Although I am not a frequenter of the sci-fi genre, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels never fail to leave me wondering why I don’t pick up books like his more often. His latest novel, Klara and the Sun, certainly lives up to this standard.
In typical fashion, Ishiguro designs a character who necessarily proceeds to view the world from a new, henceforth unseen lens. In this case, the eponymous protagonist is an AF – an Artificial Friend – that exists to aid, protect, and indeed befriend privileged children in a dystopian future. Klara is chosen to live alongside Josie, a fourteen-year-old girl who seems to be chronically ill. The depth of the questions Ishiguro poses pierce much deeper and much more acutely than the musings on the potential power of machines typical of so many stories that feature artificial intelligence. Instead, the novel left me pondering what precisely renders humanity unique and unable to be captured by technological replications.
Klara’s worldview depends upon her steadfast belief in a deified, all-powerful sun. Though Klara’s mathematical and mnemonic prowess are nearly perfect, this seemingly fundamental misunderstanding of the world initially compels the reader to set her reliability as a narrator on par with that of a Holden Caulfield-type character. By the end of the novel, though, Klara’s opinions no longer seem so far-fetched; I couldn’t help but find them at least partially valid. Certainly, Klara no longer seems like the same unreliable narrator. Through these developments, Ishiguro reminded me that I too am a limited observer of the world and its capabilities.
Such is the genius of Ishiguro, I understand from the get-go that he’s trying to change my perspective on seminal issues, and despite having steeled myself for those attempts, I fall for his poignant prose every single time. In Klara and the Sun, Klara’s innocuous descriptions of both things and gatherings of people she’s never seen before unlock new perspectives for the reader. These realizations only hit so hard because they’re written with such matter-of-factness.
Klara and the Sun highlights the importance of a person’s heart above all other aspects of their being. In a conversation with Josie’s father, he asks Klara:
“Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?”
The questions posed are simple, and certainly unrevolutionary, but after having read 3/4 of Ishiguro’s novel I couldn’t help but see them in a new light. Klara’s faculties seem human, to be sure. And yet, perhaps they are almost too human. She is too selfless, too observant, and seems to love Josie too strongly for someone who is, by her title, supposed to constitute a “friend.”
Is this real emotion? Or is the sentiment technologically manufactured?
Can both be true?
Klara’s love for Josie, coupled with the language Josie’s father uses about the heart and the poetic nature of such a concept recalled a poem that I had not read in a long while: ee cummings’ [i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]. Cummings crafted the poem atypically with no punctuation except for the parentheses, which all contain an addendum to the lines they follow. He writes:
“no fate(for you are my fate, my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)(…)
here is the deepest secret nobody knows(…)
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)”
For fear of spoilers, I won’t betray just how aptly this relates to the plot of Klara and the Sun. I will say that Klara might as well have narrated the poem herself about Josie. The responsibility Klara feels for her human counterpart mirrors Cumming’s description. She views Josie as so connected to herself that even conventional punctuation would leave too much space between them, with her emotions selflessly dependent on Josie’s wellbeing. This type of relationship might be genuine love, or rather technologically manufactured obsessiveness.
Just when I started to truly aspire towards Klara and identify with her, Ishiguro reminded me that she is not human, and has no heart, with an ending so touching and yet so pragmatic that while my eyes certainly shed tears, I couldn’t tell if they were happy or sad.