creeps in.
Even though Ishiguro’s narrators often dissolve into their surroundings to facilitate a “fly on the wall” type of storytelling, the power of his writing lies in the moments where it is suddenly clear to the reader that the narration is not omniscient, and rather, filtered through a very particular perspective. For all of the moments we believe Klara is describing things as they are, there are as many incidents that highlight her inability to connect to her environment in basic ways, like her deadpan insistence on calling the maid “Melania Housekeeper” or the way she presses herself against the refrigerator to listen to its “comforting sounds.”
Because of her ambiguous ontological status as an AF, the central question in “Klara” is one Ishiguro has considered before: What is a soul? Klara has rich experiences, but an inability to interpret them. There are issues of consequence she doesn’t question, yet the insights that are self-evident to her have puzzled her adoptive family for years. While she is compared more than once to a vacuum cleaner, she can be nostalgic and cherishes her memories just as we do. She is wise; she understands that the paradox of living in a hyperconnected society is the persistent experience of loneliness.
There are many qualities of Klara’s that make her an exceptional AF, and thus complicate any clear position she might hold on the continuum between human and object. Ishiguro’s newest work of speculative fiction joins recent shows like “Westworld” and novels like Ian McEwan’s “Machines Like Me” and Ted Chiang’s novella “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” which depict societies where ethics have not evolved to accommodate advancements in artificial intelligence. There are other developments in Klara’s world that are related and troubling: Many humans are “post-employed,” and society has reorganized based on access to gene augmentation.
In our own world, we are currently in a time of reckoning with the technologies that were created too rapidly, too optimistically, which have changed American life so profoundly in the last two decades. “Klara and the Sun” extrapolates from the conditions of our present to a future not so far-fetched if advancements continue to develop without being tempered by critical thought.
The strength of Ishiguro’s fiction isn’t necessarily the questions his novels raise, but the way his characters relate to one another as members of their time and place. “Klara” deftly illustrates the existential distress of a postindustrial world, the malaise of an existence mediated by technology, but also all of the most basic aspects of being human that remain unharmed in such a setting. The purpose of a story in the end, Ishiguro said in his Nobel speech, is just to say, “This is the way it feels to me. Does it also feel this way to you?”