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Friends forever – ‘Klara and the Sun’

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What is love?

It’s a question without an answer to which we nevertheless try to respond. Artists have been seeking that answer since there has been art. And while we’ll never have a definitive answer – it’s not that kind of question – a lot of brilliant people have come up with a lot of brilliant responses.

Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro has a few of those responses in his bibliography. His latest is “Klara and the Sun” (Knopf, $28), and it too is a response to that existential question, though that’s far from the only building block of the human condition the book explores. It’s a book that deftly embraces speculative elements in service to the telling of its very human story, all reflected through the eyes of someone who may or may not actually be … someone.

Klara is an Artificial Friend, living in a store and waiting for the opportunity to go home with someone and be their loyal companion. She and the other AFs spend their days patiently awaiting the day when they are the one chosen to go home with a child. But Klara’s … different from the rest.

She sees things.

Unlike her fellow AFs, Klara is constantly intellectually engaging with what she sees. She pays attention to what is going on around her, taking advantage when she is rotated into the display window and observing the street. That’s where she is when she first locks eyes with Josie, the little girl who will ultimately take her into her life.

Klara joins Josie and her mother in the country, far removed from the troubled times of the city. Josie’s mother was a person of great status, though her father – absent and little spoken of – was among those who had been automated out of employment and relegated to second-class citizen status.

As it turns out, Josie is quite ill, suffering from an unnamed ailment that weakens her and is almost assuredly going to lead to her untimely end. Klara has been brought in to provide love and companionship to Josie in her difficult times. Only it’s a bit more complicated than that.

The social strata of the younger generations involves one sharp delineation – that between Lifted and Unlifted (the book takes its time getting to the specific explanation – such as it is – and so I will leave it for you to discover for yourselves). Suffice it to say, Josie sits on one side of the divide – the more socially desirable one – and her lifelong friend and neighbor Rick sits on the other, with all the complications that such a separation entails.

But as time passes, Klara finds herself at the center of not one, but two efforts to save Josie from her fate. One driven by Josie’s formidable-yet-fragile mother … and one driven by Klara herself, an idea born of her own unique combination of keen observation and naïve innocence. Klara doesn’t care which one works, no matter the consequences for her – all she wishes is for her friend to get better.

“Klara and the Sun” is a perfect example of literary fiction adapting speculative tropes in service to larger ideas. The truth is that speculative fiction has always been better at allowing room for big concepts, so it’s no surprise that someone like Ishiguro – who is obviously fascinated by those big concepts – to explore that space.

This is a story about connection and what that means, about the difference between the illusion of love and actual love and that increasingly vanishingly small point where one becomes the other. Is it possible for outside programming to become inner truth? Do the trappings of loyalty and affection actually equal those things?

All of this set in a near-future and seen through the lens of a being that is artificial, yet whose connections feel real. Klara’s love for Josie and willingness to sacrifice whatever it takes for her – is that any less real for having been initiated by a program? Klara’s outlook, her understanding of the world and the way it works.

This is the world that Ishiguro has built for the reader though his stunning prose. No matter what the setting being constructed, Ishiguro assembles it with care and craft, placing brick upon perfectly-matched brick until a fully-realized and vivid world rises forth. It’s all quite beautifully imagined. Plus, in Klara, he gives us a narrator that is both eminently reliable in terms of raw observation and utterly unreliable in terms of fully grokking what has been observed. All of this wrapped in an insightful and emotionally engaging narrative. It’s quite a feat.

It’s a remarkable glimpse at the inner life of a being crafted solely to offer unconditional love, to remain loyal and amiable no matter what, when that being finds a way to grow. It’s almost a bildungsroman by way of artificial intelligence; we watch Klara change in small but undeniable ways, all in service to better love.

“Klara and the Sun” is a masterful piece of fiction, a book that is equal parts thought-provoking and page-turning – a rare achievement indeed. Big questions rarely have set answers, but for writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, those questions are the ones that truly matter.

Last modified on Monday, 08 March 2021 11:52

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