Review: Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro
a review by Rich Horton
It's not often we get a new SF novel by a Nobel Laureate who has already written SF! But here is Klara and the Sun, Sir Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel since he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. And Ishiguro's two previous novels were SF or Fantasy -- The Buried Giant (2015) is a quasi-Arthurian Fantasy, and Never Let Me Go (2004) is science fiction about clones. I loved The Buried Giant, but I have not yet read Never Let Me Go.
What did I think about Klara and the Sun? Well -- it's a bit complicated. I loved it, from one angle. (I hope the right angle.) But from another angle -- my SF reader angle -- I was disappointed. I'll discuss that later, but I'll suggest here that on its own terms -- doing what the novel, I assume, wants to do -- Klara and the Sun is a very successful novel, dealing with some interesting technological issues, portraying its non-human narrator convincingly and in a affecting fashion, and featuring a powerful and moving, even wrenching, story. Really, it is a fable, a fable about what it is to be human. (Its themes seem to resonate strongly with those of Never Let Me Go.)
But viewed purely as science fiction, it doesn't quite work. It fails to present its two primary technological innovations in convincing future context, it fails to truly interrogate the technological -- and even social -- basis and effects of either the Artificial Friends or the "lifting" process (I'll get to those in a bit.) An SF reader wants to see this -- wants to see the world that produces these changes, and how that world is thus changed, and also, crucially, wants to see the characters confront this. Ishiguro, here, doesn't care -- that's not his story, not his theme. In Science Fictional terms, the story is "thin", or as I like to put it, it is not "through-composed". That is -- the novum, or novae -- the new elements -- are largely isolated. Great SF takes its novae and examines their pasts (how they came to be), their presents (how the ramifications of any given novum spread through their world", and their futures -- how people react, how the future changes because of the novae, how dystopic novae are challenged. All this is great. It is also rare. Lots of SF half-asses this -- to take an easy example, how about Star Trek? How about the transporter? This kind of tech would be radically usable, in numerous ways -- but in Star Trek, it is used in only one simple way.
So -- I see this, and I see that Klara and the Sun does not fulfill this SFnal objective. And to me, in the context of this novel, that doesn't matter. Because it is working in one direction, making one (very important) point -- and in that sense it succeeds.
(I'm going to make a reference to a pretty obscure Scottish SF writer, J. T. McIntosh. His futures had a similarly lightly sketched future setting, almost always, even when set on other planets, oddly Earthlike, and Fifties-like -- and he claimed he did this on purpose, to concentrate on his single SF concept. Ishiguro can write rings around McIntosh, but his strategy here (and, I think, in Never Let Me Go (but NOT in The Buried Giant)) is similar.)
The novel opens with Klara, an Artificial Friend, in a store which sells AFs. Her voice is established from the beginning -- she is very naive, and interprets what she sees -- and she sees a lot -- without benefit of teaching. She encounters a number of potential owners -- teenagers, and we quickly gather that one girl, who is clearly ill, is going to be her owner. But Klara's time at the store is unexpectedly long -- the girl (Josie) doesn't come back as quickly as Klara thinks, and indeed Klara purposely discomfits another potential buyer because she too has chosen Josie. Soon Klara's friend Rosa is sold, and some newer, better, models are introduced ... but then Josie returns. In the meantime, Klara's devotion to the Sun is established (AFs are solar powered) and her hatred of pollution, and in particular of a construction machine that she calls the Cootings Machine (because that is the name printed on it) which belches smoke while it is operating.
Klara moves to Josie's house, of course, which is in a rural area distant from the city where Klara's shop was. Josie lives with her Mother, Chrissie Arthur, whom Klara calls The Mother. Chrissie is divorced, and eventually we gather that her marriage foundered partly because of the death of Josie's older sister Sal; and perhaps also because The Father (Paul) lost his job -- in a curious turn of phrase he says he was "substituted." The next door neighbors are another single mother, Helen, and her son Rick, who has been Josie's best friend from a young age. We also learn that Josie is "lifted" -- she has been genetically altered for, primarily, greater intelligence. Rick is not lifted, but he seems clever anyway -- and he also has to care for his rather rackety mother. More slowly, we gather that "lifting" comes with risks, and Josie's illness is apparently a side effect (as was the illness that killed her sister.) All this knowledge comes to us through Klara's naive filter, as do our observations of the interactions of Josie during her (rare) meetings with other lifted children. Over time, Klara becomes obsessed with the idea that if she only asks, the Sun will make a special effort to cure Josie, even as Josie's condition worsens.
A trip to the city is the fulcrum for the key revelations of the book. These turn on, first, the nature of a picture Josie has been sitting for; and, second, Klara's self-sacrificing actions to try to gain the Sun's favor for Josie. Oh, and Rick's conflicts with his mother over a chance for him to go to college (usually reserved for the lifted).
I found this all quite moving, particularly from within Klara. The novel presents the innocent Klara as (so it seems to me) truly human (because truly able to love) and yet her society does not even consider that as a possibility, and her fate is truly sad even though she is never sad. The divisions in this society are presented but not really challenged -- between the "lifted" and the non-lifted, between AFs and humans, between people like Paul who have been "substituted" (by younger "lifted" people?) and those who still have good jobs. This is one area where an SF reader expects some sort of aspiration for change (even if it must fail) -- and some sort of more direct interrogation of these divisions. And Klara and the Sun doesn't offer this -- and it doesn't matter because what matters here is, really, Klara, and our realization that she is human -- and, crucially (especially in context) she is her own self.
The prose is deliberately simple, reflecting Klara's naivete -- but it's well done, and sweet and oddly incisive at times. Rick and Josie and the Mother are also well realized characters (though at times the Mother's actions in particular seem a bit unmotivated.) There are missteps -- the means by which Klara eventually takes action against a Cootings machine is kind of silly, and way too convenient; and the setting, apparently somewhere in the US, is only sketched in -- this may have been on purpose, perhaps to emphasize that Klara knows nothing more of it; but it gives the book an unmoored feel at times. Still, the book lands, and I loved reading it, and was truly moved.