Klara and the Sun asks readers to love a robot and, the funny thing is, we do. This is a novel not just about a machine but narrated by a machine, though the word is not used about her until late in the book when it is wielded by a stranger as an insult. People distrust and then start to like her: “Are you alright, Klara?” Apart from the occasional lapse into bullying or indifference, humans are solicitous of Klara’s feelings – if that is what they are. Klara is built to observe and understand humans, and these actions are so close to empathy they may amount to the same thing. “I believe I have many feelings,” she says. “The more I observe the more feelings become available to me.”... There is something so steady and beautiful about the way Klara is always approaching connection, like a Zeno’s arrow of the heart. People will absolutely love this book, in part because it enacts the way we learn how to love. Klara and the Sun is wise like a child who decides, just for a little while, to love their doll. “What can children know about genuine love?” Klara asks. The answer, of course, is everything.
Klara and the Sun gathers up ingredients from Ishiguro’s most successful novels: the deft dramatisation of the thoughts and feelings of a narrator who knows more than they are able to acknowledge in The Remains of the Day; the devastating acquiescence to one’s own exploitation that animates Never Let Me Go; and even, in Klara’s struggles to comprehend the world around her, the evocation of profound disorientation found in Ishiguro’s most challenging work, The Unconsoled (which is less read and celebrated than it deserves).
The result is a novel that is as unlikely to persuade the unconvinced as it is certain to satisfy Ishiguro’s devoted fans.
The first 200 pages of Klara and the Sun can try the reader’s patience. Apart from an undeveloped plotline about human gene editing, there isn’t much intrinsic drama and the US setting doesn’t immerse you in the way the invented Japan did in A Pale View of Hills. But the last 100 pages mostly redeem the novel. As with Ishiguro’s other books, it works on you without you quite realising. But the danger of over-explanation is always present. Humans are irreplaceable; memory preserves the lost; the pain of separation proves that love exists. True enough, but it is rather too spelt out.
Ishiguro has always been a novelist and short story writer who came at things from an unusual, sometimes agreeably surprising, angle. He has always written with intelligence and charm. He still does. But over the years he has moved ever further from the novel of character and social observation towards writing about Big Themes: cloning, harvesting of human organs, artificial intelligence – all, as I say, matters for discussion, leader-page articles, blogs, lectures, debates.
Ishiguro uses his signature empty prose to particularly unsettling effect here, avoiding the trap of over-explaining his dystopian future (his world is both the same as right now and eerily different) by working instead through the power of suggestion.
At heart, though, this is a very moving love story that asks terrifying questions about the impact of big data on human identity while rewriting the conventions of dystopian fiction.
In a 2015 interview with the Guardian, Kazuo Ishiguro revealed what he claimed was his “dirty secret”: that his novels are more alike than they might initially seem. “I tend to write the same book over and over,” he said. It seemed a particularly ludicrous statement from a writer who had just followed a clone romance (Never Let Me Go) with an Arthurian epic (The Buried Giant). With Klara and the Sun, his eighth novel, though, it feels like Ishiguro is bringing that dirty secret slightly more into the light. This is a book – a brilliant one, by the way – that feels very much of a piece with Never Let Me Go, again exploring what it means to be not-quite-human, drawing its power from the darkest shadows of the uncanny valley.... Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant were both, for all their differences in setting and subject matter, dark allegories that spoke about the danger of unchecked technological advances, the loss of innocence, the dignity of simple lives. It’s strange, but Klara and the Sun makes the links between those previous two novels more apparent, suggesting that the three books could almost be read as a trilogy. What’s beyond doubt is that Ishiguro has written another masterpiece, a work that makes us feel afresh the beauty and fragility of our humanity.
Pathos wells from crushed humaneness in The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, each of which concludes with a figure weeping on a seashore. Klara and the Sun ends in less atmospheric surroundings. That the scene also aches with poignancy testifies to Ishiguro’s extraordinary achievement with this ingeniously devised, heart-rending novel.
In Klara and the Sun the style of scrupulous simplicity has become, more than ever, central to plot and characterisation. “There was a movement behind me,” Klara says in a typical passage, “and I was pushed aside so that I almost lost balance. When I recovered, I saw before me, on the near edge of the bed, a large shifting shape, made additionally complex by the patches of blackness and moonlight moving over its surface, I realized the shape was the Mother and Josie embracing — the Mother dressed in what looked like pale running clothes, Josie in her usual dark pyjamas.”
He writes two types of book: the first is the loose, mazy quest, such as The Unconsoled or The Buried Giant; the second is no less complex but has a sleeker, user-friendly surface, like The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. Klara and the Sun is the second type of novel; like Never Let Me Go, it takes a human-ish character in a strange environment to represent the full stretch of a human life. Ishiguro is nothing if not ambitious.... It’s also surprisingly spry, with some hectic plot turns and a quest Klara sets for herself which seems ridiculous to the reader until suddenly it doesn’t. This is a novel for fans of Never Let Me Go, with which it shares a DNA of emotional openness, the quality of letting us see ourselves from the outside, and a vision of humanity which — while not exactly optimistic — is tender, touching and true.
Ishiguro has been here before. Never Let Me Go, perhaps his finest novel after The Remains of the Day, was a dystopia that touched on themes of artificial intelligence and genetic editing. Ian McEwan’s recent sci-fi novel Machines Like Me may have also been an influence, but really Ishiguro’s is a unique voice - careful and understated but with an undertone always of disturbance.
In lesser hands, a fable about robot love and loneliness might verge on the trite. With its hushed intensity of emotion, Klara and the Sun confirms Ishiguro as a master prose stylist. In his signature transparent prose Ishiguro considers weighty themes of social isolation and alienation. Can artificial life ever be worth more than a human life? That is the question posed here.
The trouble is that this is surrounded – and at times swamped – by so many other ideas that aren’t properly worked through. “Perfunctory” is not a word traditionally associated with Ishiguro’s writing. Nonetheless, beneath the ever-measured prose that’s what much of the novel’s content unexpectedly proves to be. Some of the loose ends are fairly insignificant, if still a little weird. At one point, for example, we’re told that Klara has no sense of smell: a fact that plays no further part in the novel.
In an interview with The Paris Review in 2008, Ishiguro said he thought of “Never Let Me Go” as his cheerful novel. Never mind that it centers on a trio of clones bred specifically to have their organs harvested. “I wanted to show three people who were essentially decent,” he said. Klara carries that quietly heroic mantle. Look at the characters Ishiguro gives voice to: not the human, but the clone; not the lord, but the servant. “Klara and the Sun” complements his brilliant vision, though it doesn’t reach the artistic heights of his past achievements. No moment here touches my heart the way Stevens does, reflecting on his losses in “The Remains of the Day.” Still, when Klara says, “I have my memories to go through and place in the right order,” it strikes the quintessential Ishiguro chord. So what if a machine says it? There’s no narrative instinct more essential, or more human.