We are all familiar with sci-fi stories of evil robotic overlords. I’m not into science fiction as a genre, yet I thoroughly liked the movies Ex Machina (2015) and The Matrix (1999). Both movies are nominally about artificial intelligence, but ask deep philosophical questions.
Klara and the Sun is different. It seems to ask, what if we are the truly evil folks? Klara is an “artificial friend” that comes to live with a moribund girl, Josie, sometime in the future. AF Klara is kind, even saintly, in her behavior. She puts herself in danger in trying to save Josie. At one point, she also gives up some of her brain fluid as a sacrifice. Towards the end, Klara brings about an almost religious miracle that sets off Josie’s recovery.
Yet almost all the humans in the novel stand in direct contrast to Klara’s altruism. Everyone uses her in some way: Josie wants Klara as a companion but eventually “grows up”. Josie’s mother wants Klara as a backup in case Josie dies, but is happy to dump her when Josie lives. Josie’s father uses Klara’s faith to manipulate and weaken her brain. A scientist wants to break Klara up to understand her. And so on. In the final scene, as Klara is sitting abandoned in a dump yard, Klara’s former store manager comes in, looking for her favorite robot. When inquired by this almost maternal figure, Klara says she has no regrets and is happy about her life as it turned out. And then, the manager too walks away, even as our heart breaks for this automaton.
So this is the challenge in front of Ishiguro. Klara is a kind robot and she’s telling a story. Note “kind”, note “robot”. Yet in this story with mechanical style elements that’s so full of empathy for people, we gradually get to fill in the blanks and reconstruct the cruel dystopian world she inhabits and what has become of humanity. In this regard, the novel bears similarity to another fictional piece I read last month and made a blog post about, Ghachar Ghochar. Whether this is coincidence or a literary trend, I cannot say.